Monday, May 12, 2008

Adventures in Scotland (Perth, Aberdeen, Mossat, Inverness, Wick)

From Perth to Aberdeen or, how to play golf in Scotland

To put it short, in the morning it was raining. It was actually quite pouring, and so was it during most of the day. Unlike myself, my photo gear does not have protective Gore-Tex wear and so I merely watched the scenery as I drove from Perth to Aberdeen. Quite often I pulled over and enjoyed the scenery, such as the sheep and the Dutch girl who desperately tried (and failed) to take pictures of them. Swiss sheep, if approached by a person, usually come closer, expecting some candy or pieces of bread, while Scottish sheep run away. It is questionable which behavior is better, yet given the sheep's overall intelligence this is just a philosophical question anyway.

Impressive was the persistence of some golf players in Braemar, a small village in the middle of sheep paradise. I assume that being Scot means to be used to playing during rain, even if it's more of a downpour for non-Scotsmen. There was about a dozen of players with rather impressive umbrellas, trying not to get too wet when playing the ball. Late in the afternoon I visited the little town of Portsmouth, a very fishery place. When I saw children playing in the foggy playground where you could barely see the sun I wondered how the local residents get a sufficient level of Vitamin A. Also, you could smell the fish everywhere, together with the preservatives from the nearby canneries. In a discussion with a local older lady (who approached me after she saw the Swiss license plate) I learned that the local fish market is one of the largest in Europe. Given the smell it better be. She also apologized several times for the present weather, as if she were responsible for it; in addition, she thanked for the wonderful weather we supposedly had in Switzerland this past June when she visited our expensive place, as she said. When we were saying goodbye she gave me some local cookies, the best ones as she assured me, because she used to work at the very same bakery when she was younger. For someone coming from Switzerland, or don't even mention Palo Alto, the people here are almost shockingly friendly and helpful.

As the friendly gas station guy predicted earlier, the sky finally cleared up a bit towards the evening, and I could enjoy a rather lovely sunset. During the 10 minutes when one could see the sun I spent more film than in the past two days. If I learned something from my trip to Mono Lake then it was "bracket, stupid!" Being close to Aberdeen also means the impressive choice between about six FM radio stations, ranging from talk radio to bagpipe music, but unfortunately nothing "normal". Still better than at home -- there we have four stations, one of them only in mono and none worth a cent.

Aberdeen, Mossat, Inverness or, so few people, so many castles

When I woke up in the forest where I camped it was clear, or at least you could see the sun smiling from between the clouds. I immediately used this unexpected scene for a spontaneous shower under a tree. Later I visited a few castles -- including some genuine ruins from "Braveheart" times. While heading more towards the North, I noticed at numerous occasions the difference between Scots and mainland Europeans: Scots are without restrictions friendly to foreigners -- several times people were even waving at me as they saw my car with the steering wheel at the other side. You can address anyone at random and you will be politely answered, given you can understand what they say; in contrast, I was told to have a strong American accent -- strange, when in California, nobody said so. When I once pointed out to the gas station keeper that all sponges are missing from the buckets I was told to wash the windshield with the paper towels provided -- they can not be as quickly stolen by tourists. I also noticed that I was about the only mainland European with his lights partially covered as not to blind the oncoming traffic, while all UK visitors do the same when on the mainland. Maybe we just take visiting this foreign place for granted and couldn't care less, while the British are visitors and behave as such? Just a thought.

However, good news from London: when the subway drivers have agreed with the employers on a 35hr week and ? 30,000 annual salary, the scheduled strikes have been called off. Now I think that I may be in the wrong business after all... Also, an American artist whose name I already forgot was apparently insured by Lloyd's against abduction by aliens. ID4 pure? They should take Bill Gates, if you ask me.

Gummibear lovers, listen here: while it may be unclear who invented the gummibears -- the Germans or the English -- for me it is clear who makes the best ones: the English Wine Gums, when made well, beat any gummibear, even a Haribo Goldbear (hear, hear!). While I never found any genuine good Wine Gums outside of the UK, during this my second visit to the island my stomach is suffering very badly. My brain already repeatedly got emails from the stomach pleading to stop the steady flow, but so far they have been disregarded :-)

Now camping north of Inverness, I hope for tomorrow that the weather will stay as it is, and that the traffic will lighten up. So far people's predictions of "empty roads" and such have not been met; maybe I was expecting something like the US-50 through Nevada, and got an average Czech road instead. The radio selection still includes the mysterious 90.0FM station: since I entered Scotland, it always appears on the station scan. However, it is always quiet -- in stereo, nonetheless. Would sure give an interesting new CD.

