travel writing

Sounds of Scotland

“This is the Scotland you’ve always dreamed of.” Louise pulls the handle, allowing the polyphony of woodwind and strings to drift across the quiet street.

A crowd of twenty folk musicians consumes me, Glasgow’s tradition beckoning me forward.

−−−−−−

In Edinburgh, we summit Arthur’s seat and bask in the winds of Scotland, which violently throws frigid gales at me as it desired. In Glasgow, we stroll about the Kelvingrove, with haggis. After five days, from Edinburgh’s Old Town to Glasgow’s West End, with all the pubs and on all of the hills, I am still bracing myself; Scotland surprises me on every turn. As my sixth day in Scotland winds down, I go to meet a mutual friend. Megan, a friend from Vancouver, had urged me to spend time with her friend Louise in Glasgow, warning me that Louise had become her favorite Scot of all.

Later, Louise shoves me into the orchestra at Ben Nevis, the spirit of the Highlands resounding into my ears. Ben Nevis, named after the eponymous Scottish mountain, opened in 1884, its ovular mahogany and teal-trimmed exterior thinly tucked under an apartment complex stretches around the corner of Argyle Street and Carunna Street in Glasgow. Originally a small, local pub, a group of folk musicians moved into the flat upstairs and began to frequent the bar. After they brought the party downstairs, Ben Nevis soon began its long-standing custom of live folk.

A Sunday night tradition, a cellist, a bassist, three guitarists, a drummer, at least seven fiddlers, three bagpipers, four flautists, and two clarinetists all gracefully interweave from one Scottish folk song to the next. As I listen to the historical harmony, the tempo takes a rapid change of pace, the whole crew sliding into a different song effortlessly. “Wey signal each other at the end of each song,” Louise explains. “They can switch from one tune to the next in an instant—they’ll play for an hour straight without stopping.”

The inside of Ben Nevis, despite its renovations, echoes its origins. Split into halves around the bar, the left for music and the right for conversation, faded mahogany pervades the room. The bar top, with two columns extending from the ceiling down to two tree trunks on either side, is flanked by fiddlers and glasses of mead. Hundreds of display bottles of whisky line the floor to the ceiling behind the bar on zigzagging slanted wooden slabs in a gradient of gold and glass. And at the end of the bar, Highland and Midland rocks three times the size of my head seemingly dangle from the walls overtop the musicians’ booth, looking like they will fall and break some bagpipes at any moment. Almost every patron in the bar either wears a “YES” pin on their collar or instead, exudes the essence of independence. In an aura of folk, mead, and family, I see how this moment vividly illustrates why Scots would view themselves as something completely separate from the English.

Through the percussion of the fifty pair of feet bouncing against the wooden pub floor, Louise pulls me towards a cheery, red-faced man, his eyes lit up and a beer in each hand.

“And this is my Glasgow-Uncle, Stef.” Louise embraces a white-haired man in his late 40s. “Hey, happy birthday to ya!”

“Thanks, Louise, y’er too sweet. And ’ello lads, welcome to the best fuckin’ place in all o’ Glasgow!” I hide my awe at the intense thickness of his accent. “Ye’ know, Louise is the best damn performer in this whole place! She’s going to be somebody someday—ye’r lucky that ye know ‘er.”

As Louise—bubbly and clearly, popular—traipses around the room hugging everybody instead of playing her fiddle, Stef begins naming all the people she embraces over the folk orchestra. “And that’s Joe, he fiddled for the Brave soundtrack!” Louise bounces across the crowd to a stoic fiddler, whose white smile contrasts her all black outfit. “That’s Libby McGugan, she’s a science-fiction writer, wrote this great one called The Eidolon or some shit, you just gotta look ‘er up!” Then, Louise approaches a young teen with bright red hair, swaying to his bagpipes. “That’s Allee! He’s from Orkney—the Island where Louise’s from—he’s only 16 that lad, but no one really pays attention to that here. We care more about his bagpipes than the drinking age, ya’know?”

At Midnight, Ben Nevis closes, and per tradition, the whole crew leaves for Bloc on Bath Street. We pile into Louise’s car, her on the right-side driver’s seat with me on her left, and Stef in the back of the car. Jeff Buckley comes on from Louise’s playlist, and Stef’s bass hums a sonorous tune:

Well maybe I’m just too young 
To keep good love from going wrong
Oh... lover, you should've come over 
'Cause it's not too late 

 

“Oh Jeffy, lad, what happened to ya?” Stef mourns between choruses. I raise my eyebrow at Louise in curiosity—Stef’s voice has a twinge of familiarity, he talks about him like a friend.

