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Category: Holidays (page 1 of 5)


It took me six months to go away for a full week this year, which is quite out of character. I don’t know what happened. Being on contract. Not really feeling like going alone. Something like that. But by the time the end of June came around I desperately needed it. I was in the middle of the process of buying a flat, work had been nonstop all year, and I’d unsurprisingly taken on far too much in terms of swing dance organisation.

So Holly and I planned a week of (mostly) wild camping in the Outer Hebrides. We hired a car, booked some ferries, and left the bits in between to be determined as we went along.

We invited the rest of our usual crew, but people were busy with other summer things, so we went on our own. I think this is part of what made the trip amazing. I love a good group trip, but we were able to faff around as much as we wanted without worrying about holding anyone up. Decisions were easier and there was precious little organising to do, which is precisely what I needed.

Also, you get a bigger share of wine when there’s only two of you.

The only thing about the trip that was a potential minefield was the fact that I was driving. I passed my UK road test in January after about 3 months of lessons driving manual. Then I didn’t drive again til I picked up the car we hired. About 5 months later. I stubbornly decided that I needed the practice and so insisted on being the only driver. I was fairly certain I was, at best, going to destroy the car and our holiday.

Thankfully this did not happen. I can’t say I was a pro, but I didn’t get us killed, and I at least provided some entertainment ¬– I managed to pull off a total boy racer wheelspin coming off the ferry between Berneray and Harris, where we’d been parked right at the back on a terrifying incline. (Holly and the ferry attendant were laughing. I was mortified.)

Despite the occasionally questionable driving, it was one of the most relaxed holidays I’ve had in a very, very long time. The Monday I was back, I remember thinking, well, shit, now I have to pay attention to time.

We somehow picked a week with the most bizarrely incredible weather. Conditions that would, in mainland Europe or any more accessible beach-type destinations, cause people to swarm. But in a lot of places we saw absolutely no one.

It’s a bit of a trek to get to the Western Isles, so I suppose this is unsurprising. We drove 4 hours from Edinburgh to Mallaig to catch a 3.5 hour ferry to Lochboisdale on South Uist. The ferry back to the mainland from Stornoway is 2.5 hours, and then another 4.5 hours drive back to Edinburgh.

You could fly there, but I feel like that’s cheating. You’d miss out on the drive through the highlands and the CalMac ferries. And who doesn’t love a good boat?

Training at sea.

On the way out, we saw dolphins and had a chat with a GP who was going to work for the week in North Uist. On the way back, I took a bit of a nap only to wake up to an announcement that the helicopter I saw hovering right in front of the window I was lounging in front of was a coast guard helicopter and would be doing some training exercises off the back of the boat for the next 30 odd minutes. They then proceeded to drop a guy onto the boat, send a stretcher down and back up, and then pick the guy back up. You certainly don’t see that if you fly.

When we drove off the ferry on South Uist, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. I mean, it was a Sunday, but even if it had been a Saturday night, I really don’t think we’d have seen the secret bangin’ nightlife of the Western Isles.

We found an almost unfairly amazing spot to camp on Eriskay (of Whisky Galore fame). Our only company was some sheep, who were completely uninterested, if not slightly annoyed by our presence. We had some beer and pies from the legendary Mhor Bread in Callander that we’d picked up on the drive up, watched the sun set over the sea, and poked around on the hill a bit before going to bed. Because of our latitude, the horizon was glowing all night long.

I ended up waking up around 3 in the morning (because: beer) and unzipped my tent to see the moon setting right in front of me. A sunset and a moonset in the space of about 5 hours! I’m not even sure I’ve watched a moonset before or even considered it was a thing. Both made me feel a bit strange about being able to see the speed at which the planet moves.

I wondered if I wasn’t quite able to perceive it properly, because it seemed to skip at some points instead of running smoothly. Surely the Earth should move in analogue, not digital? And I did not have THAT much beer. But perhaps my mind was playing tricks. There we were at the edge of everything, in a place quiet enough to give focus to how fast can seem glacial when you’re very small.

Most of our days were spent crawling our way northwards up the island chain. We weren’t ever in a rush to find a camping spot because the sun wasn’t going down until 10.30. So for the most part, we took our time getting up in the morning, making epic poached eggs on rolls (Sometimes with salmon! Sometimes with black pudding!), and plotting out a course, or the start of one.

We had coffee in a totally deserted hotel pub, made friends with a particularly inquisitive wild pony, visited smokehouses (all of the salmon) and craft shops, wandered along all kinds of stunning beaches, turned down random roads that led nowhere in particular, then turned around and tried other roads, all of which gave me ample practice at dealing with passing places.

We bought Harris Gin and Harris Tweed and whisky from Abhainn Dearg, the westernmost distillery in Scotland, where I watched the woman working there label and seal the bottle I ended up buying as we walked up to the counter in the workshop. I probably won’t buy a lot of bottles like that in my life. The whole place smelled incredible.

We had lunch in a community cafe with epic cakes and the best damn black pudding and egg roll I’ve ever had. We overheard mums talking to each other in Gaelic then turning and talking to their kids in English and back to Gaelic seamlessly.

The day it got so hot that I thought I was going to lose the plot was also the day we dropped ourselves into a completely remote town on the coast looking across to Skye and I brought my core temperature down by snorkeling (badly) in my new wetsuit in a freezing cold tiny bay among the rocks while a seal or two bobbed around nearby keeping an eye on us.

It was also the only night of midges we had. And the only night we didn’t take a picture of where we camped. We put up with the flying terrors and cooked and ate through our midge nets because the sea was so flat and the moon was so big and the view was so amazing we couldn’t bear to give up and spend a night inside a bunkhouse.

After we’d gone into our tents, we heard an incredible rumbling noise that started at around 12.30 and just got louder and louder. I started to think an apocalyptic machine was going to come roving over the hills and end the day like some mechanical Langolier.