Inverness to Wick or, about hitchhiking and missed pictures

When I woke up I had no clue about what was to come. And that was better so. The night left quite some new puddles behind, but the sun was starting to shine. So far, so good. My first stop was at a nearby harbor, namely its public toilets (which btw. are called so here, unlike in America, because why promise more than is inside? Or what was the last time you saw a tub in a public bathroom, eh?). To natives or to motorhome owners it may not appear as such a wonderful thing, but if you are camping out in the wild, believe me, the reliability with which these noble houses appear at harbors and other touristy places is reassuring.

But it was not just this little house that appealed to me. The harbor was, in the rising sun, a very nice sight, as were the many other harbors to come. As I noted earlier, I was so far amazed about the high number of people living here, in contrast to what I heard. One would expect the residents of the still numerous towns to be either farmers or fishermen. However, the harbors could be the home of a few small boats at best, and the farms were widespread in the fields. To date I could not figure out what all the people were doing out here. Nevertheless, going north meant seeing less and less houses and traffic. The occasional Bavarian bus full of older tourists who then took pictures of one another in the most questionable positions was about as well represented as the three Dutch girls in a rental car. And again asked me an older English gentleman "and where are you from in the States?", being quite surprised when I told him that I am from Switzerland.

But it was quiet. Quiet enough that I felt sorry for the Scottish woman standing at the road and trying to get a ride to next town. When I picked her up she was obviously disturbed -- this time I am pretty sure it was not my driving but merely her position in the car: on the right front seat, without a steering wheel. During our brief talk I mentioned that it is now only the US and Bangladesh which use the non-metric system; after this, she stared at me for a while and finally asked in an inquisitive tone the unexpected "is Bangladesh pretty?" -- as if I knew; to this I had to admit I didn't know the answer. When leaving she thanked me profusely for the event of the week.

When I drove through the town of Wick, I saw a guy in his early 20s wearing a German military jacket (with flag) and a Nazi emblem on the sleeve. I thought that by going so far away from our northern neighbors I would be spared views such as this. Still, the nature after Wick was pretty enough to make sightings such as these quickly forgotten. But things were about to change soon.

It was about 16hr when I pulled into a parking lot alongside the road to take a rather cheesy picture of a castle. What a mistake. As I wanted to depart, nothing happened when I turned the key. I didn't panic quite yet, but maybe I should have. At that moment I didn't yet realize where I was and what day of the week it was. After about 20 minutes of retrying and staring at the engine I sighed and waved randomly at the next passing car. As life goes it was a Renault Twingo occupied by four Italians. For those who don't know: a Twingo is about the smallest car currently built anywhere in the world, but it looks really cute.

After several attempts at bringing the car to run we all concluded that we were clueless and the Italians offered me a ride to next help. So there we were, five adults and tons of luggage in a Twingo, heading to the next phone booth. A Renault commercial could not have been more moving. Too bad I was stupid (as usually in moments like these) and left all my camera equipment behind. Leaving $10,000 in camera gear and ? 500 in cash openly in the car is not such a big problem here as it would be in LA, and taking pictures was the last thing I was thinking about at that time. However, pictures of this trip would be about as impressive as a sound recording, given that only one of the Italians spoke a little English, and that after today I definitely crossed off Italian as one of my appraised foreign languages.

The automobile club representative told me on the phone that before they would even consider helping me I would have to become a member, for just ? 90. Thinking that things were bad, given the geographic situation, but not quite that desperate yet, I thanked and hung up. So there we were, in this purple Twingo, heading back to Wick. Sitting on the front seat, similarly estranged like the woman on my front seat in the morning, but this time rather by the outspokenly Italian driving style thinking that I won't see the sunset even if there is one today. I also had less leg room than on the back seat of a Porsche (trust me, been there before). By now it was also closing time in Wick, and so we had to panic after all and find the only 24hr towing service in North-East Scotland. Given the size of Wick not a big deal, though. Worse was that Richard, the boss of the shop, said that the only towing truck was on assignment and I would have to wait till the evening. It was then when it occurred to me that all my money was in the car and I began to worry after all.