“Back in the day, Stef and Jeff used to be real good mates, used to sing and chill and stuff in New York City when they were young.”

“The night I met Jeff, I had the best shag of my life!” Through the rear-view, between his laughter I notice a bittersweet glint in Stef’s eyes, cheery from amusement yet nostalgic from some distant memory. “Man, he used to give me the best luck whene’er I was round ‘im, that first night we met that lassie locked me down! I couldn’t e’en move, lads! That girl could do something down there like no oth’r! That was Jeff’s luck awrite!"

Louise blindly waves her hand to the back of the car in protest. “Stef, just because it’s your damn birthday and because ye knew Jeff doesn’t mean ya get to tell this story for the hundredth time again! I’m sick of you and ye’r ‘American shag,’ we get it awrite ya old man, ye used to have charm!”

Outside Bloc, the familiar sound of music wafts through the doors as we enter. Low-lit by indigo with sleek wooden booths and high-rise tables spread around the room, Bloc appears more like a regular bar. What sets Bloc apart is that, every Monday morning, the crew puts down their fiddles and pipes for karaoke, singing modern tunes from midnight until three in the morning.

It is just passing 2:50AM and I’m realizing the Scotland I wanted was with the musicians.

Stef steps up for the final act, his birthday nocturne with Joe and Allee at his side on guitar and flute.

Well, it's a marvelous night for a moondance
With the stars up above in your eyes
A fantabulous night to make romance
'Neath the cover of October skies
And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow

And I'm trying to—uh, ah shit, fuck

La la la la da da da da   damnit  jesus Christ fuck Allee! what are the damn words!?

 

“Aw, fuck you guys, I’m a total wanker,” mutters Stef, shame and shock on his face. “I never do this, but I forgot the damn words…it’s my birthday, ye’ know. I’m pretty plastered, huh?”

All of Bloc erupts in laughter and immediately begins to roar a sympathetic Happy Birthday.

Through the shaking bellows of song, my eyes fixate on Louise and Stef, the spirit of Scotland so lucid within them. At three o’clock on a Monday morning, we coalesce with the blue haze of Bloc and the cradle of the chorus, letting the voices of Glasgow resonate in our ears. 

Wir Lieben Deutsche Bahn

Wir Lieben Deutsche Bahn

(published in the 11th Volume of Black Swan Cultural Magazine)

When I first boarded ICE train 623, people already lined the floors and open spaces of the Friday morning train to Oktoberfest, some in lederhosen and dirndls, others blissfully aloof to the whole scene. Some had kegs and beers, and others burned with looks of utter frustration. Passengers constantly shifted seats amidst the train, their plaid-shirts stained with beer. A disabled military vet, five men from the Dülkens stop, and a group of eight hotel accountants from Frankfurt all filed in the seats around me once the coach party settled down.

The gregarious Dülkens and the accountants became fast acquaintances even though they clearly had just met. At one of the stops a Dülkens man got off the train for a quick smoke break, and scrambled back on five minutes later, tailed by a furious conductor screaming at him. All of the group ducked into their seats and giggled quietly like fifth graders, trying to avert eye contact with the person in-charge.

Two of the Dülkens crammed into the empty seat next to me, inebriated and snickering, their blue-checkered lederhosen pushing me tight against the window.

“What is she yelling?” I whispered humoredly, avoiding looking up at the screaming conductor.

“He held up the train for 3 minutes because he was drunkenly blocking the door,” One of them answered, comically shaking his head in feigned shame. “If he does it again they’re going to kick him off.”

“Oktoberfest, man.” I cackled.

“Tell me, American,” the other leaned in, with a convivial grin across his face and vodka on his breath. “Why do you drive the train alone?”

At first, the men would speak to me in English, and then switch to German. The language barrier kept our conversations separate, having a dialogue with me, and then with the rest of their friends in the car. All five Dülkens men sat in the seats to my left and their new hotel accountant friends sat in front of me. But then, the military woman with the prosthetic leg seated behind the whole group joined in the conversation, revealing her strong Canadian accent. Helena, a 50-year old fluent in many languages due to her military assignment in Germany, became the link between the different groups. Now with her help—and her connective, motherly presence—the conversation became circular among our coach.

Through Helena’s translation, Marco and Christoph, the two Dülkens men sitting with me, lit up when they found out that they lived only about about 30 kilometers from where I studied in the Netherlands.

 “You have to go laser tagging with us in Venlo!” Marco happily slurred. Marco, an extremely welcoming person, had this grin that spread broadly from his lips to his red cheeks, his eyes creasing every time he laughed.

