Written 6 July, 2009

This morning, my study abroad program ended after a wonderful month traveling, studying, and getting acquainted with those who had been strangers, but soon became close friends and shaped the trip into everything it became. I got up at around seven to see everyone off with hugs and promises that upon my return home, we’d all kick it. As I watched the bus pull away, I had two jarring realizations. One, that the group dynamic would never be as good or as pure as it was the few days before we dispersed, and two, that I was completely screwed.

I had given myself three weeks of absolute liberty in Europe following the study abroad program, which was wonderful in idea, but a bit more prickly in practice. What I had forgotten about total freedom is the responsibility which accompanies it, and which I had failed to take up in any way. So there I stood, about to check out of a hotel in London, knowing only about two people in the same time zone, without a single plan for the next three weeks, without a place to put my luggage, and without a place to stay for the night. Well done.

Luckily, I had remembered a little piece of advice we had all gotten from our study abroad program director at the start of the month. If you found yourself in need of some help, the ACCENT office (the center where our class met while in London) had lots of resources and two people working the front office who were dedicated to helping students figure out logistics and the like. I was more than happy to go back to ACCENT, and as I drew near my heart quickened and my palms got a bit sweaty. Anyone who has been to the ACCENT office lately will no doubt understand why, but for those who haven’t, let me explain a little thing called Sorrel.

Sorrel is one of the two people working at the ACCENT front desk. For any boy who’s ever dreamed of falling in love with a British girl, Sorrel is the quintessential siren. She’s hopelessly fashionable, constantly affable, and her accent (quite appropriate to the office she works in) is as charming as any British accent could be. She speaks with both the perceived refinement of the British and all the pleasantness and chipperness one can imagine. Also, after a few days of knowing her, she started greeting me, “Hello, love!”

And lest I overlook the appeal of the ACCENT office for the opposite sex, I also have to be sure to mention Matthew. He’s the male equivalent of Sorrel, and I think that about covers it. He never got me nearly so out of sorts as his female counterpart, so I won’t dwell on his attributes. In short, ACCENT, which coordinates international study programs for American students, knows exactly what to do to make people want to move to England forever. They present us poor impressionable young souls with two young, charming, and irresistibly charming Brits (and let’s be reasonable here, the accent would probably be enough to do it) and then force us (allow us) to walk by them every day on the way to class. It’s subtle propaganda, but I see what they’re up to.

So, that little sidenote passed over, I went to ACCENT to figure out how to get un-screwed (and I don’t mean screwed in the mechanical sense). My first concern was finding something to do with my luggage. Since I was about to embark on three weeks of fast-paced traveling on crowded trains, I wanted to get rid of everything even remotely dispensable I walked in to find Mathew and Sorrel as usual (which is to say I was aware of Mathew, but I SAW Sorrel). My unwitting seductress quite readily helped me find a storage facility; she was even kind enough to call them for me and ensure they had vacancies. Sorrel pulled out a Tube map and showed me the stop I’d need, and then printed off a Google Maps page telling me precisely how to get from the subway to the storage lockers. It would cost me “ten quid a week” (love the colloquialisms!) and, she added I was leaving, I would need… something. I missed what she said; my ears were full of fluff as she waved me farewell and dazzled me with her smile. She added, “Goodbye, love!” Everything made sense. I wasn’t screwed in the least; Sorrel had fixed it all.

So now I was down to the easy part. I went back to the luggage room at the hotel I’d just checked out of. I ensured I had all the important stuff out of my suitcase and into my travel bag. I left my travel bag in the luggage room, grabbed my suitcase, backpack, and small duffel bag (stuffed full of books, all of them), and headed for the Tube. From the hotel to the Tube was about a block and a half, and I really kicked its ass. I guessed my suitcase weighed around forty pounds. My small duffel weighed about twenty and my backpack weighed about ten. I felt quite good about my manliness in carrying this all, since, as I would later come to quite poignantly realize, I had opted for a suitcase without wheels.

