3: September 17, 2021
Jimmy From Aberdeen!
Aberdeen. Ahh, Aberdeen, where huddled masses smoking in pub doorways are fashionable again, and 12-year-old boys look like 45-year-old men with a fondness for the drink and a BMI only their mothers could love. Aberdeen, where the people in general aren’t…they aren’t…what’s the word I’m looking for?
That’s the word. They aren’t healthy.
Now, to be fair, my sampling is small. In fact, all of my sampling from this adventure will be seen through my own very narrow lens. And this isn’t a travel guide, after all. It’s a passthrough. A short stay. A quick pace. Sometimes with a heavy pack, an aching back, and sore legs. I’m traveling on buses, occasionally trains, sometimes a ferry, quite a bit on foot, and there’s a significant percentage of that when I’m pretty sure I’m heading in the wrong direction. I’m also not staying in fancy hotels, unless they appear as a last minute deal on AirBnB or Booking.com. Nor am I dining at Michelin starred restaurants, as very few of those serve PB&J. That said, through the view of my very narrow lens, Aberdeen center, as a whole, is merely one pint, one fag, one scotch pie away from a city-wide coronary that could wipe out half its population overnight.
So then, why start my UK leg in Aberdeen, you ask? Well, that’s easy.
My brother Jon and I enjoy a guilty pleasure movie called Local Hero. My mother also loved it, though it took the two of us four attempts to finish it without falling asleep. It’s not an edge-of-your seat thriller, is what I’m trying to say. Starring alongside Peter Riegert, of Animal House fame, was a young Scottish actor named Peter Capaldi, who is either the most amusingly uncoordinated human on our fine and wonderful planet (e.g., the skipping stones scene), or he is the unfortunate victim of the greatest Oscar snub in movie history. His character was Jimmy, “Jimmy from Aberdeen!” which he said with such zeal that it turned into a catchphrase for my brother and me.
So, why did I start in Aberdeen? Because I thought it would be funny.
If I’m being completely honest, though, I’m giving Aberdeen itself an unfair rap, but it’s not all my fault. I’d just spent the better part of two weeks driving the hilly natural wonderscapes of Iceland and The Faroe Islands, where my biggest traffic hazards were sheep playing chicken, and my flights from Vagar to Copenhagen to Norway to Aberdeen were less than care-free, so you could have plopped me down on Broadway or the Champs-Élysées and I would have had similar culture shock upon seeing cement and steel and traffic, hearing horns and human beings, businessfolks and buses, buskers and bums, and pubs and police.
In the light of a sunny day and after a good night’s sleep, Aberdeen’s Union Street was actually pretty hip, with cool bars and restaurants, shops, sights and more, and my AirBnB was in a pretty sweet spot – ooh, speaking of which, here’s a fun fact, ehem: The First Floor in Scotland is actually what we Americans call the Second Floor. What we consider the First Floor is what they call the Ground Floor. I learned this from the gentleman whose apartment door I was working pretty hard the evening I arrived. Luckily for me he was a kind and patient Scotsman, and not a Texan who begins each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a recitation of Stand Your Ground. At least I think he was a Scotsman, as I couldn’t understand most of what he said. And even if he was upset, the Scottish accent makes even the meanest looking, fully tatted, badass baldy sound completely adorable.
I spent a few days in Aberdeen, enjoying a pint and fish and chips at Molly Malone’s, visiting their wonderful National Gallery, where I was able to create a Dodd original using an interactive art station – I always told my mother my work would end up in a gallery someday…
I walked the town, the waterfront, and beach. I visited the maritime museum and bused to the beautifully situated Dunnottar Castle, though getting there proved a little harder than it should have. When I boarded the bus I asked the driver for a ticket to Dunnottar. The best I can tell, his response was something along the lines of “Y’ill right alon da settin, akay reight?”
In response to which I gave a wide-eyed vacant stare, hoping it would give him the answer he sought.
It did not.
“I’m sorry…what?” I eventually stammered.
“Sein alon wit donna.”
“I…I have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Ahh feck me nacker thloe,” he said, I think, but the words didn’t matter, as the tone conveyed it all. He angrily punching in a series of numbers, and handed me a receipt.
Dunnottar Castle is situated on a stunning rocky outcropping, a ways from the main road. On maps, it’s not clear how to get to the castle itself, though it was clear I’d need to walk a bit. When the bus reached a town that appeared to be nearby by the castle, I asked the same driver if this was my stop.
“Noo,” he said. “Two stops away. Don’ worry, I’ll tellya when.”
Relieved he held no grudge, I turned off my phone app, sat back, and relaxed. Several passed stops later, however, my gut telling me something was amiss, I appeared by his side.
“Ahhhhh, feck!” he said. “I completely forgot. Sorry, lad,” he said, suddenly in perfectly understandable English.
I would spend the next hour sitting at a bus stop on the opposite side of the road, having a silent, and sometimes not, debate with myself as to whether he really did forget, or drove away laughing, waiting to tell the story at the pub of how he gave that American dafty a skelpit lug and left ‘im roadside to contemplate the errr’ of his ways.
So much for the adorable accent, but at least the castle ruins were worth the wait.
