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Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day
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Offbeat history and life lessons from the beaten path
lived to tell the tale
Yep, that's really me in Nigg, Scotland, the next morning. Rockin' the sandals-with-socks look like a truly stylish teenager.
Seven Travel Rules From a Brooding Teenager
Creepy, remote Highland towns
Sea monsters as supper
Totally rational (okay, not at all rational) phobias
You are lost and on your way to some-place that apparently does not actually exist.
You have seen rather too many episodes of "The X-Files." You wonder if Scottish aliens wear kilts.
As it happens, oil rigs are a peculiar phobia of yours.
The American Adolescent Male can learn a lot about travel during a trip to see Scotland and its piles of rocks.
Published on WORLD HUM.com >> September 2007
Rule 1: If you are 18 years old and traveling with your parents, you will not be happy with their selection of a destination.
You are in Scotland, a country that, as your parents do not seem to understand, has neither sun-drenched beaches (see: Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Crete) nor interesting sights (see: Paris, Venice, Barcelona) nor thrilling, EXTREME!!! experiences that, according to television commercials, are your birthright, as an American Adolescent Male, to participate in (see: bungee-jumping in New Zealand, going on safari in Kenya, rafting the Grand Canyon).
Scotland, instead, offers piles of rocks. That should be its slogan, you are starting to think: “Come to Scotland, We’ve Got Rocks!” Technically, these are considered ruins, although after a few dozen treks through fields thick with heather and/or sheep dung, you are wondering if they were ever castles at all, or if the farmers are given government funding to erect piles of rocks in their fields, the way American farmers get subsidies for corn. It is all a massive scam, you conclude, perpetrated by the Scottish Tourism Ministry.
You, the savvy 18-year-old, have caught on. You have noticed that all of the historic markers say the same thing: “On this site in 14-whatever, Andrew McWhatever fought a courageous battle against blah blah blah.” To be fair, occasionally the text varies. Sometimes his name is Robert McWhatever, or Magnus.
Also, the wizened old men who emerge from the fog to guide you around the piles of rocks all seem to be culled from the same casting center. They have 4.5 teeth, thick beards and impenetrable brogues, which they use to disguise the fact that their script is the same one you heard an hour earlier.
“Oh, aye,” they always begin, which you think means, “Oh, yes.” After that, you’re not sure what they’re saying. Then again, you aren’t really listening—you’ve already heard this story five times since breakfast.
Rule 2: The less things go according to plan, the more you will act according to cliché and stereotype.
Not only are you not in a sunny/interesting/EXTREME!!! locale, you are lost and on your way to someplace that apparently does not, technically speaking, actually exist.
You are on the outskirts of Inverness, heading to a town called Nigg, which does not appear on your map. As you drive into the mists, which the Scottish Tourism Ministry, Highlands, Glens & Lochs Division, has cranked up to “Extra-Ominous,” your family conforms to the appropriate clichés:
- The proud, professorial father, too stubborn to even think about asking someone for directions.
- The put-upon mother, flustered and frustrated and eager to broker peace between the feuding factions within the vehicle, but even more eager to find some food and a bed already.
- And in the back seat, you and your sister, the eye-rolling kids (though you are no longer children—you are finally done with high school and gym class and prom, and you therefore consider yourselves adults) making quiet smart-ass remarks about your parents’ lack of planning.
You comment to yourself that perhaps the nice lady at the tourist office confused legend or literature with reality: Maybe we should have asked her if Nigg is near Brigadoon. You are fairly certain that you are going to end up spending the night in one of the piles of rocks your parents adore so much. You hope that the nearby sheep will not snore too loudly.
Rule 3: You will not always appreciate travel advice when you are sleep-deprived, under-nourished and lost.
You are still somewhat jet-lagged and afflicted with lingering nausea from the “Full Scottish Breakfast” at the B&B—runny eggs served with rare meats of unknown provenance, cold toast and oozing circles of scarlet that may have been tomatoes or possibly stewed jellyfish. (Of course, if you had gone to Paris, you could have feasted on pastries instead.) The ever-increasing prospect that your next meal will be roadkill with a side of heather has only soured your already-gloomy disposition.
Your parents attempt to lighten the mood in the car by pointing out sheep, placed by the side of the road—or, even more drolly, on the road—at regular intervals by the Scottish Tourism Ministry, Sheep Division. You find this only slightly more interesting than the piles of rocks, though as an adult, you do not say so out loud.
Instead, you brood. Your sister broods. It is a silent duet of brooding. Every now and then, one of the two of you mutters, oh-so-dryly, “Are we there yet?”
This comment is inevitably followed by some pithy piece of reassurance, couched as long-term, life-lesson travel advice, something like, “Part of the fun of travel is the sudden changing of plans and getting lost and the serendipity of it all! ... Look, a pile of rocks! Let’s stop!”
You would rather be lost in Barcelona. Or Paris. Or anywhere else.
Rule 4: Do not watch horror movies featuring people getting lost if you are about to embark on a trip.
As you make your way toward Nigg (or Brigadoon), you ponder a movie you saw two weeks earlier, back in the cozy confines of your hometown. It was called “The Blair Witch Project,” and though you know it was fiction, some of your friends swear it was not, and in either case, it was really frickin’ disturbing.