The sound soon revealed itself to be an enormous boat, lit up like a Gatsby party, slowly crawling down the bit of sea between Harris and Skye. And then in the morning we looked down from the top of our cliff into the crystal clear water to see a lion’s mane jellyfish solitarily blobbing along like an alien menace. It’s possible we were in someone’s sci fi novel rough draft offcuts.

When you look back at such a collection of things that happened in the space of less than 24 hours, it seems unlikely that anyone’s real life can contain that many curiosities, even on holiday.

But the very next day included wandering around some rocks at low tide that were absolutely covered in mussels at least 2 feet over my head. And then having the haar quite literally sneak up on us in about 5 minutes to transform what could be mistaken for a tropical island beach to a strange ghost-story moor where you couldn’t see further than 50 or so feet . The sounds of dogs barking and the odd far off car motor and the water itself were impossible to place because being in the middle of a cloud makes everything sound like it’s coming from everywhere.

I think I’ve made it obvious in the past how in love with Scotland I am, but after everything I’ve written about far-flung countries, it may seem strange that a holiday where I live could be at least as exciting. Parts of this country often feel like completely different planets though. So many odd, unexpected, wonderful little things happen on the trips I’ve taken within our borders. Planning something foreign is exciting, sure, but even on those trips, it’s the weird stuff you don’t plan that makes them awesome. So why should someplace a few hours away be any different?

On balance

When I was maybe about 6 or 7, I was pretty into gymnastics. I did some kind of classes at the YMCA, and whenever tumbling and mats and balance beams and all that crap came out in gym class, I was well up for it.

This was before I shot up too much in height. Before I became over-aware of my above-average stature. Before I let my naturally higher centre of gravity get the better of my brain. I did cartwheels and flips and at least attempted things like parallel and uneven bars without worry of what I would look like or whether I’d be much good at it. And I looked at girls on TV in the Olympics and thought, DUDE, I COULD TOTALLY DO THAT, THAT IS AWESOME.

Then one day I was messing around and took a running jump at a knee-slide across the floor and somehow hurt my ankle. Not enough to send me to any kind of emergency room or anything, or even to mention it to my parents (I guess I thought they’d be mad or something), just enough for me to limp off and be very suddenly thrown into that period of life when fear of pain prevents you from trying things you’d not have thought twice about when completely carefree and small.

This is the first memory I have of feeling like that. Maybe that’s the start of growing up.

Then the gymnastics dream was really squashed when I started being told I was ‘just too tall’ to be a gymnast. Yeah. That. And the good old tall girl standard: ‘Why don’t you try basketball?’ That shit started EARLY. But I’ll tell you what – I’m fucking terrible at basketball. They put me on the middle school team almost certainly because of my height, and then never played me because they realised their mistake.

This was kind of a relief as far as I was concerned because I had no interest in playing, but it was also annoying because my parents wouldn’t let me quit before the end of the season. So it meant I had to go to practice with a bunch of girls who weren’t very nice to me, and then sit mostly on the bench during games, being bored but told to look involved because team spirit or whatever. This just gave a lot of those girls extra fodder for giving me shit for not being good enough. But I didn’t freaking WANT to be. I wanted to be doing flips and handstands. I wanted to be overcoming the terror of being a giant in a sea of average height. Or at least, you know, having more time to read books by myself and be on the MathCounts team.

I’m sure there was a lesson in the entire experience, but I can never help but wonder if being actively discouraged from pursuing gymnastics due to factors completely out of my control was the start of pushing my ability to maintain balance downward. Just, you know, in life, in general. Because if there is one thing I am rubbish at, it is balance, in every form and incarnation. Physical, mental, emotional, work/life, social/antisocial, eating, drinking, standing on one foot without wobbling. All of it.

About a year ago, I was reading Bobby White’s Swungover post on partnership in dancing (a fantastic thing you should read) which includes this aside that I now think about almost daily.

I want to steer us into a side alley at this point to talk about why we often feel incompetent in a dance practice. Modern middle-class people (which comprise almost the entire modern swing scene), simply put, are not good at body movement because most of us pretty much checked off walking, running, sitting, standing, and throwing a ball and then decided to take a break. Until a decade or two later when we suddenly discover swing dancing and all of a sudden we curse ourselves for not having those types of parents who shoved us into dance classes as soon as we got cocky with all the walking. We now have the incredibly infuriating process of trying to do things that are often simple in concept but incredibly hard to carry out. And as adults who’ve mastered so many aspects to life, we’re not used to that. It’s like if you’re right-handed and suddenly try to write an entire paragraph with your left hand — you feel confused and incompetent. So, in the dancing sense, because you haven’t daily trained your body to respond to complicated movements with finesse since you were young, your entire body is now a left hand.

I mean.

Nail. On. Head.

I have been thinking a lot about balance in every part of my life, mostly because I now have a regular reminder of how my own physical balance is horrendous. I can’t help but wonder if only I was encouraged in different ways when I was much younger, would I have better ways to maintain my own ability to keep my feet under me and support my own weight? Literally AND philosophically. Did I lose the tools for this as people more or less told me that things like my height meant I couldn’t possibly HAVE those tools?

I spent all last week at SwingSummit, which was hard work in the best possible way – there are exactly zero ways that practicing swingouts on an open air dance floor in the gorgeous mountains of southern France every day can fail to be incredible.

I’m not going to write about at length because picking apart a week of intense swing dance camp nerdery is just not interesting to most non-obsessed human beings. But one of the best things it did was give me some new tools for working on keeping my feet and my weight where I’d like them to be. And perhaps indirectly, a bit of training on the kind of balance I’m working even harder to achieve inside my head. Or if we’re following Bobby White’s stellar metaphor – training for full mind-body ambidextrousity.

