Thursday, May 25, 2006
By popular request, le email It is a long one. You have been warned:
Well, it has been a very, very busy few days, and it will be damn near impossible to sum it up in an email. But nevertheless, I'll try. I explored another entire region of England, and then headed up here to Edinburgh, where I am staying with my old friend Dan, film buff extraordinaire, who I met in Switzerland and have not seen in almost exactly two years. It's strange meeting a friend I haven't seen in so long, but also nice. I've actually missed him, and I'm glad that I've grown up enough since Switzerland to appreciate the finer points of his personality. We've pretty much picked up where we left off, but it helps that we've been exchanging actual letters and maling cds to each other for two years. He's an excellent host, and put me up in an actual spare room (I haven't had a room to myself since I left my own) in his ancient apartment filled with two roommates and a mouse I named Jack. They're nice -- the roommates, and Jack.
By the way, this will be a long one, so if you have to go feed the cat or watch America's Next Top Model in a half hour, better flag this message, print it out, and read it on the floor tomorrow with the Bossi looming over your shoulder. Or just....read it later.
I took the train from Oxford to York a few days ago, and stumbled in the pouring rain (welcome to Yorkshire!) to my hostel, which was nice but in the middle of absolute nowhere. It was a quiet place with a huge greasy full English breakfast included in the dirt cheap price of the room, and my roommate was from Burnaby [n.b. a suburb about 20 minutes from my apartment] (for crying out loud!). She was nice, and laughed at my jokes, but never really seemed to make any of her own. The hostel was a bit institutional, like a giant rabbit warren, but the facilities were more than adequate, and besides, I like rabbits.
I emerged from my room that evening and went to see York Minster, a huge layer cake of an edifice with a Medieval cathedral built on top of a Norman cathedral, built on top of an old Roman fortress. It was mainly impressive because of its massive scale and huge stained glass windows, but it wasn't much of a place for quiet reflection. I did go to Evensong, a quick and dirty service with minimal kneeling and praying and a lot of hymns sung by the choir made up mainly of giggling little girls. That was quite beautiful, and I couldn't really hear the sermon part because the minister was mumbling into his inadequate microphone. It was just as well. The hyms were pretty, though I highly doubt that the 7-year-olds understood the bit about fearing God and loving Him at the same time. They were mainly just glacing at each other and laughing while their heads were supposed to be bowed. It's just as well....
The next morning I got up uncharacteristically early and took a bus through the North Yorkshire moors to Whitby, a tiny seaside town on the chilly northern coast. The moors, which I mainly saw from the bus, were brown, hilly, and heatherless. You can imagine my disappointment in finding out that the heather only blooms from July to September. The heatherlessness was distressing, and the moors were overall a very moody and lonely, though also a stunning place. It was easy to imagine Heathcliff and Cathie and the Brontes on those moors, and I had a near-permanent image in my mind of Dickon from The Secret Garden riding his pony across the green hills.
I decided to undertake a "short walk" from Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay. Apparently, miles are longer than kilometers. HA! I did exactly what the guidebook told me not to do and failed to check the weather conditions (bah!) or bring a map and compass (wimps!). The walk was pleasant at first, despite the damp chilliness, and the path meandered through grassy fields filled with white cows and children on bicycles. The dozen or so people I saw on the trail all said hello to me, and I had to figure out how to awkwardly say hello with a piece of straw in my mouth. Both things were necessary, though. The straw, and the greetings.
Towards the coast the people started to thin out, until it was just me and the livestock -- fluffy white sheep, cows, and horses, and even they seemed to look at me sadly from beneath their warm furry coats. I said hello to the sheep, and they replied "baa!" -- amicably, I think. Sheep have got to be one of the world's most underrated creatures. I don't think they could be any cuter unless they were dyed pink, and that would just be over the top.
After two and a half hours of walking in what had turned into a full-on rainstorm -- sheet after sheet of icy, biting water pummeling every little flaw in my gore-tex jacket and pathetic nylon pants -- I finally arrived at Robin Hood's Bay, soaked to the skin and trying desperately to maintain my rugged exterior despite the fact that I looked and felt like a cat who'd truly enjoyed walking around the bathtub until it fell in. The Bay, as the locals call it, turned out to be well-worth the trip. It was a tiny red-roofed town that seemed to tumble down the steep cliffs into the ocean. Streets were built on top of each other, and all the sidewalks had stone steps to clamber up and down. I walked down to the water and ate some fish and chips under a little shelter away from the continuing deluge -- they were greasy and amazing, and I washed them down with Ribena, that peculiar English beverage made from blackcurrants. I kept the juice box, because it read "pierce hole with straw" (as opposed to what?), and "not for babies or toddlers under 36 months," as if without such a warning mothers would be spoon feeding it to their infants instead of formula. Ah, the English and their stupid signage. It never ceases to amaze me.
I met a very nice woman in a jewelry shop by the beach who gave me a keychain with the local black jet on it (which comes from fossilized monkey puzzle trees), just because I made such an effort to get to their little town in the rain, and I had a long conversation with the fellow who poured me a pot of Earl Grey in a teahouse I went to huddle in while I waited for my bus back to Whitby. A group of women saw the Canadian flag on my backpack and struck up a conversation about my trip and exactly how hot it is back home in the summer. The people in Yorkshire were incredibly friendly and kind, and they're always happy to give you directions in their Northern English, almost Irish-sounding accents. They're also a little bit strange and sad, and while they do banter as they did in Dover, they're a bit more philosophical, and a bit more melancholy.