Christoph handed me a black, malformed plastic bottle with a janky red cap. “Drink this! Drink this!” His enthusiastic nod assured me it wasn’t poisonous, and my nostrils assured me it wasn’t gasoline but rather something mysteriously fruity. A cautious sip down and I knew it was two literyeger bomb: red bull and cheap vodka.

After the various conversations calmed from rowdiness to friendly curiosity, Christoph, Marco, and I faced Helena to ask about her military background. Helena proudly recounted how she had lost her leg to a hand grenade in training two days before being shipped off to Afghanistan. She had been on medical leave ever since, but hoped to go to Sudan when she made a recovery. Her eyes glowed, full of bravery—they showed no regret, only pride.

“You know, me and my son did basic training at the same exact time.” She told us so humbly, yet still powerful and fulfilled. “No one’s ever done that in Canada before us. And no one ever knew—we kept it a secret until graduation!”

She hadn’t started training until 45, when she left her job as a schoolteacher. “It was great, you know. But I felt so uninspired.

“I just got a change I wasn’t expecting.” She flatly said. “But I can’t change—and I wouldn’t change—where I am at now.”

 

The focus of the conversation turned again to the hotel accountants group. Helena, Christoph, Marco and I turned to one of them, Sandra, in the seats in front of us, who gave me three sandwiches and three beers when she heard I hadn’t eaten all day. Between salami sandwiches and cultural discussions, Sandra told us how travel changed her life.

“I think some people may never try to experience it…” She began, her eyes dreamily drifting out over the open hills of Bavaria. “But there is nothing like it—to leave home…To see the world and all it has to offer. To travel alone—that is when I learned to love home.”

“And you meet people like these!” Helena, chimed in behind us, looking over the community. Her eyes glowed like a mother’s, with her innate love for those in her world evident.

“Even if they’re drunken idiots like him!” Christoph smiled, pointing to Marco as he danced to German pop, spinning a ribbon dance baton he lifted from a Swiss kid in Coach 26.

As I feasted on free sandwiches, Marco and Christoph brought me down the aisles and introduced me to the rest of their friends They paraded around, saying in German guttural voices, “This is Evan from Philadelphia! He lives 30 minutes off the 83 bus from Venlo! Lazer tag next week! He studies in Boston! An! American!”

 

Later, as the train pulled in, Marco and Sandra decided teach me some German before we parted ways.

“Let’s teach him the article song, Marco!” Sandra’s eyes lit up in a playful intensity.

Marco began to sing the first verse, and everyone chimed in immediately.

Der, Die, Das!
Wer, Wie, Was!
wieso, weshalb, warum,
wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm
Tausend tolle Sachen
die gibt es überall zu sehen
manchmal muss man fragen
um sie zu verstehen!

Bavaria’s faded gold and amber trees and foggy hills flew by at 200 kilometers per hour as we caroled about German grammar, fifteen new friends on the train from Dusseldorf to Munich. All around, we roared in merriment as we sang the children’s jingle from the German Sesamestraße. Christoph had his arm draped around my waist, woozily leaning on me for support. In between verses, Marco screamed “All Hail DeutscheBahn!” as he handed out shots to his friends. Sandra led the jumping chorus and Helena smiled contently from her seat.

As we sang, I thought of how I had come on this train alone expecting to absorb Germany’s landscape for the first time in silence; to take in the South’s rolling hills and see how the Black Forest turned golden as it transitioned into autumn.

When all of us in our car had exchanged sandwiches, language, culture, and our e-mails, I realized that I had found something altogether different. For that moment, we all hooted and warbled and drank like some big family reunion, like we all spoke the same language, like we all hadn’t met four hours before.

 

 

Native Beneath the Nomad, and my First Weekend in Europe

Native Beneath The Nomad

“Hallo!” A cluster of ashy-haired Dutchmen catcalled at us as we sauntered into Reality Café & Bar on Reguliersdwarsstraat. Despite our entry to the bar having no forethought, we sifted through the mass of fifty year-old gay Dutchmen, heads high, walking with purpose, acting like we belonged.

Jackie, Emma, and I beelined for the bar with feigned confidence, suppressing the urge to laugh or to run or to show our discomfort. As I felt the cramped air and the dense falling sweat misting through the bar, humid on my skin, Jackie’s humored voice rings above the clamor. “Yep! This. Is. It! Exactly it.” Jackie punctuates every word in a staccato sarcasm; she’s the type of girl who considers being in a bar of old gay men to be a funny story for the kids, rather than terribly uncomfortable.