I like to think I cut an impressive figure trekking about with all that luggage. I spurned wheels! Am I not a man? I scoffed at wheels! My old brown pleather suitcase with the large pleather handle did its job well, and it did it with character. As I rode the Tube, feeling the gentle swell of pride and purpose, I remembered something Sorrel had said behind her brilliant smile: The storage facility will need two government issued IDs. Ah, and there it was. I had left my passport in my travel bag. I’d have to go back.

This was not a problem either. I was every bit as much a man as I had been on the way to the tube, so I got off the train I was on, lugged my load across the station, got on a train going back to where I’d come from, and rode the day. No need to despair.

As I surfaced from the Tube station back into the daylight around Russel Square, I saw that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It now poured buckets on me as a walked back to the hotel, and I quickly saw the drawback of pleather. When wet, it became nearly impossible to continue gripping the handle I had minutes before been so comfortable with. The block and a half became a mile as I was forced to tighten my grip and strain more than before, and I was exultant to run into one of the two people I knew in the timezone. I saw Julia from the study abroad program, looking every bit as wet and downtrodden as I surely did, and I begged her to watch my luggage while I ran back to the hotel for my passport. She graciously agreed, and I sprinted back so as not to keep her waiting.

When I got back to Julia and my luggage, I was not so proud of my lack of wheels. For the first time, it began to seem a detriment. No matter, I was still a man, and now an even more determined man with a purpose and a need to validate my choice of luggage.  I thanked Julia and set off again, this time gripping my baggage white knuckle tight to keep it from slipping and realizing it had grown heavier since I’d started.  The Suitcase now weighed fifty pounds, the bag full of books thirty, and the backpack held steady at around ten.  No need to despair.  Am I not a man?

And so it came to pass that I boarded the Tube again, this time wet with mostly rainwater, but a little bit with sweat.  My face was read and breath a bit short, but I was in command of my situation.  Four stops down the line and I needed to change lines.  In London, this can sometimes take as little as walking across a small lobby or as much as trekking through a pedestrian subway for 300 meters.  My change was of the 300 meter persuasion.  There is of course no air circulation 200 feet underground (except for the occasional refreshing blast as a train pulls in, pushing the air out of its way before it and onto the crowded platform) and so the mix of moisture on my clothes leaned a bit more toward the sweat column.  By the time I had hiked from the Picadilly line to the Victoria line, The Suitcase weighed sixty pounds.  Duffel bag thirty-five and backpack steady at ten.

Victoria Line to Vauxhall Station.  Up the (thank God!) escalator and out to the street again.  The rain was done, the sun out (as commonly happens within the span of 20 minutes in London).  Three blocks to my destination.  Suitcase now weighed seventy pounds.  Duffel and backpack remained unchanged.  After about a block, halfway across a street, my forearm began to remember how to cramp and demand that I obey its commands instead of the other way round.  So this became my dance:

Step one:  Stop walking.  Realize I can’t keep carrying The Suitcase with the right arm.

Step two:  Drop Suitcase.  Keep walking about five steps from inertia.  Look back at Suitcase incredulously.

Step three:  Return to suitcase.  Jostle duffel bag to other shoulder.  Pick up suitcase with left hand.

Step four:  Walk.  Find a point along the sidewalk and vow to make it there.

Step five:  Fail to make it there.  Repeat process, transposing arms.

Step six:  Think for a minute.  Try to carry Suitcase with both arms.

Step seven:  Realize this causes both arms to cramp simultaneously and bashes Suitcase into thighs.

Rinse (with sweat) and repeat.

By the time I rounded the corned to my stop, The Suitcase weighed four hundred and thirty pounds.  The duffel bag had gained another five and the backpack held steady.  Now, instead of growing slick with rainwater, The Suitcase slipped because of sweat.

A man smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk, smiling bemusedly, said, “You know, they make suitcases with wheels.”