You note that your parents have not seen this film, and wonder if doing so might have changed their minds about going someplace weird and remote and full of enchantment and ghosts.
When the mists finally lift, and you discover that you have arrived, somehow, in an actual—tiny, but actual—town called Nigg, you are reminded of other movies, and realize that this place was probably erected by the Scottish Tourism Ministry, Mystery & Creepiness Division.
There is, for example, an industrial-looking area of unknown purpose surrounded by an endless stretch of barbed wire-topped chain link fence. The Area 51 of Scotland. You have seen rather too many episodes of “The X-Files.” You wonder if Scottish aliens wear kilts.
And then you spot the hotel, just a corpse-throw down the road. It is right on the waterfront, near the mouth of Cromarty Firth, and both the structure and the water seem vaguely sinister in their banality, almost too placid and non-threatening. The same could be said, you note, of the Bates Motel.
You search your mind for horror movies set in Barcelona, and think of none. You could be sitting on a veranda right now. Eating tapas. It would be warm and sunny and there would be no threat that the caber toss event at the next Highland Games would feature your body as a substitute projectile.
Rule 5: After a long day of travel, you will be so hungry you’ll eat pretty much anything placed in front of you.
The quick-thinking folks at the Scottish Tourism Ministry, Cultural Stereotypes Division, the same ones who supply the kilt-wearing old men at historic sites, provide you with a reassuringly friendly innkeeper, a middle-aged chap with a reddish beard and a haggard but kindly look in his eyes.
With scripted hospitality, he says that yes, they have rooms. And, yes, they have a restaurant—the only one in town, so you’ll certainly be eating there. And, yes, though it is late, they will be happy to keep the kitchen open to serve you.
The staff turns out to be composed entirely of the same man and his wife, who moves with the assistance of a walker, to which a bicycle horn is affixed.
The innkeeper/waiter/sous chef explains that all of the seafood was caught that very day in the very waters you see outside the window, a fact that only heightens your fears. (What if these fish have become mutants, due to proximity to the Area 51-like place, and are just waiting to burst from your gut like that thing in “Alien”?) Your companions, too hungry for such deeply intelligent realizations, order platters of fresh-caught monsters of the deep.
You opt for the one genuinely innocuous-sounding item available: chicken fillets.
Many minutes and a few horn-honks later, you have your meals: one platter of processed poultry, with three sauces for dipping, and three plates heaped with fish and mussels and seemingly all manner of marine life. The four of you eye each other warily, giving a silent challenge to the others to be the first to dig in.
The first bites prove non-lethal and ... what is that word? Your mind, mired in doom and gloom, cannot quite grasp it. Oh, right: Delicious.
Conversation gives way to a quiet chorus of chewing and slurping and mumbled superlatives. The bickering and eye-rolling of the last few hours drift off with the tide.
Rule 6: Good food can help you overcome even the strangest of maladies.
A quick peek outside as you waddle back to your rooms reveals an impressive view: the industrial site is lit up, with towers of scaffolding creating a massive, imposing Christmas tree. During dinner, your host told you about his neighbor, removing the mystery but none of the awe. This is a construction site for oil rigs.
As it happens, oil rigs are a peculiar phobia of yours—the very sight of them induces mild nausea. Frankly, you don’t find this reaction the least bit irrational: They are, after all, a uniquely terrifying recipe for disaster that combines all the fun of enclosed spaces, dizzying heights, raging seas and monstrous machinery.
So despite the surprisingly-tasty meal and the fact that you should be reassured by the claim that the manufacturing facility is creating oil rigs rather than, say, UFOs or nuclear weapons, you still don’t feel entirely at ease.
Yet you can’t stop staring at it. Perhaps it is the chemicals in the chicken fillets finally getting to your brain, but you are entranced. As you gaze at the shimmering structure through the otherwise inky black of night, it slowly transforms itself, becoming less “Towering Inferno,” more Eiffel Tower.
Rule 7: Never admit that your parents were right.
You fall asleep in upbeat spirits, realizing that, alas and again, your parents had a valid point: Travel is more fun, more fulfilling, when you explore a little, get lost, get off the map and out of your comfort zone. Of course, you will never admit out loud that they were right. That could be dangerous: You are going to college soon, at which point they will have all kinds of additional advice, and you do not want to encourage them.
As you dream of the journeys ahead, a knock on the door wakes you. “Put on your shoes and come outside,” comes your father’s voice. The innkeeper, before he laid down for some well-deserved rest, alerted your parents that an oil rig was heading out to sea. Right now, don’t miss it. Half-asleep, you shuffle outdoors.
A skyscraper is passing in the channel in front of you, slowly pulled by two tugboats, inching through the water with astonishing grace and resplendence. Everything about it seems epic and magnificent. Maybe this place is enchanted after all, though in a way you hadn’t expected: Here is the high-tech offspring of the Loch Ness Monster and Godzilla, putting on a spectacular show for an audience of four. Clearly, this has been provided by the Scottish Tourism Ministry, “Take That, Know-It-All Punk Kid” Division.
There is nowhere else you would rather be at this moment. But of course you do not say so.