A good part of traveling the way I am involves waiting, as I am right now, writing this as I wait four hours for the next bus to Glenbeigh, Ireland (next post), because I mistakenly watched the bus I was supposed be on this morning drive away without me…When not buses, it might be trains, ferries, or check-ins. It also means being strategic about laundry, water, and, unless I want to eat every meal at a restaurant, food as well. But I’m beginning to appreciate that kind of planning, and even sitting around waiting presents its opportunities.
After Aberdeen, with the legendary Highlands simply too distant and time-consuming for this particular trip, I would travel to Edinburgh, where the Scots appeared much healthier and happier, and where my beautiful and brilliant niece Sophie spent a semester abroad. Before even having a room in which to drop my pack, I took her advice and enjoyed a pint at The Bramble Pub, followed by dinner at Dishoom, a popular and packed Indian restaurant that, as luck would have it, had immediate room for a party of one on its patio. If two or more, the wait was 90 minutes, but it still would have been worth it.
Continuing my series of lucky events – from customs snafus to travel glitches that all worked out thanks to Dad keeping a watchful eye – when the AirBnb I’d secured while at The Bramble fell through by the time I’d gotten to Dishoom, a last minute, top-floor, two-bedroom flat opened up in Leith, the hip, “BoHo” part of town, for less than the single room I’d originally secured. Here too, an error in the key lock code gave me flashbacks to the Faroes, but once again, Dad came through. The host had given me the wrong code, but he’d also sent a photo of the lockbox in the series of pics he’d shared about the apartment. On a whim I tried the code from the photo, and voila.
In Edinburgh I would once again play tourist, visiting all of the must-sees on most lists. I climbed to the top of Arthur’s Seat in a misty rain and fog, and watched a young man get down on bended knee and propose to his surprised and crying girlfriend (she said yes). I walked the Royal Mile where I visited Saint Giles’ Cathedral, and of course toured the Castle and its Crown Jewels. I visited Greyfriar’s Kirk, and all of the monuments on most of the lists.
At the Scottish National Gallery I stood inches from Van Gogh, da Vinci, Monet, Serat, Degas, and countless other Masters.
While Covid has stolen some simple pleasures, like sitting on a bar stool and chatting over a beer, it has afforded some wonderful new ones, like being able to stand so close and for so long in front of a Rembrandt, entirely undisturbed, that I could actually recreate the position of his body, his easel, and mirror, imagining myself to be him as he painted this self-portrait masterpiece.
From Edinburgh I set out for Perth, in an impromptu quest to visit Menzies Castle, in the parish of Dull & Weem, in Aberfeldy, Scotland.
What led me there was an old boss, turned mentor, turned dear friend, Michael. Michael’s paternal lineage has ties to the Menzies, he’d told me, and he had always wanted to visit, but feels it may no longer be part of his travel plans.
Well, I figured, if I could travel to Aberdeen simply because I thought it would be funny, I could certainly travel to Menzies Castle for a friend who has meant as much to me as Michael has.
So I bought my ticket, and immediately left it at the turnstile upon getting onto the train. When I explained my error to the Conductor, showing her my receipt instead, she simply said, “Well yer gonna have t’explain that t’the boys in Perth.”
Along the way, however, I realized that Pitlochry, the stop after Perth, was actually closer to Menzies. The bus to Menzies would cost me less, I reasoned, and since I already had “some explainin’ t’do t’the boys,” I figured, well, fuck it, I’ll just stay aboard. What were they gonna do, skip right by Pitlochry and drop me a couple stops down, haha??? Wait…
Despite having memorized my gee whiz speech for “the boys,” my entry into Pitlochry was uneventful and unquestioned. My victory, however, was short-lived, as I quickly discovered that despite its wonderfully quaint and well-appointed Main Street, there were, in fact, no buses to Menzies.
Nor were there taxis, I was told, except for the one Tom was driving, and he could only take me to Menzies if I left right that moment, and he could only come back for me at 5pm (it was 1). And it’d be at least 30 pounds, cash, no cards. Seeing as I had only 20 pounds in my pocket, and Tom didn’t have time to take me to an ATM, it seemed I was out of luck.
That’s when the owner of the company told me there was in fact another taxi company just up the street. Tom, however, disagreed. Turns out they were both right.
I followed her advice and walked up the roadway, then down the narrow lane behind the Main Street retail shops, looking over my shoulder like Jimmy “The Gent” Conway at the end of Goodfellas. I found no taxi shop, only Mary, a woman with unnaturally deep auburn hair for a lady of her, well, indeterminate age. She was sitting on a milk crate, wearing the green smock of a retail store clerk, taking a cigarette break.
“Whatcha lookin’ fer, son?” she asked.
“I was told there was a taxi company here?”
“Not no more. They moved. Sign on the post by the road has their number, though,” she said kindly.
I thanked her, and headed back toward the road, wondering how I would call since I had no cell signal. But before I could even reach the sign, I heard Mary’s voice behind me.
“Hold on, I’ll call ‘em fer ya,” she said, somehow reading my thoughts. “They’re friends of mine,” she said, phone already to her ear.