Most people would not consider working harder on your holiday than you do in your normal life ‘balance’, but I just think of it as being a foil for people who sit and do absolutely nothing on their holidays. Plus, I already did nothing for a week on a beach in Cambodia and hated every boring minute of it. So we have established that I am not the best at sitting still.

But some things other than dancing happened last week too. I stayed away from the internet and all forms of media for seven full, glorious days. I had a whale of a time lazing in a rural French supermarket parking lot talking sweat management with a bunch of guys while we waited for our laundry to finish. I sat on a beat-up outdoor swinging bench seat idly chatting, looking at the mountains, and swatting at flies for over two hours without moving more than the swing itself.

I’ve not managed relaxation like that for longer than I can remember. Somehow this time, it came pretty naturally.

When the apocalypse comes, I know where I want to run

I just got back from an idyllic weekend up north with friends and I still can’t handle reading the interweb, or even thinking much about what the hell is going on. So instead I will tell you what I learned far, far away from WiFi and mobile reception.*

  • The Spanish can turn a phrase like none other.
  • The Shim Sham can (and should) be done to nearly anything with a beat, but most importantly, Gwen Stefani’s ‘Rich Girl’.
  • The cure for a hangover is the top of a hill and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer. The jury is out on whether or not hail also helps.
  • Every body of water in Scotland is warmer than Lake Baikal is in December, and this is how I convince myself I absolutely must get in when given the chance.
  • Midges are some kind of award-winning level of awful. (But they’re still better than Nigel Farage.)
  • Economies of scale are for real. I still can’t believe how little we paid for the amount of food and booze we consumed. I guess this highlights one of the only downsides of living alone. More big, communal dinners, please!
  • Watching beer freeze instantly upon opening is better than watching probably 95% of what’s on television these days.
  • 3.30am is a fine time for a walk. I recommend you bring a bottle of port, too.
  • Three words: Slow. Motion. Video.
  • This country. Let me tell you. In any light or weather, at every time of day. Scotland is beautiful.

*Note that this is not nearly an exhaustive list.

I wish we didn’t have to leave our paradise as soon as we did.

HOWEVER. I think my next project will be creating some regular forms of escape for the wider population. If everyone had weekends like we just had – even once a year – the world would be a nicer place.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go back to not reading the interweb for a while.

I suggest you do the same.

Where to next?

Before I even got back, people were asking me this question. People continue to ask me this question every day. So here! By popular demand. A short list.

In 2016

Somewhere in Scotland (or northern England)

We’re due a group camping trip this summer. So at some point, I’ll dig out the totally loud but amazing tent Kristina gave me, load it into someone’s car, and we’ll trek off to the highlands or the Borders or the Lake District and tromp around and have a grand old time, even if it rains sideways.

We’re also definitely going back to Newtonmore in September. Ain’t no party like a Lindy Hop party in a quiet highland town.

Swing Summit, Ferme Les Costes, Ardèche, France

I’m going to Swing Summit (yaaasssssssssssss!) with friend and dance partner extraordinaire, Chris. It’s an intense, week-long camp based on super-focused teaching in small classes for Lindy technique nerds in the gorgeous mountains of southern France. There’s outdoor dance floors and a pool and a dog and they sort all your food for you. It’s going to be difficult and fun and exhausting and flippin’ AWESOME.

AND I intend to have a ridiculously huge French lunch in the 5 or so free hours we have in Lyon before flying home.

New York & Delaware, USA

I have promised I will hit the US sometime before the end of the year. Hopefully in the Autumn. This will involve family time and bagels and Dogfish Head and hopefully some mother-effing hot apple cider. And I still haven’t danced in the states, so I will take care of THAT while I’m over there.

Hamburg, Germany

To visit Felix, of course! It seems like a really cool city, so I’m excited to get the local treatment. It will be relatively easy to do, as there’s a direct Edinburgh-Hamburg EasyJet flight, so I’m really hoping I can swing it this year, financially.

Wish list

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Because food and music. Those should really be the only reasons I need to cite. I can’t eat anything involving crawfish unfortunately, but there is plenty more to be getting on with. And I have a serious weakness for New Orleans and Dixieland style jazz. Plus I have seen relatively little of the US, and it will be nice to go somewhere different over there.

Herräng, Sweden


South America

I realise that’s a wide net to cast, but it’s the only continent I’ve not hit yet (aside from Antarctica, which, well, after the cold of Siberia, I don’t know if I’m running down there anytime soon). I just want to go everywhere. Bolivia (salt flats!) , Argentina, and Uruguay are all on my radar as excellent options. I have mixed feelings about whether or not I should go to Galapagos. In any case, this will probably be the source of my next major travel adventure, but it’s going to take a while to get there, and it will probably look very different from the last trip. Much slower, for a start.

Mongolia (in the summer, please)

I’ve said it was my favourite and I’m not lying. I’d really love to go back in the summer for 2 or 3 weeks and go out wandering, camping, riding lovely horses, and EATING yes please. Preferably with a wee group of friends.

A (freezing cold) river ain’t too much to love

So hey! I’ve not packed it in, I’m still here. September started with a Cold That Would Not Die and some pretty bad family news – a combination that left me completely physically and emotionally cleaned out. I shut down for a few days and then threw every shred of what I had left into planning and prepping for a group trip to the Cairngorms thinking if I could just get to that, I’d maybe feel human again.

And you know, crazily enough, it worked. For a month that started off as horrendously as it did, it’s done a pretty big flip. Starting with, at long last, the Foo Fighters gig of Grohl Scream-Along Therapy on the same day I put my notice in at work, I got a lot out of me that had probably been building up for a long, long time. Then there was a double shot of absolutely amazing weekends.

