I am a native in this world And think in it as a native thinks

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday bird blogging

A house sparrow by Loch Lomond.  Thousands of miles away, and the birds in the hedge outside my room were the same as the birds in the trees outside my bedroom in New York.

At least in the British Isles they're regarded merely as common; here, they're considered imported interlopers that barely qualify as birds. I have always had a ridiculous fondness for them (one of many reasons why I will never be a serious birdwatcher) since they are part of the reason I became interested in birds at all.

Six years ago, I was juggling a hugely stressful job with being a long-distance caretaker for my elderly mother in San Francisco when I began to have my own health issues: ulcers, severe anemia, migraines. After I had fainted one time too many in the office, my going out on disability started to seem like a very good idea to everyone in the vicinity, and I abruptly found myself at home, ill and alone.

You don't realize how much the structure of a job keeps you going until it isn't there anymore. I was really sick; I definitely needed to take some time and get better, but sometimes I felt as though there was nothing to hold me together and I was going to melt away like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.

I read, I watched tv, I did the crossword puzzle in the Times every day, I went to doctor after doctor for test upon test. I spent days barely able to get out of bed, and lying there, looking out the window, I started to notice the birds.

Mostly little brown birds that the guidebook I ordered informed me were house sparrows, but also starlings and crows and mourning doves and blue jays. One morning I watched a crow eating a pigeon on a nearby roof, while a pair of blue jays were flirting angrily on my fire escape: life in a microcosm, it felt like.

Mostly the sparrows kept me entertained. They hopped around the trees, yacking excitedly, yanking out the young leaves, reminding me of teenagers having a party while the parents were away. And at the same time they're somehow so alien. When you watch birds closely they seem far closer to reptiles than to mammals, and sometimes they barely seem terran. They are so strange and so beautiful, all around us, but nothing like us. And yet, I often think they saved me during that awful spring because they were so alive and that life was something to hold onto.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday reflections

Plus bonus bird blogging!

A mallard in Luss watches me taking her picture.  You can see me reflected in her eye.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Welcome to the working week

If you're out of luck and out of work, you too can be a trainee bus driver in the murder capital of Europe. With free family travel and earning potential of $32K!

I think the Pow! and the Kaboom!  and the Blam! on this poster are meant to convey how exciting an opportunity this is, but it just makes me think drivers are required to chauffeur the Joker and the Penguin around Gotham City.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday bird blogging

A robin in Luss.

Not a very clear picture, but the only one I managed to get of the only robin I saw.

European robins aren't even close relatives to the American robin, but the red-bellied thrushes we call robins supposedly reminded early settlers of this bird.

Robins are probably the first bird I ever learned to identify, and they're one of the most common birds I see in Central Park, so it's odd to have the word suddenly mean a completely different animal.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday geometries

The upper platform, Queen Street Station, Glasgow.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Welcome to the working week

Construction workers in the New Town, Edinburgh.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sunday bird blogging

A barn swallow at Loch Lomond. They liked to hang out on the deck railings, and there were usually one or two to keep me company while I read or just watched the loch.

The shots below aren't as clear but you can see the tail feathers that give swallows that tuning fork shape when they fly.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Saturday geometries

Girders of the Forth Bridge, a railway bridge connecting Edinburgh with Fife.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Welcome (back) to the working week

Platform at the Queen Street Station in Glasgow.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday bird blogging

Was it something I said?

A gull, lesser black-backed or maybe yellow-legged, who knows, offering a vivid editorial comment in Luss, Scotland.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Faces of Glasgow


Actually, I picked this photo as a joke, since so many people had warned me about how dangerous Glasgow is.

And I'm sure it's true if you're wandering in the wrong neighborhoods after dark. But in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day, it was a lot less scary than many places I've been.