Just before sunset and after I found a ?15 place to stay overnight, we drove in his towing truck up north to my abandoned car. Richard was quite a character: in his upper 50s, a Scot like from a picture book. Short of a skirt and a bagpipe, he had everything you would expect: talked all the time, made jokes which were really funny if you could understand them, and claimed that they had the world's finest climate. His towing truck was an old Dodge, with the steering wheel surprisingly at the wrong side, too, and it probably saw World War II. Since my car has fulltime 4WD it can't just be towed like that. Realizing that, Richard, being a man like a bear, successfully brought the car back to life by pushing it to considerable speed and then jamming into the 4th gear. You won't do that with an automatic I guess. The starter was apparently dead and that in a place with the next Volkswagen dealership hundreds of miles away. You should have seen Richard hammering onto it with a sledge hammer, and then letting sparks fly as he created a short circuit with a wrench. But since it's dead anyway, who cares.

Now it is Friday just before a long weekend, and I am in the middle of nowhere. As Richard said, however, I am heading into even bigger void with roads so narrow that it doesn't matter on which side you drive, and so I better get it fixed for good as then the next towing service may be further away than just 20 miles. A look at the map seems to confirm that. Besides, not always do you have a man like a bear handy when you need to start your car.

Here I am, in this Bed & Breakfast place, with radio (on which I first had to adjust the time) and TV, and can enjoy the wonders of British entertainment. Unlike other B&B places, this owner does not seem to interact a lot with the guests, and you get all the noise this town has to offer through the window: the harbor is just down the street as well as the main road with the only traffic light in town. I still may want to stay for another night if the car gets fixed easily, or for a few more if it won't. Like my American Honda on the past 3rd of July, cars just seem to break down when you need it the least, and then I never even take pictures of it...

Stuck in Wick or, it won't get any hotter

Well, it came as feared: the guy who would be able to repair a broken starter is out of town, and of course no spare pieces are available. The closest Volkswagen shop is as said many miles away, and they will have to get the spare pieces from there. Unfortunately Monday is a national holiday, too, so I will be here for a while.

Having so much time I decided to walk around town and take lots of B/W pictures to take advantage of my old 20-35mm lens. Maybe I will call my next portfolio "Wick against my will" or so. After a couple of hours you have walked through every single road and footpath in this town, and with the weather initially favorable this seems a sensible option. When walking around I talked to many people, most of them in shorts and T-shirts, or less (men only). Myself I was however in long black jeans and a heavy sweatshirt. A man told me that this was about as warm as it ever gets -- 15C with a rather chilly wind from the sea. It indeed seems that I got spoiled by California.

Unfortunately I must have injured my left foot on Saturday on one of the walks as on Sunday it hurt like crazy and so I am unable to walk too far. Doesn't really matter as that day it rains really bad, too, clearing up for a beautiful evening, and so I am here watching Formula One and other stuff on TV. I was surprised not to see Schumacher's Ferrari break down halfway through the race but to win instead. Supposedly the guy is worth some $40M a year, and that for exceeding the speed limits all the time.

The hosts in the B&B are kinda weird. He is a railway worker and not very skilled in talking nor especially communicative in general. Still I managed to talk to him around breakfast time for about five minutes. He apparently is enough of a F1 freak that he traveled to the last race in Hungary, by train... She is even weirder -- "hello" is all she says, at best. But she cooked a rather good dinner on Sunday for an additional ? 4 charge, and so I am not complaining. Another guy lives here in a second room, he is a power company worker from southern England and works here 7 days a week till they are finished. One doesn't get too much to see of him, as he leaves early and comes late. This is my last night here because the room I am in is reserved from tomorrow on.

(watch the satellite dishes) About TV: as you may know, movies look a bit different in the theaters than on American TV. All "strong language" gets either cut out or muted, in contrast to European TV. However, here in Britain, this form of censorship also happens, even in stupid movies like "Teen Agent" which I happened to have seen (in its full length) in Switzerland just before I left. Even completely harmless things get "edited for content". Also on BBC TV, the news just reported about a hospital in Edinburgh which will get its own police station. Supposedly the doctors and nurses have been recently attacked at an average of twice a day at knife point, and after neither closed circuit TV nor panic alarm buttons helped a bit, the police decided to open a station inside the hospital. Sounds like LA to me...

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