It was a trip we could ill afford. The cost of airfare for the kids didn’t seem justified by what’s become a mundane exercise for them, which is seeing Europe. But there we were, on an overnight British Air flight from San Diego to London to see Scotland and Wales.
Our flight, ultimately to Glasgow, left us bone tired. But good things began to happen. Our taxi driver from the airport had a beautiful Glasgow accent. A lot of them you can barely understand, but his speech was precise and clear with the rounded tones of Scottish that made him a pleasure to listen to. It didn’t hurt that he was smart and funny.
If Glasgow has a bad reputation it’s undeserved. It’s a handsome city of blond and red stone row houses. We stayed in a neighborhood near the University. Maybe this was gentrified district. But the whole city has been dressed up since they stopped blackening the buildings by burning coal in every fireplace.
People are friendly. You say two words to a Glaswegian and you have a 15-minute conversation. I stopped in a hardware store and the owners wished me a happy Fourth of July. I had forgotten it was Independence Day. The airport cabbie had told us about the Scottish independence vote coming up in September.
Our first morning in Liz’s flat, Karen set the French press on fire by not knowing you’re not supposed to put it on the burner to make coffee. She threw a pan of water on the flames, and when I got up she was holding her head and told me she had struck it against the edge of a cabinet. I turned on the gas burner and a jet of water shot up from its center. I felt like I was in a bad TV comedy.
Who is Liz? She’s a retired nurse with whom we swapped houses. She and three of her friends stayed in our place in San Diego while we were in Glasgow.
The Tuesday, after we arrived, I went for a walk to a bar that was crammed with guys watching the World Cup soccer semi-final between Germany and Brazil. I saw one goal scored and decided to walk home to see the rest. It took 15 minutes to get home, and by the time I got there the score was 5-0. I couldn’t believe it! The only clue was I saw two German players embrace on a TV through someone’s window during my walk.
On the train to Edinburgh.
The first week, we drove to Prestwick to visit our friend Jean. Beautiful, charming Jean. She was a mom in our kids’ playgroup in San Diego going on ten years ago. Jean is a blond Scot who grew up in Uruguay but went to boarding school in Prestwick, just south of Glasgow. She and her American husband broke up while they were living in San Diego. She moved to Buenos Aires but soon left, after armed robbers broke into her home and held a gun to her son’s head. Now she’s a small business owner. She runs a gardening maintenance and design business and has a critical take on the British welfare state.
She lives two blocks from a bay that opens up to the Atlantic Ocean and we walked there with the kids. Small waves lapped the shore the afternoon we were there. The sky was blue overhead and pure white clouds exploded on the horizon. We were joined on our trip to the beach by her yellow Lab who had boundless energy for chasing balls. Jean’s old boarding school is still on the edge of a vast field of grass, which leads to a seaside park on the opposite side. The school had stone walls and gray spires, looking as mysterious as the film version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
It was great to see Jean and sad to say goodbye. Friends so warm and kind shouldn’t live so far away.
The only other trip out of Glasgow was a train ride to Edinburgh, a proud hilltop city that can dazzle in the sunlight but is filled with tourists in summer. The view from the castle is punctuated by church spires with the Firth of Forth in the distance. It cost 52 quid for a family of four to get into the Edinburgh Castle. We had lunch at a cafe beforehand and we ordered deep-fried haggis. Karen took a photo of it before we ate it, just like a tourist.
The day before we left Scotland we were still trying to figure out how to get our iPad to scroll for air signals when we had no WiFi. We ended up in a mobile phone shop in Glasgow that was run to two Arabs observing Ramadan and playing prayers over a speaker. A customer in the store looked like a wreck that comes from years of cigarettes and whiskey, and she had the kind of Glasgow accent you could barely penetrate. All I understood was when she wondered why anyone wanted to travel to other places when it so fookin’ easy to get drunk in Glasgow.
We saw Fountains Abbey on the way to Wales. Hundreds of years ago it was a Catholic monastery and a big local landowner for the Church of Rome, which had its own profitable taxing jurisdiction before Henry VIII created the Church of England and drove them all out. Today it is a ruin in the Yorkshire countryside. Such a beautiful ruin.
Since the monks left the church and its adjacent complex of buildings, the elements have sculpted them into something much more wonderful than they ever were. Lovingly preserved, it would just be another Gothic cathedral. Left a ruin, the arches and walls of gray stone meet the bright green grass below and your view strides from one to the other. The lack of a roof lets in the sky. The bare, broad windows let in the forest. It’s part cubist, part Gothic and wonder of erosion.
York is a city that looks the same as it might have 500 years ago, apart from the cars and the retail boutiques. Like I said. Full of tourists. But that’s okay if it weren’t for the overpriced B&B we stayed in with tiny rooms and thin, papered walls, no ventilation and doors that shut noisily late at night. For this we paid 300 pounds for two nights!