I left my luggage at the train station and spent an afternoon having lunch, visiting the very interesting Gallery of Modern Art, and people-watching on Buchanan Street. There's nothing overtly charming about Glasgow, but on the other hand, it isn't overrun with tourists either. It's a little drab, Northern European, more like Dublin than Edinburgh.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


Even for the British Isles, the weather in Loch Lomond has been remarkably indecisive. It's not just that it drizzles, then the sun comes out, then the rain pours down, all in the space of fifteen minutes; frequently it does all of them at the same time. More than once when I was out walking around in my plastic rain poncho, I'd be sweating from the sun beating down on me, but I couldn't take the stupid thing off because I was also being rained on. This morning I was sitting on my deck looking at a magazine when the sound of rain made me look up. It was raining, rather hard, on the deck next to me, but I was still dry, apart from the occasional ricochet.

I haven't actually read much since I've been here, and I haven't bought a paper or turned on the TV, because I'm finding the weather more than enough entertainment. The endless parade of microclimates, the light peeking through, growing, and then suddenly vanishing, the way the fields to my left can be bathed in sunlight while in front of me it's raining -- sometimes it actually makes me laugh out loud.

And the midges, by the way, seem to be bothered even less by the rain than I am.

Wild kingdom

Loch Lomond may be the most ridiculously idyllic place I've ever been. As I sit on my deck I can watch ducks and gulls on the loch, while a hedge full of sparrows chirps away. Plus a family of swans out for a swim. Plus bunnies.

Coach House

A special thank-you to the Coach House Coffee & Tea shop. I went in there for tea this morning and asked for a scone, but they were still in the oven.

Late this afternoon, after a long hike around the neighborhood in the rain and the sun and the rain and the sun but mostly the rain, I went back for more tea and again asked for a scone, only to be told they were sold out. I was so disappointed! It was my last day in Loch Lomond and I had really, really been wanting that scone.

But when my tea came, there was a scone with it after all. "There was one hiding in the bottom of the basket," explained the waitress. And it was definitely one of the best scones I'd ever had, with cream and a nicely tart red jam.

Their tartan tea set is charming too. After less than a week in Scotland I was already overdosing on tartan: tartan curtains, tartan carpets, tartan ceilings. I've always thought a little bit of plaid goes a very very long way, and there's no such thing as a little bit of tartan in Scotland. But I loved this mug and pitcher; even if only because I was chilled and it was full of hot tea.

A not-so-hairy coo

A cow outside Luss stalks over to confront the chick with the camera.

I love how the grass stalk dangling from the mouth and the expression on the cow's face look like an audition for a bovine version of West Side Story. With the ear tags as gang colors.

Oh that magic feeling -- nowhere to go

The village of Luss is just down the road from the Lodge on Loch Lomond, where I'm staying. It consists of a couple of streets of flower-covered stone cottages, a rocky beach and a pier on the loch, two tearooms, and a parking lot and visitor center for accessing the hiking/biking trails.

Apart from using the hiking trails, or having some tea, or going for a speedboat ride on the loch, there is absolutely nothing to do here. It's perfect.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Under the rainbow

The weather changed every few minutes. It was mostly gray and misty, with brief downpours and even briefer flashes of sun.

But I never mind a little rain, especially if it's followed by rainbows over Scottish lochs.

Ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road

I left Edinburgh for Loch Lomond this morning. The good weather had vanished and it was pouring. The cab driver who took me to the train station said he thought those three days were it for summer. I told him I was going to Loch Lomond and he roared with laughter. "The weather's even worse there!" Then he shrugged. "At least when it rains, there's no midges."

The actual getting to Loch Lomond was a little challenging. I'd checked the transportation options before I left New York, and I knew that Balloch was as far as I could go by train, and that I probably had to change trains in Glasgow. I bought a ticket to Balloch from one of the machines, then asked the customer service people which train I should take.

That was quite the head-scratcher. Three different people considered the question, and the consensus was that I should just take the train right over there to Glasgow and ask again when I got there. "The lads in Glasgow will know where you go," one man told me. "This train goes to Queen Street Station and you'll need to go to the Central Station but it's just across the street. Then ask them which is the train to Balloch."

So an hour or so later I got off in Glasgow and found that the Central Station was not exactly "across the street." It was a ten-minute bus ride, but the bus came quickly and was free and I figured this gave me a chance to see a little of the Murder Capital of Europe.