I do feel like I may be a broken record here but I was just picked up and fixed in every way by the incredible people I know. From just listening to me dump my brain, to sitting in pubs or living rooms with beer or tea or one very, very well-timed hot toddy, to jumping around at rock shows, to dumping each other in freezing cold rivers, to dancing our faces off til the wee small hours, and everything in between. It has been the best month. And that is not something I would have expected to say two weeks ago.

Sometime in mid-August, when everyone was itching to get another trip planned following our jaunt to Glen Coe, I threw a weekend (second in September) and a place (Aviemore) out on Facebook to see who’d bite. Then Dimitris suggested we should maybe go whitewater rafting and that quickly became The Plan.

My main goal was to get us sole use of a hostel for at least one of the two nights so we could have a little party after whatever outdoor madness we got up to for the day. I did not have high hopes as we were only a few weeks out and there are not billions of hostels in the area we were going. However, by some stupid luck or grace of the universe, I managed to snag the Strathspey Mountain Hostel in Newtonmore for us all on the Saturday night. We were split into another place down the road on the Friday but it didn’t much matter because all we did was roll into town, have a DELICIOUS pub dinner, and go to sleep in prep for early starts and cold water the next day. But I felt like the grand fucking wizard of all organisational kingdoms for getting the place for just us. (That was sorted before the bad beginning of the month, so maybe the stars were lining up to make up for things. Who knows. I’m just happy it worked out that way.)

Saturday morning, ten of us got carted up north to somewhere on the river Spey where we all changed glamourously into wetsuits at the side of the road and goofed off with the air pump and the rafts while the guides dropped the van off at the end of the route. The river wasn’t too crazy because strangely enough, it hadn’t rained in a while, but we made up for it with extra spinning, drenching each other via paddle splash fights, and straight up tipping each other into the water. Then they had us trampolining off the upturned rafts into a deep bit of river. We were often accompanied by the smell of lovely, autumn-y smoke wafting along from the wee fishing huts along the banks, and we even saw salmon jumping out of the river. No joke. It was amazing. At the end of the run, we carried everything up the hill, changed into dry clothes, threw things around, and ate our picnic lunch on what used to be a railway platform.

That all would have been good enough to make a weekend, but that was only the start of it. We snoozed and chatted on the way back down to Newtonmore in the van and plotted our evening. There was a tea and cake run when we got back, and a few of us played Cluedo while the rest went shopping for food and booze. Gav took charge of making us an epic pot of mac and cheese and the giant playing cards came out again until the dancing started. Dee’s birthday was coming up so we surprised her with cake and a jam circle, and then we just kept dancing til about 2.30 in the morning. Thanks to my Spotify account, a good WiFi connection, and Gav’s speakers brought up for the occasion, we were the bangin’-est party in Newtonmore. I had been slightly worried about possibly getting in trouble with the owners, but it turned out that Graeme actually knew them (SCOTLAND IS DELIGHTFULLY SMALL), and in the morning, they insisted we come back and do it again, and next time invite them to watch the dancing. How much better can it get?

Well, I’ll tell you: plenty. Because after we cleaned up the party and moved all the furniture back and said goodbye to the fantastic Helen and Laurie, we went for a hangover-curing walk around Loch an Eilein in the sunshine and watched the boys climb a tree and then swim 100 freezing metres out to claim the castle for their own. Then we had some ice cream and drove to Feshiebridge where the majority of us caught the freezing wild swimming bug and did some ice cold sliding down chutes in the river. And to cap it off, before we started the long drive back down to Edinburgh we got the NICEST fish and chips overlooking Loch Insh and skipped some stones in the water while trying to spot Ospreys.

There was not one single part of the weekend that was less than freaking great. It didn’t even matter that there was traffic on the drive back. We sang along with Graceland in the car and that alone can heal a broken anything. I felt so good about life at this point I could barely believe my luck.

And one of the million wonderful things about this trip is that after all the texts and calls and emails and prodding to get everyone accommodated and transported and paid for and advance-medical-and-sizing-information-for-the-rafting-ed, every part of the actual weekend fell into place so nicely because everyone was so up for it and helpful and generally awesome. We had no reception from about an hour away from Newtonmore but we all ended up in the same pub at roughly the same time for dinner, and they kept the kitchen open for us despite our lateness. Everyone pitched in with the shopping and the cooking breakfast and dinner and making lunch. Everyone shared stuff and cleaned up and helped decide what to do. We all danced and sang and took care of each other and no one was ever in a foul mood because how on earth could they be when surrounded by the loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know?

I know I’m spouting a lot of sunshine and rainbows here, but it’s all true and it’s all very well appreciated.

And in terms of cost, because I’m all about spelling that out around here, it was so INCREDIBLY cheap. We will do this again and again and again as long as people are willing.

The total per person was about £156, give or take a few quid.

We all had slightly different transportation and some people didn’t go rafting, but here’s a rough breakdown per person for the weekend:

  • £31 – 2 nights accommodation including one where we had sole use of the hostel.
  • £55 – 1 day whitewater rafting on the Spey including all equipment and transport to and from Newtonmore
  • £18 – share of rental car and petrol for the weekend
  • £17 – share per person for 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner, lots of cake and tea, and a TON of booze split across us all (this is a ridiculous bargain for a weekend away)
  • £35 – (roughly) 2 pub dinners plus a few pints on the first night

I feel like these costs are so insignificant in comparison to how brilliant a time we had that it may as well have been free. I can’t wait to do this again.

And I know I keep saying this, but as if that weren’t enough, this past weekend was Edinburgh Lindy Exchange, which was equally awesome in all kinds of other ways. I’ll save it for the next post though because I’ve gone on enough here as it is.