In my head, “You know, apparently smoking is bad for you.”  In my words, “Damn, someone must have beaten me to the patent.”  Luckily, this man was the sort who appreciates sarcasm.

And finally I arrived at the front desk of the storage facility.  Working was a prim looking, uptight, middle-aged British woman.  She looked offended by the thought of sweat.  I purposefully let a drop fall from my forehead onto her desk.  Whoops.

The next day, I bought a much larger suitcase with wheels.  Went back to the storage facility and threw my brown pleather suitcase inside it without ceremony.  Character is overrated.


Note:  Okay, so that bit about the sweat drip didn’t really happen…  I just thought it might be good to add a bit of Mission Impossible flair to the otherwise relatively pointless story.  If I could command the drip of my sweat, and if I were an ass, I totally would have done it. 



Hello again.

July 18, 2009

After so many days’ absence from bloggery, I guess I should probably explain the context and background of some of my posts. My thoughts on my travels will appear in many forms, appropriate to my own sort of experimentation with how to best express the wonder and the beauty that I have seen.
Since I know my words will never be the measure of the briefest second of my days, I often try instead to present a snapshot of one single moment of my journey. The old adage says a picture is worth a thousand words; the wordcount on many of my posts has been around 300. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and my words equal about a third of a picture, and my actual photographs are, as I estimate, about equal to a blurry daguerreotype of the actual, then you can imagine how inadequately I can capture what I experience.
That said, I will sometimes present quite cohesive, narrative sorts of writing that will be (hopefully) pretty easy to follow. If I diverge at times into more experimental bits (say, poetry or more scatted prose like the Scotland entries), it is only because I’m struggling to find a voice, a form of my own voice, that will even begin to do justice to the impact of the landscape, people, and occurrences I’ve been lucky enough to come across.
And, like I said, once I get back I should be able to add a lot of photogs (just try saying photogs instead of photos; it’s quite exhilarating), which should remove some of the abstractness from a lot of this business. Hope the posts have been enjoyable thus far.

Thanks for reading!

Written 30 June 2009

Highlands: Day Three

Bed at almost 1 a.m. as the sun finally set all the way. Awake again at 4 a.m. lying next to the window not understanding why it was sunset when I went to bed, sunrise now, and only three hours between. Stood up and snapped six pictures out the window as the sun came up next to the Skye Bridge.

After breakfast, dolphins in the narrow strait between Skye and the Scottish mainland. Teehee! Gill tells us about a hill named Pap and I laugh because Shakespeare taught me how to be classily crass (at least to today’s audience). The queen named a hill a loch and this is nonsense.

Yesterday a hike through the woods up the face of the most photographed rock formation on Skye; a reminder of the wholesomeness of exhaustion and the pleasure of entering a clearing, not previously aware of your elevation or the water falling away behind you or the clouds casting shadows on the lochs or the islands scattered among the water, having forgotten that once you exited the woods you’d find the cliffs and want to keep climbing but unable to do so, and so you climb with your camera and swear you’ll come back to Skye.

9 miles from the Talisker whiskey distillery and you think, “Why would I need Scotch in a world of this much transcendence?” and you wish you could be a Scottish Emerson or Thoreau or even just Scottish.


Paps = Breasts

On the hill called a loch:  When Queen Victoria visited the Highlands, she asked about the name of a certain hill.  She was told the name, which was in Gaelic at the time, and then asked what it meant.  It translated roughly to “pile of shit.”  Being Victorian, she was quite scandalized and so declared that it must be renamed.  She named it Loch…. something, it eludes me now, but the long and the short of it is, Loch means lake.  God save the queen.

Written 29 June 2009

Highlands: Day Two

Last night at Fort Augustus I walked up the lock on the Loch to see if I could find my Ness. What I found was less Ness than could have been, but more canal than should have been.

Photographs were taken of a fat black slug; making use of my zoom to show slug not to scale; placing my hand on the ground next to the slug to document slug shown to scale. Longer than my index finger by a fair bit.