And the lads at the Central Station were indeed able to help me -- they told me to go outside and take the free bus back to Queen Street Station.

The Scots sound so charming when they're giving you bad information that it's impossible to get irritated. Besides, if I hadn't made the unnecessary detour to Central Station I wouldn't have seen this lovely facade. Or these interesting windows across the street.

So finally I was on the local train to Balloch, and after thirty or forty stops (only a mild exaggeration) I was there!

Which appeared to be, at first glance, nowhere. A platform, an empty ticket office, and a few houses. I knew there was a Loch Lomond visitor's center, and water taxis to Luss, and buses, but there were no signs indicating where they might be. And I didn't feel like dragging my luggage around looking for them.

Fortunately a taxi appeared and the very nice driver promptly agreed to take me the last ten miles to my hotel. At least, I'm assuming he was nice because he appeared when I needed him and he took me where I wanted to go. But though he chatted most of the way, I only understood maybe one word in ten he said.

So after all that, could the very expensive room with the deck overlooking the loch possibly be worth it?

Yes. Definitely yes.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I fart in your general direction

The final stop on the tour was Doune Castle, completely undistinguished and unimportant except that Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed there. (Basically, whenever they needed a castle, this was the one they used.)

The first time I saw that movie was with several friends, including my boyfriend at the time. I think that relationship was probably doomed anyway, but the fact that he didn't think the movie was funny was the death blow.

Baby coos

I took these two shots with my Blackberry, so I could email the pictures back home, and they're not as clear.

But I liked the photos, so I'm including them anyway. Children of any species are always irresistible.

At last, the coos!

The cattle weren't in the first few places we looked, but finally Russell pulled up next to a fence, and at the far end of a field were several cows, calves and a bull. He honked the horn and they came -- not running, these are very large animals and they take their sweet time -- but you could definitely sense that they knew something delicious was available and they wanted in.

We fed them sliced bread, and oh, how they loved it! There was eye-rolling, there was head-butting, there was suggestive licking of empty hands. Suddenly everyone on the bus was a six year old, squealing and laughing and grabbing more bread to feed the cows. (Russell said they used to feed them fruits and vegetables, but one day when they hadn't been able to buy any, they resorted to bread and now the cattle refuse to eat anything else.)

The real stars were these little calves. Check out the long white eyelashes.

Old growth


After lunch, we went into the park and the Queen Elizabeth Forest, miles and miles of mountain, loch and forest.

There's been an effort for many years to reverse the deforestation of Scotland, but lumber is still a big industry, and so many of the new trees that are planted are imports, because the native species take three or four times as long to mature, and no one wants to wait that long. You can tell the new plantings immediately -- hundreds of trees of the same species, the same height, climbing the slopes like good little soldiers.

As opposed to the beautiful messiness of the old growth above.

Lakes and lochs

There is a reason why Loch Achray (the two pictures on the right) is a loch but the Lake of Menteith (above left) is a lake, and Russell explained it to us, but I've already forgotten. (I have managed to remember that Loch Drunkie was named because smugglers used to hide barrels of whisky in the water and some inevitably leaked out.) It doesn't matter. They're all beautiful.


We had lunch in Aberfoyle, a village on the edge of the Trossachs National Park. There's a pub and a coffee shop, and Russell recommended a deli that made an excellent steak and onion sandwich.

I was intrigued by this little sweet shop, despite the truly horrible baby on an ice cream cone statue outside. I know what fudge and macaroons are, but tablet? Lucky tatties? Old fashioned boilings? I bought some tablet, which turns out to be similar to New Orleans style pralines, without the nuts. Tatties and boilings will have to wait for my next visit to Scotland.

By the time we regrouped, it was raining steadily, and I got this atmospheric picture of the Forth River in the mists.

The heather on the hill

If you don't get the reference, that's a song from Brigadoon, which seems much less silly and hokey once you're actually out in the countryside.

The heather doesn't flower until later in the summer, but it was surprising how much purple there is in the mountains already -- thistles, and these lavender blossoms which are everywhere. It must be amazing, greens and purples everywhere, when the heather's in bloom.

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