“Eddy, it’s Mary, love…”
Mary and I chatted for a few moments. I told her about my trip. She told me where to stand, and to look for a white car with a taxi light atop its roof.
“Eddy’ll be here in five minutes, love. He’s a good man,” she said, before wishing me well in the rest of my journey.
Sure enough, within five minutes I was in a cab with Eddy, a thickly set, middle-aged man with graying hair, a wife and three kids. He’s lived here thirty years, and loves it, he told me.
“Nothing better than watchin’ the matches with the family, the kids are singin’ and cheerin’, everybody’s having a grand time,” said Eddy, whose taxi I.D. card said his name was James.
He’d been to Maryland once, though later I wasn’t sure if he’d actually been, or just if some friends had moved there for work. That damn accent again.
When we passed through Aberfeldy, twenty minutes into a ride through winding, hilly countryside and deep green valleys, Eddy beeped to a young schoolboy, who smiled and waved in return.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Sure, used to drive him to school every day.”
“All the way out here? Is this where you live?”
“Oh nooo, back in Pitlochry. He finished up there and graduated to school out here,” said Eddy.
Thirty minutes and thirty-plus pounds lighter, there I was, at Menzies Castle. When I told the woman in the Tea Room that I was there to take photos for a dear friend whose father had Menzies blood, she told me then of course to take as many pictures as I like. So I did, and would later send them all to Michael, who might have expected one or two, but certainly not one or two hundred.
Instead of returning to Pitlochry, I would walk the mile-and-a-half to Aberfeldy, passing through Dull & Weem’s parish center. The walk also took me through gorgeous Scottish countryside, along wooded roadside trails with little more than tall grass and flowers and greenery and mountains and occasional cottages and farms on all sides. If anyone ever asks what possessed me to take a trip like this, and travel like I am, that unexpected and impromptu walk alone would be a suitable answer.
Once in Aberfeldy, I was content with staying the night, but while scoping the town for a comfortable pub I stumbled upon a bus stop with a sign for a coach leaving for Perth in 30 minutes time. Perth is much more of a travel hub, and would save me 90 minutes the following morning, and maybe just as important, 30 minutes was more than enough time to get a pint in the nearby Birks Cinema Cafe. So, I got that pint, and moved on to Perth.
Perth, intended to be little more than a transfer point, proved to be another wonderful find. While the sidewalks rolled up early that evening, I took a morning walk after a Cappuccino at Costa Cafe, and that led me to the River Tay, a beautifully scenic river, over which spanned The Queen’s Bridge. Alongside the river were their beautiful and imposing Gothic Revival municipal buildings.
While taking some time to simply watch the river flow, I saw huge salmon leaping from its surface, and would later learn that Perth was a very successful trading stop, and in fact was known for its high quality salmon. While fishing is not on my trip’s agenda, for the challenge of gear alone, I certainly had the urge to climb down to the riverside and wet a line.
Walking on, I came across another Greyfriar’s Kirk, with a headstone from 1580, plus countless others equally, though not quite, as old. Maybe even more intriguing than a 441-year-old headstone, however, was this…
Sadly, despite my efforts, I could not find the sheet, and the unanswered question of whether mens beer leaguers in Scotland actually do play in kilts will forever haunt me.
From Perth I caught a connecting bus in Glasgow to Cairnryan, where I planned to spend the night and catch a morning ferry, but by the end of the evening I found myself aboard a boat, and on my way to Belfast.
Despite Belfast being geographically part of Ireland, it is part of the UK, so travel required no special documentation or covid checks. Once there I would find accommodations in the artist’s district, the Queen’s Quarter, in a wonderful AirBnB called The Botanic Rest. It abutted a very cool street that reminded me of Thayer Street in Providence’s East Side, only many times larger. Restaurants, bars, cafes, small bookstores, shops, and a conveniently located train station. During my stay I would have drinks at Town Square, and dinner at The Belfast Empire.
Early the next morning I would set out to do laundry at Spin City in the city center. From there, laundry still on my back, I would tour their stunning City Hall and walk the 18-room Belfast History Exhibit. No room was more impactful than the second to last, the Contemplation Room, a backlit, white, glass-walled room, the walls covered with quotes from mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, and children alike, all who had lost a loved one during The Troubles and political unrest of this country’s history. The unanswerable questions. Anger. Heartache. Sadness. But most emotionally impactful were those of perseverance, of forgiveness, and of pleas for finding commonality, love and peace as members of the same human race.
I would have a Guinness at the famous – and infamous – Crown Liquor Saloon, and make my way back home to drop laundry, get train advice from Fracisca, from Chile, who had herself just finished a year of travel, though 7 months of it were spent in lockdown in Cancun, which, she assured me, sounded nicer than it was, before heading to the shipyard where they built the Titanic. I would stand in the spot that would have been her bow, moments before she rolled down into Belfast Harbor.
If I were younger, or maybe even my age now, but among friends or with a significant other, Belfast would be a place I would like to spend more time. Maybe after Covid, when the theaters are open and the barstools return, so too will I.
For now, however, it’s time to leave the UK, as I have a train to catch to Dublin, and some family roots to dig up.