But I do want to say that the past two weeks have been some of the best I’ve had, and it’s not only my Lindy friends I have to thank for it. Kristina and Yann are basically my family and scraped me up off the metaphorical ground with the aforementioned hot toddy AND A PUPPY (my new best friend Magni). I had a brilliant-as-always lunch with my ex-Galleries Pie and Pint crew. And even a few of the people I work with (I do like some of them) have provided welcome relief from the daily drudgery, including a noise-making minion toy of sheer joy.

So, thanks Universe, for all this awesome right when I needed it. And thanks friends, for being ten million times better and more than I could ever ask for.

Beginnings and ends, plans and memories

Three months there, about 24 hours back.

Three months there, about 24 hours back.

This weekend I booked my first train and my flight from Bangkok back to Edinburgh. It’s really real FO-REAL now. I just have to fill in the middle bits.

I’ve been waiting SO LONG to start doing the proper booking it almost feels fake actually doing it. But it’s paid for and in the calendar and on the spreadsheet and all that. Done and done.

With this (and pretty much every other) trip, the lead-up and the time I spend thinking about it afterwards far outweighs the actual three months I will spend away, and I have been thinking a lot about how much travel is about what happens in your brain, almost more than it’s about the physical act of going places and talking to people and eating things.

There was recently a New York Times article being passed around the interweb on what your holiday says about you, and how the planning bit has been, in some cases, proven to be more satisfying than the actual holiday because planning a busy and intricate itinerary is incredibly rewarding whereas actually DOING something so full-on is exhausting and stressful.

Well. Obviously.

I’ve tried to make my plans for this trip less about pinning down a detailed itinerary and more about amassing possibilities. And there IS a lot of joy in planning for me. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am A Planner and Organiser By Nature. I do think this reputation does me a disservice in obscuring the fact that I love spontaneity and surprises, and I often wish there was a little more of that getting thrown at me in my life. So part of this adventure is avoiding the temptation to plan the entire route in detail and keeping things a bit open-ended in places.

I will be booking my trains ahead of time through to Beijing, but after that, I only have rough ideas of where I want to go, and rough estimates of when I need to be crossing certain borders (mostly based on visa requirements). But I still have all sorts of lists of cool things I’ve heard about that might be worth seeing if I’m in the right place.

I should also say that the actual booking-of-tickets part of the planning is IMMENSELY satisfying because it means I AM GOING. And also coming back.

I think when I get back is when the trip really does its work.

Memory is a bizarre thing. Somewhat accidentally, I’ve been consuming a lot of media about it lately. I’ve just finished the memoir of a woman caring for her mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s called Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordworth and cake…. The book is half personal experience of the difficulties of caring for someone who is basically losing who they are and half musings on the research the author has done into how the brain actually works, how the disease breaks it down, and the history of Dementia, its treatments, and pubic attitudes towards it.

What we recall isn’t a matter of units of memory, but rather our brain pulling together a story and reconstructing something for us every time. We may think it’s the same always, and we may even think it’s the same as what actually happened, but really it’s probably not. Not the same as what we actually experienced and not the same recall all the time. Sometimes you remember slightly different details of an event and surely that shapes what you see in your head a little differently every time. It’s like watching a play instead of a movie.

From what I understand, Alzheimer’s breaks down the connections that allow your brain to pull memories together, so things disappear at different speeds, but you essentially lose the things that make you who you are, because that’s what memory is. Your personality comes in large part from your experiences and how you process them, and memories aren’t a digital things, they’re a constant, analogue process.

I also just saw Inside Out (how could I NOT?) which shows us Pixar’s vision of how memories and personality work. In their version, memories ARE actually units, but they’re kind of evolving marbles rather than static rocks. The way they portray memories having completely mixed emotions as their foundations and how they combine to create who we are is fascinating (islands of personality!) and gut-wrenching because it feels so accurate. And per usual with Pixar, EVERY ADULT in that cinema with me was all teary at multiple points from being hit hard in the feels.

Between the book and the film, I’m now walking around thinking about HOW my brain is pulling together the memories I’m flipping through at any given time. (Because I don’t have enough buzzing around in my head without getting all meta on top of it.) So I wonder how close the memory and the event are, and how they change depending on what mood I’m in when I recall them. BRAINS. They’re pretty cool.

The constant evolution of my travel memories connects those experiences to whatever present circumstance I need them to inform or whatever feeling I need to associate with them. This is true for a lot of experiences though. You do something you think is a bit rough or difficult or whatever, but when you look back on it you feel like it was maybe a lot greater than you gave it credit for at the time. Some of this is hindsight and analysis and, in my case, the fact that I have a hard time relaxing or not being a ball of anxiety about everything that’s happening because I can’t often quiet my brain down long enough to stop and really see what’s happening for two seconds.

But I sort of love this about travel. My memories of trips are things I call up and scrutinise on a regular basis, sometimes for daydreaming or escape, sometimes for self-criticism, sometimes for other things entirely. I’m sure they change a little every time, but I also know that it grows the experience to something much richer in my history.

And then there’s one trip I took just before a pretty traumatic life thing that I never got to think too much about in the weeks after I got back because I was Dealing With Some Hardcore Stuff. I honestly think this affected my ability to commit a lot of that trip to long-term memory in the way I usually do by mulling things over for ages in the background when I return from a place. I don’t have a lot of solid memories of that trip the way I do with every other trip I’ve ever taken, which is too bad, because it was a fantastic holiday and I know I had a lot of fun with my friend Sara who I went with. But it only exists in kind of pixelated bits in my head instead of rich dancing colours the way the rest of my travel inventory does.

In contrast, there’s the trip I took to Paris earlier this year. It was such a fast one, and full-on, and manic. And I had a good time while I was there, but when I think about it now, it’s grown into something so much more amazing than I thought it was at the time. Sometimes it’s good to plow through things and work them out afterwards. All the processing is a big part of who I am, and it’s changing all the time. And I love that. It’s what builds bits of those islands of personality.