I met an old man at the bus stop in the Bay, a funny fellow with bright blue eyes who rolled his own cigarettes and started talking to me about my trip. He asked if I was travelling alone, and he seemed bewildered and impressed to find that I was. "Aren't you scared," he asked, "of crazy old men like me, and all those young chavs?" "Well, no," I replied, "mostly they just look me up and down and decide I'm not worth the trouble." He seemed to understand that I meant that I'd put up a fight, and not that I was being self-deprecating. He didn't seem to understand why on earth I would want to come to Yorkshire all by myself, if I wasn't writing a book on the subject or going to school there. Finally I said that I was visiting friends in Europe and so I wasn't REALLY all alone. He replied simply, and rather sadly: "we're all alone." "Well said," I told him, and meant it.
There's something about that part of England that made me very lonely, and very acutely aware of the sad things in life. Perhaps it's the haunting sound of the wind whistling across the moors, or the mist that crept across the hills and over the graves of the cemetery as I rode the bus back to Whitby. But somehow what that old man said really impressed upon me the importance of truly caring about the people around you, because without those connections we're all just wandering around in the hills like lost sheep.
My time in Yorkshire was about to get a lot sadder, as I left the next morning to go on the literary pilgrimage that had brought me to that part of England in the first place. I got up early, put my backpack in storage, and took the train to Leeds. Then I took a train to Keighley, a little town inexplicably pronounced "Keith-Lee," and then took a bus to the tiny cobblestoned town of Haworth. There I climbed a huge hill, dodged a group of yellow-vested schoolkids, and ducked inside a little church, where there is a chapel dedicated to my favourite ill-fated literary geniuses of all time -- the Brontes.
It was truly one of the saddest and most haunted churches I have ever seen. The whole place seemed absolutely steeped in a kind of ancient gloom and resignation. It seems that Haworth was not a healthy place to live in the mid 19th century. 41% of all children died before they were six years old, and the average life expectancy was only 25 years. There were no sewers in Haworth, and the drinking water was polluted by churchyard effluent. That's right, they were actually drinking the decomposing remains of their dead. Great. One family in the Haworth churchyard buried 17 children, all under the age of 7. You can imagine how very, very gloomy that churchyard was. I don't think my photographs can even begin to do justice to what was really one of the saddest moments of my life. Walking through the Bronte Parsonage, where the family lived and the sisters wrote their novels, was also a haunting experience. You can see the sofa where Emily died, and the chair which is threadbare from where Charlotte sat writing Jane Eyre. None of the Bronte children lived to be 40, and the house was absolutely weighed down with the sadness of that fact. It was one of the best and most affecting museums I've ever been to.
I really think that the best summary of the bittersweet optimism of Yorkshire life was written by Charlotte herself, and sits in the Bronte chapel in Haworth:
Life, believe, is not a dream
So dark, as sages say;
Oft a little morning rain
Foretells a pleasant day.
Sometimes there are clouds of gloom,
But these are transient all;
If the shower will make the roses bloom,
Oh why lament its fall?
I took the train to Edingburgh that evening, totally exhausted and soaked to the skin from yet another Yorkshire rainstorm. It was easy to see how everyone got tuberculosis in that damp climate. I was cheered somewhat by the truly postcard-perfect Scottish countryside flying past the train windows. There really are looming gray castles in which Macbeth probably brooded and groped at hallucinatory daggers, endless and impossibly green fields filled with (possibly even cuter) sheep and little white lambs, and rushing streams and waterfalls tumbling along the cloud-dotteed horizon. Simply stunning countryside. The kind of place I could see myself living someday.
I've been surprised and impressed by the real cosmopolitanness of Edinburgh. Despite the fact that people have a tendency to bark when they speak to you and everyone sounds like the junkies in Trainspotting, which was a movie I had to see twice just to understand the dialogue, they are genuinely nice and friendly and will go way out of their way to help you.
I was taking photos on a bridge in Dean Village yesterday when an old woman stopped to ask ME for permission to take my photograph. I laughed and said of course and she took it and then asked if I'd like to walk with her through the private gardens that ran by her flat. She had her little grandson in a pram and a little dog on a leash, so I felt safe enough to say yes. She unlocked the gate and led me through a stunning garden full of clematis vines, lilacs, wisteria, and irises, with amazing views of the river and a giant waterfall. The woman chatted with me for a good half hour. I took some photos of her grandson, who couldn't have been more than two and looked every bit the blond-haired Christopher Robin, right down to his little blue teddy bear. I wasn't allowed to take photos of her, though. "I know I'm just as attractive now as I ever was in my youth, but still. Vanity is a terrible thing," she told me. She let me out the back gate so I could ramble around the cemetery for a while, and I thanked her profusely. She said that perhaps I would do the same for some visitor to my city someday, and I said I would.
Last night I got my ass royally kicked at Texas hold em (Bro -- I know I was secretly adopted. I even went ALL IN and it didn't help me), with Dan and a bunch of his Scottish academic friends from the university. I only lost £5 but still, boy, that loss smarts. Give me Five Card Stud any day. That Texas hold em crap is clearly for the younger generation, and I am of an older gin-and-tonic drinking one. I should have been born in the 1920s.
Dan and I watched one of his obscure Japanese films last night, a samurai movie called Azumi about a girl assassin (how could I say no to that?). It was silly and bloody but also a lot of fun.
All in all, it has been lovely hanging out in this flat and in this chilly but beautiful city. My camera can barely stay in my bag for ten seconds, there is so much to take pictures of.
So, sorry for the length everyone.
Thank you to anyone who is still reading it.
There it is. Now I must really get outside before I lose the whole day.