Initial disappointment in the canal gave way as sunset set in and suddenly I understood just how high the Highlands are when in the distance in all directions the clouds come down to touch the tips of everything I could see.

Four hundred dollar camera creates only daguerreotypes because nothing can document the breadth of the eye and the soul reading a landscape in conjunction. Mountains shown not to scale; no way to place hand on mountain to show them to scale.

Concept for a movie: fifty minutes of footage of a footpath narrowing, ground growing sodden, shoes and socks soaked through with stagnant, stinking water, slugs intriguing but a little horrifying because I don’t know when I’ll put my foot down and feel POP!, one slip and fall avoiding puddle and coating lower legs in muddy water. Minute fifty-one: reaching the end of the canal and watching the sun set on a loch and that’s the key to the experience and fog among the mountains enraptures and delights.

Written 27 June 2009

Highlands: Day One

Wee Jacobites square off against the hirry coos in a battle to determine the best Scottish colloquialism. Gill officiates. Jacobites drop out; disqualified for excessive historicity. The wee merges with the hirry coos to form a juggernaut of endearing pronunciation.

Gill officiates as I struggle to determine how I can be an Anglophile when I know the Jacobite tale. David Balfour makes a guest appearance; Gill takes it as an affront and orders him from the field of honor. David Balfour is my struggle to make myself reconcile English interests with Scottish love and lore and honor. David Balfour is bound and gagged and suppressed and stuffed in a closet somewhere in the back of my mind; David Balfour comes into his kingdom of dusty money to realize it is shallow and without honor.

Gill officiates the turmoil as the Highlands take precedence as definition of Scotland. Edinburgh is David Balfour is something might as well be London when viewed in the face of the lochs, bens, waterfalls, crags, glacial activity effacing all of a landscape that lacks severity and beauty. Campbell’s soup tastes like shame.

David Balfour, aged 37, ranting wrapped in a tartan and fingering one silver button and dreaming of hospitality without reservation. Gill officiates the decline of the Whig and resurrection of the Jacobite.


David Balfour: protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and a relentless Whig (and wanker).

Jacobite: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacobitism

Hirry coo: a hirry coo

Gill: our tour guide in the Highlands; a major cutie with a wicked Scottish accent; promugator of the use of the word “wee.”

Campbell: Shameless backstabbers and allies of the filthy Whigs

Me: Somehow passionately a supporter of a cause that’s been dead for over two centuries (maybe a little enamored with Gill).

Strange Beginnings

July 9, 2009

Hello, and welcome to what I hope will soon become a richly furnished addition to the all-too-sparse blog communitz.

I’m typing this from a computer in Munich, Germanz, (a land in which the keyboards are strange indeed), so please forgive any transpositions of the letters z and y.

That little addendum aside, I hope you follow and enjoy my ramblings and rantings as I attempt to document my travels for the summer. I can say with relative confidence that my musings will not be profound, but I hold a flicker of hope that thez will at least be interesting.  This promises to be the most strange and exciting journey of my young life, and this is an attempt to capture and remember the most striking aspects of it.

I also apologize in advance for the relatively (and by relatively I mean completely) unfurnished aspect of the blog.  I could pretend Iäm (damn German keyboards) taking cues from Willa Cather’s essay “The Novel Demeuble,” but I am in truth a little lazy and a little too poor to pay the premium for the extended web access needed for decoration.

So, I hope this blog will do better than myself at keeping my friends and lovers informed of my whereabouts and goings-on, and I hope you will enjoy the ride anywhere near as much as I do.

Cheers and love,


P.s.  I will furnish this blog with appropriate pictures and diagrams upon my return to Lawrence, so if you find yourself for some reason still interested come Mid-August, there will be diagrams and pictures (and perhaps even a video or two) to illustrate what I am sure my words will be too inadequate to convey in a way that does justice.