I think the fact that your inner landscape is such a major part of your travel or anything you do is why it’s so difficult to explain the full experience of your holidays and trips. You can tell stories and try to draw parallels between them and the stories of others, but I find it nearly impossible to impart the real impact of any trip. It’s so wound up in the rest of my life. I kind of just have to trust that people get that. I think at least most of them who’ve done a bit of traveling do.

If memory was made up of discrete units we’d probably be able to explain our feelings on ANYTHING a lot better than we can. It would be like being able to hand someone a book off a shelf instead of attempting to pull up a 30-year-old tree at the roots and show them what bit you mean.

But I think it’s kind of nice you can’t sum yourself or any of your experiences up simply, even if articulation can be a completely awkward and uphill human endeavour. After all, if it were that easy, what then would we talk about in the pub?

Lindy Hoppers do Glen Coe

Before we left on Friday, this is what the forecast looked like for Glen Coe.

Optimism is key.

Optimism is key.

We (or at least I) I was running on serious faith that the weather in Scotland really does change every 24.9 minutes and that there was no way it could possibly be rubbish all weekend.

I got a lift from Graeme and after we left an intermittently sunny Edinburgh around quarter to 8, the rain started and then didn’t quit the entire drive. We wound through wooded roads and around lochs and eventually through massive mountains without seeing much of it. We had the music on my phone (Foo Fighters and Movits! followed by Radiohead for extra weather-matching atmosphere) the sound of the wind running through the roof racks, and the pounding rain for company on what would normally be an incredibly scenic drive.  But it was great! And about 10 minutes from the campsite, we passed this waterfall which was roaring so impressively that Graeme turned around to pull over in the deluge and take a photo of it.

We pulled up to the campsite around 10.30 to find Dimitris, Nick, and Nelly putting up their tents with Rupert and Andrew’s help. I borrowed/inherited a tent from Kristina, which looks like it wouldn’t be up to much, but this sucker took everything Scottish nature could throw at it over the weekend and I stayed dry and not-blown-away when I was in it. And it went up in the rain in about 5 minutes flat. I have to confess I didn’t so much of the pitching because I took stuff out of the bag and helped thread one pole in, then I blinked about twice and Rupert and Graeme had finished the job. Total experts. After a bit of a group challenge to finish getting Nick’s tent up, we escaped to the Clachaig Inn for a drink and a warmer, drier planning place for the next day.

We were booted out an hour later to face the wild Scottish weather overnight. I don’t sleep well in unfamiliar situations, and I’m far too fidgety to be the ideal sleeping bag occupant, so I knew I wasn’t going to get much rest. But if that first night didn’t put me off camping, it’s a testament to my sheer excitement for the weekend as a whole. And probably the wonder tent. It was freezing, and I chose the wrong side of the tent to claim as the dry side (all my wet stuff was on the slightly higher ground and my head ended up in the lowest corner) but the wind and rain did not get in, and my strategic taking of benadryl knocked me out for at least 3 hours of strange, frantic dreams of Rupert running through our wee tent city yelling ‘GET UP, THE WATER’S COMING!’ (We were camped next to the pretty rapidly rising river.)

In any case, we all survived the night. Any plans of and early start or breakfast at the campsite were scuppered by the weather, and we missed breakfast at the Clachaig, so we ended up at the Glencoe Cafe where I had the best damn breakfast roll I have ever had. Fried egg and black pudding. I could have eaten three of them. After suiting up, we checked our stock of snacks and water and drove out to one of the parking areas at the side of the road and headed into the hills.

We were just doing a walk up one of the valleys, but because of the high water in all the streams from the rain the night before, we couldn’t stick to the fairly easy looking path. So for the first hour or so, we trudged straight through boggy hillside in high wind and sometimes needle-like, sideways rain. I’m fairly sure at that point most of us were thinking ‘WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK ARE WE DOING, THIS IS PAINFUL AND INSANE AND THE WORD ‘WATERPROOF’ IS A BOLD-FACED LIE (well, unless you’re Katie and spent £57 on fancy waterproof cycling trousers), WHY ARE WE NOT IN THE WARM DRY PUB LIKE SENSIBLE PEOPLE.’


We persevered. There was more bog. There were various stream crossings. One where I totally missed the rock I was jumping for and got properly (and effortlessly) saved by Rupert, who grabbed me from certain death. There was a full on river crossing where, because we decided going all the way down to the road to cross was just too much to fathom, we found the least frightening looking spot and went in up to our knees while Rupert and Andrew helped us across, because we were already completely soaked anyway.

And then. THEN. On the way back up the hill to the next valley, squelching in our boots, we turned around to see the sun breaking over Glen Etive and the weather started to pull back and give us a very well deserved break.

And that’s when I really started thinking, a la Vonnegut, if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

Because how lovely to be with a group of people who will suck it up and trudge through the hellish weather this country is capable of simply because they all believe that this weekend away is going to be awesome, and if nature doesn’t feel that, we will keep going til it believes us. And incredibly enough, from the moment that sun busted out, it all just got better and better.

Three of the boys broke away to go up some actual Munros while the rest of us had a very pleasant walk out down the valley. The sun eventually got so strong that I was passing around the sunscreen I was ridiculed for including in my bag that morning. By the end of the day my sunglasses were on. By the time we got back to the cars, the only things still wet were our feet.

We got a big newspaper on the way back to the Clachaig so we could stuff our boots and put them in the drying room (two words which are the sweetest music ever when you’re starting to fear trench foot) and ate a massive dinner in our socks. The proper hill walkers were only about an hour or so behind us and made it in plenty of time for food. Then we rounded out the night by hatching a plan for a massive skills exchange (Sewing storm trooper costumes! Miniature gardening! Chainsaw hedge-sculpting! We do more than just swing dance, you see.), playing a game of spoons using MASSIVE playing cards, and finally retreating to the back bar to dance around to the live music til closing time.