For breakfast the first morning I didn’t have enough room on my table for my plate, so I pressed my knife against the raised edge of my dish and sent a full English breakfast flying into my lap as the plate did a somersault. They gave me another breakfast as I went upstairs to change my clothes.
In Scotland we tried to take our children into a pub and the barkeeper said they couldn’t come in. Was that a British law of some kind? A man spoke to us on the street in York and we told him about the Scottish pub law concerning kids. He said that wasn’t the case in England and it must be some form of Scotch Presbyterianism. He was a short, talkative man who walked very fast. He recommended three restaurants (all pubs) as he glanced at his iPhone until he strode ahead of us and out of sight.
All this time we’re driving on the left side of the road, with the added disorientation that comes with trying to shift gears with your left hand. There are few actual streets signs in urban Britain, or so it seemed to me, and road signs in the UK seem to be put up for people who already know their way. Maybe the signs matter even less in Wales because you can’t pronounce the names of any places.
The Welsh countryside was served up next to the cottage we rented with two other families. The farmland was divided up into green squares that lay along sweeping hillsides that were dotted in the distance with sheep and cows. Sophie named all of the cows that lived in the pasture that lay next to hour house. The cottage looked like a feature photo in English County Home, assuming there is a magazine of that name and there must be. It had an outdoor dinner table on a slate patio. Cover it with wine glasses, salads and handsome dressed-up English-looking people and it was a photo I’m sure you’ve seen.
The history of Wales, on the other hand, is a picture of hard work and poverty. We saw some of that history when we went to the “Big Pit,” an abandoned mine. Wales is a treasure of coal, and men, women and children spent centuries working in the mines, following the black seams underground until they ran out or the ceilings came crashing down.
About to Enter the Big Pit
Our guide was a former coal miner. He looked young to have worked in an industry that practically died out in the UK 30 years ago. He had blue eyes and a pugnacious manner. Don’t get him started on the subject of Maggie Thatcher. He had a Welsh accent, I think, though I couldn’t mimic a Welsh accent and wouldn’t recognize it if I heard it in San Diego. “You use the canaries to check for carbon dioxide underground, yeah?” That’s how he talked… said “yeah” at the end of most sentences.
The Welsh are fighting to keep their language. Only a few thousand speak Welsh but families in the populated south are sending their kids to Welsh immersion schools. Will there be an independence vote for Wales in the next few years?
Staying with the in-laws was similar. I still mistake Diane for my wife, who is her twin sister, and Diane’s Anglo-Canadian husband Giles still defends England from criticism and is resentful of American eminence. Giles did all of the food shopping and the cooking, and his food is amazing. Meats are cooked to moist perfection, the seasoning is aggressive but never overbearing and the choice of vegetable is inspired. Food and drink have a sacred place in his view of the world that shouldn’t be marred by petty health concerns or the narrow tastes of children.
Over ten years of visiting Europe I have seen obesity become more of an issue. I remember being astounded during a 2004 trip to London at how fit people were. But trips since then to Northern France, Ireland, Germany and the UK have show people progressively overweight.
In fact, visiting Europe isn’t so different from being in the U.S. An old German told me 35 years ago that if you want to see people living differently, travel north to south, not east to west. It’s still true. People in the UK are a lot like us. The young people get tons of tattoos, just like here. The girls wear black tights, just like here.
We flew out of Manchester on a flight bound for Chicago, where we’d catch an airplane home. The night before we left we took the train from our airport hotel to the center of town to get something to eat. Manchester wasn’t much of a place. Britain has some lovely small cities like Hereford and Shrewsbury but Manchester is big and dirty and charmless. Downtown was full of trash. Was there a garbage strike going on? Friday night was full of men drinking, flamboyant queens wearing colored wigs and women dressed as trashy as the landscape. It looked like a place that had been bombed flat in the war and never recovered in any physical or spiritual sense.
As we walked through Manchester we saw several drunks or homeless people pan handling. One was sitting on the sidewalk outside a shop with a cup in front of him. My son Nicholas pulled a pound coin out of his pocket, walked up to the man and dropped the coin in his cup.
Atop a mountain in Wales.
On the flight home across the Atlantic I sat next to a pretty French woman (wearing black tights) who spoke perfect English. The same happened to me four years ago — cute French girl, perfect English — when I flew home from Paris. This never happened to me when I was unmarried. The one I met this trip had a job in Leeds and grew up in Versailles. I thought that was just a palace, but I guess it’s a town too.
The weather we had in the UK was great. It rained off and on during the first couple of days in Glasgow but sunny or partly sunny the rest of the time. As we got our cab to the airport in Manchester the rain was steady and persistent. It was time to go home.