Still waiting for my bag to arrive; I read on a friend’s blog that Heathrow has just recently installed an updated computerized luggage tracking system, and that as soon as they did, they promptly lost over 6000 pieces of luggage. (Why don’t I know these things?) Virgin Atlantic knows my bag is at Heathrow; they identified it there even before I landed. But it’s still sitting there, it is not here, and there are five wee bottles of single malt lovingly packed inside.
Breathing in the filthy, car-exhaust smell of the el was a terrible bit of jet-lagged culture shock after the delicious air and scent of Lewis and the Orkneys, the softer sweet air outside Inverness, where I did a lot of walking. So was watching the eight lanes of stalled traffic on either side of the train, and the el’s grinding, jerking motion, snapping my neck back and forth, and its awful vibrations, felt in my teeth. But I’m less lagged now after sleeping 11 hours. I woke thinking I was on Lewis at Mrs. B’s, and wondered briefly why my artwork was on the wall there.
I had wondered a bit, before going, about traveling alone while old and deaf, how well I’d manage. The further I got north, the easier it was. The patience, kindness and courtesy of people in Scotland were noticeably better than in England (which itself was improved over everyday life in Chicago) and it reached its zenith in the Highlands. Not only were there no real difficulties, I never once felt pitied, which is something I find exceedingly hard to stomach; nor did I ever feel patronized, which is worse. It was simply a natural, matter-of-fact reaction; people quickly adjusted to the fact of my deafness, asked me how they could help and were genuinely happy to. Not one person contorted their face to exaggerate their words, or shouted, and if I did not hear and asked for a repeat, no one ever became impatient or said the phrase most deafened people hate: “forget it, it wasn’t important.”
I had expected to have some reaction to being in the land of my roots, but thought that it would be a private, internal thing. On Lewis, especially, it was shared. In every conversation I had there that lasted longer than a few sentences, people asked about my Scottish connections. More than once, I was told, “that’s where you get your hair.” (There were varying reactions when I said that the color came from a bottle, but the rest was mine; that could have something to do with a very strict religious atmosphere on Lewis, the only thing that sort-of worried me about it). I had some long conversations with an older woman who shared one of my ancestral surnames (which, she gently told me, I pronounce wrong). She looked exactly like my grandmother. I had to constantly remind myself not to stare at her teeth, which were exactly like mine, with the big front overbite that my dentist insists on calling ‘the Bugs Bunny’ look. On Orkney, people never asked about ancestry at all, but did seem quite pleased when I said I wanted to come back. On Lewis, and on the boat back to the mainland, virtually everyone asked me if I would be back, or said, “perhaps you’ll come back”.
Everywhere in the Highlands, people of all ages are out and about, mixing together, talking to each other. There is a strong visual sense of community. In Inverness, the most bustling city, I daily saw numerous people out on those motorized scooters or in wheelchairs; everywhere around the Highlands older (and some younger) folks were out with canes; blind folks had guide people, not guide dogs (though it seemed that everyone had a dog, and the dogs went everywhere; they waited patiently outside shops). Older folks and children are a vital part of the fabric. If you are over sixty and a Highlander or Islander, you can travel anywhere in Scotland; you get so many roundtrip tickets a month, free. The Scottish Tourist Board runs a service for finding places to stay; the fee is four pounds per booking. In Inverness, I had two long in-person booking sessions with two lovely young folks, Sam and Heather, who did all the phone-calling for me, with a lot of jokes and story-telling and conversation in between, and though I didn’t ask for it, and though I was charged in Edinburgh, they waived the fees because I am deafened; they simply refused to accept them.
In my ancestral chauvinism, I like to think that this is all an echo of the old Gaelic culture, where everyone was valued, where there were leaders but no class system, and, as the old poem says, “widows and orphans (were) liberally provided for, without want was each pauper” (from the Gaelic ‘Song to the emigrants’, Ian MacCodrum, 1760s). It could also be the superiority of the general British health care system, or even the fact that the population is smaller, so everyone is noticed more, but in my romanticism, cultural survival is what I want to believe. In any case, coming from the U.S., where all depends on money, where even the dignity of the most basic human needs depends directly on individual income, it’s utterly refreshing to see.
Above all, people talked to each other, and to me, regardless of age, color, or anything else, especially on the islands.
There’s something else, and here’s where I picture all the Americans sniggering, or thinking how pathetic I am, but the hell with it, I’m writing about it anyways. America’s culture, if we have one, is exceedingly youth-oriented, especially if you are a woman. A woman can achieve enormous professional standing and respect no matter how old you are, but after a certain age, you become completely sexually invisible (or, possibly worse, one of the many women who are rich who start to pay out enormous sums to get chopped, to surgically alter the aging process). Older folks only seem to meet in personals ads, and men my age and older invariably seek women half their age, and if you choose to age naturally, you automatically become null and void. That’s the way it is. It’s not much fun for women (assuming you’re heterosexual), especially if you always had a lot of male attention and inside, you’re still pretty damn well alive, thank you very much. Yeah, like me.
Well, I got flirted with on a daily basis again, like it was years ago, and yeah, I liked it. A lot. Just silly stuff, mostly, a wink here and there, getting blown a kiss through a train window, or a cheeky, flirty comment that says, above all, I see you, see your vitality. It was just plain damn fun.
I never even considered the possibility of this happening, and at this confused point in my life, I was definitely not in the market for a wee highland fling, but there were two situations that were more intense, and that’s where my American orientation let me down (or saved me, depending on how you look at it); I couldn’t interpret them, figure out what was going on. There are cultural differences, definitely.
But I had a conversation with a white-haired woman in her seventies and mentioned one of them, and she said, “He must fancy you!” I mumbled something about being too old, and she, may all the goddesses there are love her, immediately and very, very seriously replied,
“Oh, no, you’re never too old for that, dear!”
So: If I should end up old and alone, I know where I’m retiring to!
Mural in the Invergordon train station