I didn’t sleep much the second night either, but it rained a lot less. And Sunday morning we went back to the cafe for breakfast where I had some seriously heavenly porridge that I’d been jealous of the morning before. The sun was already hanging around and we set off for a much easier walk up to the hidden valley. (I observed that we were seeing TONS of people on Sunday’s walk, where on Saturday we saw no one once the road was out of sight.) We crossed a river again, but this time we took our shoes and socks off to do it because our feet were still gloriously dry.

When we got up to the valley, we climbed a massive rock for a group picture (well, I didn’t make it very far up, but whatever, I got off the ground) and then the sun REALLY came out and we all took a nap in the grass. Then we threw a golf ball around and contributed some rock art to the place with Graeme’s natural building skills.

I spent the whole time thinking, well, not that I ever had any doubt, but this is a country well worth becoming a citizen of. Beautiful is an understatement.

We took a pretty boulder-y route down the hill, which for me was terrifying as I do not have the mountain goat tendencies some of the others do, but Fiona and Rupert started in on a stellar rendition of ‘Hakuna Matata’ followed by various other tunes which calmed me way down and took my mind off the fact that my footing and balance is the worst in the land. And everyone helped each other down the difficult bits and we played leapfrog on the last bridge out where Andrew and Cicely played an epic game of Pooh Sticks and the day was just so ridiculously perfect.

The drive home was gorgeous and STILL sunny and I got to see all the things that had been obscured by the rain on the way up. We stopped for fish and chips on the way and all wondered aloud when the next trip would be.

I think between my compulsion to organise things and everyone’s sheer, unadulterated joy about the weekend, I can guarantee it will be very, very soon.

A wee bike trip and a trot up a hill

Since I’ve got this lovely bike now and I decided I wanted to use the next few months to enjoy Scotland, the incredible weather on Saturday seemed like a good time to start.

Due to a somewhat heated and ill-advised debate on Friday night, I had scads of frustrated energy to burn, so Saturday morning I packed a sandwich, sunscreened myself up, and got on my bike to ride to North Berwick which is 23 miles away.

On yer bike.

On yer bike.

I’ve never cycled NEARLY as far as that in one go. I did about 10.5 on Tuesday night, and I think I did about 14 when I was at my parents’ house in October (but with a long beer and lunch break about halfway through) and that’s probably the closest I’ve come.

But last year I walked from Prestonpans to North Berwick, and followed more or less the same route as I would be biking, so I knew what I was in for, and it’s not bad in terms of terrain. A few small climbs, but mostly flat and about half on bike paths, the rest on reasonably quiet roads. And sunshine or no, you can’t beat the views.

Not too shabby for a lunch break.

Not too shabby for a lunch break.

Google said it would take just under two hours. I took about three including a few short stops, so I think I did pretty well. I was originally going to go with some friends, but other plans happened and I ended up just doing it on my own. That was probably for the best, as I think I needed the time to have a few words with myself, and I also didn’t have to worry about my speed in relation to anyone else. And now that I know the trip, I can go back with people!

My Steampunk coffee and cookie reward shot got some jealous reactions, and that is excuse enough to take another trip next time the weather’s good. There’s also a fish and chip van about halfway along the route on the beach outside Longniddry, and I’d love to try it out.

A photo posted by Kate (@kateamann84) on

It was a good way to get to know my bike better too. I’m still a little wobbly on it but I know what gears are cranky and what’s comfortable and how my brakes like to behave and all that.  (And I finally decided its name is Alicia. Because The Good Wife. Obviously.) I’m not super happy about the Po Campo bag I bought, which I’d been excited about, but it doesn’t like to stay upright on the rack. It’s too much of a hassle to send it back to the US, so I just need to figure out how to modify it to make it work. Can’t win them all.

The beach in North Berwick, hooray!

The beach in North Berwick, hooray!

Anyway, once I’d had a bit of a walk round North Berwick and along the beach, I headed to the station to get the train home. And somehow I still had a lot of energy, so I went with my friend Katie round the back of Arthur’s Seat for a drink at the Sheep Heid. After which we ended up going nearly all the way back up the hill, sort of by mistake, but it was a good scramble. It was the first outing of the new hiking shoes I bought for our trip to Glencoe next month too, so there was some proper breaking-in going on.

It was such a lovely evening and I didn’t get home until about 10.15, which is one of the nicest things about summer in Scotland – you can be going up hills at 9 at night and still have plenty of light to do so.

I was certain that after all that activity I’d be screaming in pain when I woke up this morning, but since I finally remembered to stretch properly before bed, I’m more or less fine. It felt really good to just run myself ragged all day. I think I’m finally so fed up of sitting at a computer all the time that my appetite for escape is like a perpetual motion engine. Dancing, cycling, going up hills. There’ll be plenty more of that.

US May 2015

I didn’t do a lot of writing about this trip while I was on it, because I was SO TIRED the whole time. You’d think I’d learn by now that I shouldn’t try to cram so much into a short trip because of the burnout it causes, but it’s really hard to do that when I go to the US because there are so many people I never get to see and I just want to see as many of them as I possibly can when I get the small chances I do.

I had grand plans to do a lot of travel planning for the big trip, a lot of writing (blog related and not), and a lot of reading, particularly on my two 6 hour train trips, but I spent most of those hours listening to music, dozing, and staring into space thinking about stuff because I couldn’t handle much else at the time. And that’s ok. But it does mean I have a lot of writing down of those thoughts to be getting on with.

Here’s all the awesome stuff I did that tired me out so much:

A day of wandering around Georgetown with Liam and Bobby. A ridiculous brownie at Baked and Wired. Happy Hour Mexican food and a mojito. A brilliant, brilliant Ben Folds and yMusic gig at the Lincoln Theatre.