Reality Bar was not the bar we were looking for, as Jackie’s wit pointed out. The place radiated a vibe much older than we were pressed for, so we all downed a shot of jäger and rushed out of there.

 

Setting out for the gay street, Reguliersdwarsstraat, was our first attempt at free exploration of Europe. Our research told us it had a scene for everybody: bars for guys-into-black-guys, for young-guys-into-old-guys, chill-guys-into-chill-guys—the street should have had a good environment for all gays. Our run-in with Amsterdam’s Finest Dutch Daddies at Reality Bar failed to be our spot, so we found our way to a straight bar Jantjes Verjaardag to get some advice. The bartender, Ro, with his bangs gelled in ridges straight to the back of his head, sold us some drinks and sent us five minutes further down the street. “The good gay bars are five minutes down the road,” he told us, and then with a wry grin pointed across the street at Reality Bar, “I think there it’s a little more your scene than them.”

Our group of three straight guys, three straight girls, and three gay guys searched for something better along Reguliersdwarsstraat. We headed down past Vijzelstraat and Muntplein, crossing under an elaborate stone archway abuzz with tourists in polo shirts with collars popped. Down the road I absorbed the echoes of mirth and youth bounding off the brick buildings, and as we rounded the corner, my eyes widened at an enormous crowd of strictly handsome 20-somethings.

Amsterdam proves again and again to be a city of firsts for so many, and before my first travel weekend in Europe, I had never stepped into a mass of gay people openly gathered like this. Flirtation in many languages, ultra-tight shirts and eyes jauntily shifting in every direction: a rush of excitement shot through me as I felt myself making eye contact and being sized up by all different types of men.

As the bass from Club Nyx reverberated across the street, we slipped past a man in a gold speedo with a feather boa and ended up in another called bar SoHo. it appeared more laid-back, I hyperventilated a little at the sight of all the attractive 20-somethings, shoulders-sitting low, beers in their hands and powwowing around the bar. “EMMA!” I yelled, jerking at her arm. “I have never seen so many normal attractive gay men in one place in my entire life!” I emphatically spat out with cheesy-ass smirk on my face. It seemed unbelievable: men and women, straights and gays, all gabbed and roared with laughter, sitting placidly all around with wine and beer and merely enjoying the company of their friends.

             The predatory American gay bars my friends from home tell me about just did not compare to this: here, I felt the warm simplicity of being somewhere you belong with people who are important to you. Comfort came to me in a gay bar full of foreigners, a place I never believed I could feel so at ease. 

 

The next day, I trekked alone to Jordaan to stop at the 40th Jordaan Festival, a yearly celebration of Amsterdam’s folk music tradition. Again I was among a crowd, this time all gleefully intoxicated Dutch men and women of all ages rather than gay 20-somethings.

A female singer, Antje Monteiro, took the stage to sing her song “Butterflies” and the crowd lit up, drinking their Amstel and cheering unintelligible drunken Dutch. As the mob swallowed me up and shoved me around, I took that as my cue to go meet my roommates a few minutes north.

As I walked to the tram, two women came up to me and yelled “PHOTO!” at the sight of my camera and started talking to me in Dutch.

“Sorry?” I murmured, smiling when I saw that their eyes read my Americanness.

“’Is it free?’ is what we asked.” The red-haired one translated.

“Of course!” I laughed. “Just come right here.”

For the photo, they hugged each other real big and glowed with genuine geniality.

“Why are you alone, American?” The brown-haired one asked with inquisitive care. 

They looked about my mother’s age, so I felt open with them. “Just wanted to get away. Jordaan seemed like a great place to get lost.”

“Well, you picked the right place, definitely. We’re from Amsterdam and this is the place to be!” The red-haired one beamed at me. “But this Festival is more fun with friends! Why don’t you come with us? We’ll buy you a drink, head with us to the festival!”

“Thank you!” I told them. “But I’m on my way out to meet my roommates.”

“Dank je wel!” I shot them a wave and turned to catch the 4 tram back up towards Westermarkt to meet Carter and Ian.

As I sat on the tram, gazing at the hanging holiday lights adorning the bridges over the Prisengracht, the same feeling of familiarity from SoHo lingered in my chest at the invitation of these two natives. It was a mere simple gesture, but it appealed to the native buried beneath the nomad, the American who craves the comfort of his family, his friends, his home.

The sun had long-set on the canals. As the yellow of the streetlights hovered across the muted ebb of the Keizersgracht, I let my mind wander across the ocean for the first time since leaving; memories of summer flashed into my head. In gay bars and at Dutch festivals, the solace of what lay 3,750 miles away seemed in arm’s length.