I had my list of things to do once I landed. I had to have a list. In my over-planned mind, I worked it out. Airports are going to be foreigner-friendly. They’ll be expecting me to need things. The employees should be kind, and they probably will speak slowly to me. Get as much as I can before leaving the airport, because once I’m out there, I’m on my own. Alone. In the wilds of Scotland.
This was the part of the trip I had been dreading. Somehow, I needed to find my way from the airport in Edinburgh to the bus station in Leuchars, where my friend Koh would pick me up and take me on another bus to St. Andrews. But until I saw her smiling face in Leuchars –pronounced “Lukers,” like the name I like to tease my brother Luke with – I was alone in Scotland.
I had planned as much as I could. I printed off copies of train tables, maps, and bus routes. But it was the little things: where is the bus stop? How do I know when to get off the bus? Will there be an ATM machine? What does their money even look like?
Mind you, I had never ridden public transportation before. I live in Oregon. We have trees here; we don’t have good public transport. You could say that about most places in the U.S.: unless you live in a large metropolitan area, you’re pretty much on your own. Maybe it’s part of the American dream – “use your own feet.” By feet, I mean car. I got pretty comfortable riding the MAX train into the city of Portland, but even so, I had never been on a bus, save for the charter bus we used on our sixth grade field trip to the Omaha zoo, and maybe another one in high school when we traveled to Northern California on choir tour. Those weren’t real buses – they stopped where you wanted them to, and you didn’t pay a fare.
Well, I was about to figure it out: in a foreign country. Extremely jet-lagged. We landed at 8:00 am, Edinburgh time. That’s roughly midnight back in Portland. And the sun was up (assumedly, behind the dismal clouds), and my day was just beginning. Not that it had ever really ended.
I walked through customs confidently and grabbed my hiking backpack full of things, saying a quick prayer of thanks that it arrived in Scotland along with me, and then standing in the middle of the terminal, I started my list.
Money. ATM by the wall, check. Bathroom, check. Bus stop. Praise the Lord and the lovely Scot who designed the airport. The bus stop was literally steps away from the doors of the airport. Life was good. Now to figure out the bus system.
I looked at a timetable. There sure were a lot of numbers on it. Numbers for buses, numbers for times. As a lover of literature, I do my best to stay away from numbers as much as possible. Luckily, I had written down the times for the buses before I came. I knew I would be confused.
So I knew the bus was coming at 8:30. But what bus? How was I to know where I was going? That was a little easier than I thought, once I saw the bus. Apparently, they have both numbers and words on them. Great – I can deal with that.
Once on the bus, I allowed myself one moment of gloating. Anyone who looked at me may have thought I had a mental disability, because I was grinning at no one and nothing in particular. I was in Scotland.
Once the bus started moving – driving on the “wrong side” of the road, of course, which delighted me as a first-time tourist – I was glued to the window. If I could have peered out with my nose touching the glass and my fingers pressed against the window like a small child at a toy store, I would have. Instead, I tried to maintain my composure.
I wasn’t done yet. My guard couldn’t be down. I still had to catch my train. Each stop, I craned my neck to look. Finally we reached Inverkeithing, which I only knew because someone else on the bus asked the driver. It was pretty deserted. I had gotten off with four other individuals, and we were the only ones there, looking down at the tracks. I had forgotten it was Sunday, what with the multiple time zones and missing nighttime completely. That meant the station wasn’t open until midmorning. I didn’t even know which side of the track to be on.
Luckily, I wasn’t the only confused one. I hovered by the other people I got off the train with. They were my only source of information. There were two younger teenagers and two adults. I finally mustered up my courage to say hello to the teenagers, but they ducked their heads and didn’t respond. The adults were speaking French to each other, a gray-haired man of about 50 and a thin, stylish woman with short-cropped hair. Just my luck – I’m stranded, and I don’t speak French or Scottish. I knew I shouldn’t have taken Spanish in high school. Spanish is more practical? Not where I am.
The man eventually came over to me and we started up a conversation. Mostly, he eagerly peppered me with questions in heavily accented English, and I answered as best as I could. I described to him where Oregon was, described to him George Fox University. He was immensely interested in the school systems of America, as he was teacher, along with the woman. The teens were his students, and they didn’t know English very well. The lot of them were going to visit another school in Dundee. Dundee! I knew where that was. It was in the same direction as Leuchars. These people were to be my lifeboat. It’s amazing how attached you can get with strangers.
An older couple came, Americans. From the South. They asked us how to get to a city I had never heard of. People were already asking me directions, and I had only been in Scotland for an hour. I told them I had no idea and they wandered away. Perhaps they’re still wandering, for all I know.
And then I saw it coming. The train. In the window, it said Dundee. Praise the heavenly host, I was getting on this train.
I followed the four French folks onto the train, and they quickly moved up cars. The French are more familiar with trains than I am, apparently. I lost sight of the French angels who calmed my fears, while I figure out what to do with my backpack. Apparently you just leave your luggage at the back of the train in a holding area. It didn’t seem safe to me – someone could grab my bag, or switch it out with something that has cocaine in it. Or maybe I watch too many heist movies set in Europe. Regardless, wanting to blend in with the locals (not much of a chance of that, given my wide eyes), I dropped my backpack and grabbed a seat. Facing backwards next to a table.
Rookie mistake. Instant churning stomach. So I switched seats so that I was facing forwards. I could see out the window and relax for the first time. I was on the right train going the right direction to the right stop where I will meet my American friend and then I will sleep. But until then, I looked at Scotland.
Besotted with Scotland. That’s what I wrote in my journal, and I meant it. This place was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and yet, it seemed so familiar. The sky was a light gray, and from my Oregon experience, I knew those weren’t rain clouds. No, they just blocked the sky, filtering the light to a soft haze. The grass was green and wide, broken by wide fields of the most vibrantly bright yellow. Sitting in it would be like sitting in the middle of the sun, light bounding around you. They’re rapesweed, good for ethanol and some mustard. And they’re everywhere.
Everywhere, like the old stone houses and walls, wooden fences, crooked churches with crooked cemeteries. Communities that looked old and grave, telling you with their windows and roofs that they have been here for hundreds of years, outliving generations and they plan to outlive you too. And I respected them for that. The whole land breathed out a history of impermanent permanence, the feeling that everything always changes but some things are here to stay, like the stone wall separating fields and that giant sprawling tree in the pasture. It seemed tired yet forebearing and ever so warm. It felt like the strangest home I’d ever been welcome to, and I wanted to know it.
The train took me north, and I leaned my head against the window and breathed out my own history, my own travel-weary sigh of permanent impermanence, because I was not here to stay but I would never forget it. This land had already made its mark on me in a few short hours.
5/8/11 (Day 2) – Edinburgh to Inverkeithing to Luchars to St. Andrews, Scotland, Great Britain
Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011