Driving out of the middle of DC in a rental car, fairly terrified and mostly lost the entire time. Steak for lunch at Kelsey’s house, watching the chickens and talking about life. Dinner with most of her family (who are pretty much my second family) in downtown Frederick. Sharing the couch with Miss Betty.

Buying lots of random stuff in Target while I waited for the rest of the wedding party to arrive in York. Sampling the hotel pool experience. A rehearsal dinner while flanked by some kind of optometrists’ party in one ballroom and a high school prom in another (high entertainment value). The nicest hotel beds. An amazing wedding on a gorgeous day.

Driving back into DC again, terrified and lost again, this time with added Hellish Nation’s Capital Traffic and nearly hitting a pedestrian. Lunch at ShopHouse to recover (very good). A 6 hour train ride on which I did very little aside from think too much.

A dark beer called Duck Rabbit (how could I resist THAT NAME) with Josh. Breakfast with Rachel and their two awesome kids. A trip to the Raleigh farmers’ market. Really good salsa (god I miss really good salsa). Fast food, North Carolina style. Sitting in on a high school creative writing magazine meeting, which was so great and so bizarre and so the same as I remember it. Real North Carolina barbecue including hush puppies, which are one of my favourite things. Wyatt Cenac at a local comedy club (very funny, recommended). Lunch and local beers in Fuquay-Varina. And a super chilled out night of dinner, chat and whisky.

Another 6 hour train ride, not bad considering it was right after a pretty awful day for Amtrak. Again, didn’t do much but doze and think. A mojito sorbet while killing time waiting for happy hour with all the DC Washington College Dramalumni at the District ChopHouse. More beer than I should have drank, which is easy when it’s only $3.50 a pint. A Trader Joe’s dinner back at Liam and Bobby’s while watching a whole lot of Daily Show.

Lunch with my parents at Farmers Fishers Bakers and a walk along the river on a lovely day before my long trip home.

It was a lot, but it was worth the exhaustion. I’m lucky I got to see so many people in such a short space of time.

I was also incredibly homesick on this trip considering how short it was. I feel more like a foreigner than ever when I’m in the US, and I was probably realising that’s going to be standard now. I’m ok with that – I love the UK – I guess I just didn’t expect it to hit me so hard. I was VERY happy to see Edinburgh when I got back (and my fantastic friends who I spent the rest of the day with at the Summerhall FestiveALE – a lovely way to force myself to stay awake and fight the jet lag).


I was under budget again (£1500), which hooray! But as usual with trips to the US, I didn’t have to pay for much accommodation, and lots of people bought me food and drinks and things, so most of the cost was transportation.

Trip total: £1334.47

That’s an average of £121.32 per day.

£899.75 on transport. SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS of transport. This was Planes, trains and automobiles for real.

£144.77 on food. And I finally got my airport sushi in Dulles on the way home.

£36.28 on entertainment. Ben Folds!

£72.56 on accommodation. Two nights in a shared hotel room in York PA. Pool view. John Oliver on HBO. Beds to die for.

£55.05 on gifts. Stuff for people I was staying with. Chocolate and whisky mostly.

£65.49 on drinks. At least half of this was for other people. I drank relatively little on this trip.

£60.57 on miscellaneous. A bunch of random stuff at Target and a bunch of cold and heartburn related medicine. FUN.


In which I realise there IS such a thing as too much research

Another reason to be excited about DC

Delayed (again)


In the headphones


Ray Charles

Lucy Schwartz

On the Kindle

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter by Richard Feynman

Keeper: A Book about memory, identity, isolation, Wordsworth and cake… by Andrea Gillies

In-flight films

Shaun the Sheep Movie (SO MUCH FUN)

Wild (more on which later)


I love weddings. I LOVE THEM. There is happy crying and food and booze and laughing and dancing like idiots and LOVE. And I am a sucker for it all.

More awkward bride selfies. #Debergman

A photo posted by Kate (@kateamann84) on

Lindsay and Dan’s wedding – the reason I’m currently in the US trying to cram as much Seeing All The People Possible in the days flanking it – was at Historic Shady Lane near York, PA. It’s an old house with lots of other little buildings on the property and a ton of space and good photo op locations, so, perfect for an outdoor wedding. It was a gorgeous day (super hot, but there was a breeze and plenty of shade). Everyone from the wedding party and the families pitched in to get things set up. There was good beer. There was pulled pork. There were old college friends I’d not seen in years. There were doughnuts instead of cake. (YES. DOUGHNUTS.)

THIS HAPPENED. And it was good.

THIS HAPPENED. And it was good.

Most importantly, one of my best friends got married to one of the nicest dudes on this earth and I am so freaking happy for them.

I always feel a bit weird about sweeping into town from Scotland like a novelty on these occasions, because I don’t want anyone to pay attention to that. It’s a privilege to be involved in Significant Life Events, and I’m lucky to be able to make the trip for it. I’m glad they wanted me here and I always just want it to be a nice day for the people who’ve been planning for ages. And I think it was.

This trip hasn’t been the smoothest I’ve done, but my poorly-timed cold seemed to clear out for the day of the wedding, which I tipped my hat to the universe for. And the minute I got to York and answered my hotel room door to find Lindsay on the other side, any of my personal internal grumbling about my health-related discomfort or anything else just disintegrated.

As is often the case, I only wish I could stay longer and have more time with people. But there is never enough time, and I’m not the only one on the planet wanting to see my friends. And I know weddings are NUTS for the bride and groom, so they are no doubt enjoying the crap out of their fancy airbnb honeymoon where they don’t have to talk to or see ANYONE (let alone me). Or wear super constricting garments in the heat.