Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Memories of Orkney

Facebook has been reminding me of my trip to Orkney last year, and I have realised that I never wrote up this story although I shared pictures on the go. Staying at home with slim chances of travel in the observable future, it may be a good idea to re-live the experience. I will use my travel diary, but inevitably add reflections from today's vantage point.

It all started five years ago when I made acquaintance with an Orcadian at a conference. Of course I knew vaguely about the existence of remote islands off the northern shores of Scotland, but they hadn't really been on my list of places to visit. Talking to this colleague got me fascinated, particularly as she mentioned Island Studies. Imagine, there was a discipline called Island Studies! I have always been intrigued by islands of all kinds and sizes, although I don't perceive Great Britain as an island. Many years ago when I studied Scandinavian languages I considered specialising in Faeroe Islands and becoming a unique expert in all things Faeroese: language, history, culture, even politics. It didn't happen, but some twenty years ago I was invited to Faeroe Islands to lecture – sadly it clashed with another commitment. In Sweden, I have been to many islands, large and small. I went to Iceland twice. I visited Madagascar some years ago. I wandered on Inis Mor off Ireland's west coast when I was at a conference in Galway. There is something special about islands – I have written an academic paper on the topic.

Listening to my new colleague triggered my imagination, and of course like you do at conferences she invited me to come and give a talk. Then we forgot about it. Or almost. Every now and then I looked up Orkney and considered a self-guided trip, but it always felt intimidating, and there was always something in the way. Two years ago there was a conference in Orkney that I wanted to attend, but it clashed with another conference I was running. Last spring I realised that I would be moving away from the UK soon, and it was now or never. Self-guided still felt daunting, and I checked travel agents for small-group walking tours with reasonable comfort. All trips were unsurprisingly fully booked except one space in the end of May and a couple in September. September seemed too far away, and I am glad I didn't opt for that since by September I had already moved back to Sweden. End of May is still term time, and I was not supposed to be away from Cambridge during term time, but I decided that if I told my students discreetly that I wouldn't be able to meet them for supervisions for a week we could keep it between ourselves. I booked the trip, paying in full since it was less than a month in advance. I wanted a single room, but it wasn't available, and I had to accept it, booking last-minute. That last space seemed like destiny.

As I have mentioned some times before, I am not good at preparing for travel when it comes to reading guidebooks, but this time I wanted to make the most of it so I started, as you do, by trying amazon and getting 600 hits. It felt hopeless so I asked my Orcadian friend for recommendations. The best was The Orkney Tapestry, by George Mackey Brown, a book worth reading regardless. It provided more or less everything essential I needed to know about my destination, while also being deeply personal and engaging.

I read the travel agent's brochure and studied various maps. Orkney consists of seventy islands, and we were supposed to visit several. It was exciting. It was right in the middle of a very difficult period in my life, and I was looking forward to a break far, far away from everything and offline. I was tremendously anxious about travelling on my own, among strangers. I had done it dozens of times in the past, but recently I had preferred company, just to be on the safe side. I do have a condition, and I am not young anymore. I was, however, confident that I was in good physical shape after extensive power walking.

The trip started in Inverness, and I first considered taking the night train, but I didn't want to run a risk of not sleeping properly and be tired in the morning. So I booked a B&B in Inverness, arriving in the evening and having a good rest. In the morning I walked to the station, worrying that I wouldn't find my guide. I always worry about silly things like that. I was hugely worried about the crossing because guidebooks said it could be rough, and I have bad experience of rough seas.

I found the guide and my travel companions, just eight of us. I was going to share a room with one of them, and while we drove up to John O'Groats, I looked at them, hoping that my roommate would be nice. People going on demanding walking holidays are usually nice.

To be continued. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Re-reading Catch 22

I had no memory of this novel at all, although I know I read it all those years and years ago. Of course I know what “catch 22” means, and I had some vague memories of pilots having to fly more and more missions, but I am not sure whether I remembered it from the book or from the film. I know for sure that I remembered the most gory detail from the film and was waiting for it to turn up in the book. It did, at the very end. I don't know whether the knowledge spoiled my reading experience.

I am confident that I didn't understand anything of the novel when I read it fifty years ago, and as with most books on my re-reading list, I wonder how much I bluffed then. The plot is non-existent, and at that time plot was more important than anything else. The book is exceptionally repetitive, and an inexperienced reader – as I was then – would certainly get bored, unaware that repetition is the most prominent and of course deliberate narrative device. It is used in conjunction with another powerful device: omission, or paralipsis, to use a fancy word. The same episode is told over and over again, each time slightly differently and each time omitting the most significant detail that would explain everything that is going on. How clever! It also employs an intricate temporality as events follow upon each other randomly, as deviations, by association, connected solely by a reminiscence, or even without any tangible connection at all. Each chapter seemingly focuses on a secondary or sometimes completely peripheral character, and only in hindsight do we understand why the story had to be told at all. If I were still an active academic I would write an article on this novel and include it in my courses. Not as a war novel, but as an example of exquisite storytelling.

However, the greatest surprise to me was that the novel is so wonderfully hilarious. Of course I remembered, more from criticism than from actual reading, that it was a satire on war. Yet a satire is not necessarily funny, and the novel is. I don't often laugh outloud when I read, but I did. Pity nobody was listening except my cats. I would almost claim that Catch 22 is the twentieth-century reply to Alice in Wonderland with its twisted logic and magnificent wordplay. Maybe this is the only possible way to write about the horrors of war.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Reflections on virtual travel

It is hard to believe that as recently as ten weeks ago I was still hoping to be able to travel to Spain and walk Camino del Norte in the second week of May.

The idea to do the walk virtually was spontaneous, so I hadn't prepared as thoroughly as I should have. To be fair, I don't always do my homework before travel which means I probably miss interesting things to see and do. This time, the focus was on walking the distance I would have walked on the Camino, even though I could not achieve the same climbs. But I also wanted some experience of the place, even though second-hand, so I re-watched The Way and watched some Youtube videos to get into the mood. The Way was what made me want to do the walk in the first place, and the reason I watched it some years ago was that I learned that a cousin of mine, who was the last person I would expect to go on search for spirituality, walked the whole of it at one go and has been doing it again and again ever since. I have no faith, so this aspect of the Camino does not mean anything to me, and until recently I wasn't a walker at all. I started walking with the Ramblers in Cambridge after I heard a friend of mine share her adventures with an international Rambler group somewhere in France, not the Camino. I discovered that walking was something that, next to gardening, was the best healing for body and mind, and since then I cannot imagine my life without regular walking. These days I am amused thinking back at how proud I was having walked 3 km in Milton Country Park. I have so far walked 540 km this year.

Back to Camino, the virtual Camino. I explored the route, planned my own daily walks, read some travel sites, watched videos. Of course, it is not the same as doing the real thing. But in the current situation, doing it virtually is still better than not doing it at all. And we may be doing more virtual travel in the future. I believe VR will be invaluable. I am surprised that it hasn't become more popular these days, although I have read some explanations why. But technology is developing at incredible pace, and I am sure more and more destinations will be available in satisfactory ways. I have cut down on travel substantially in the past few years, and I will be happy to keep it to a minimum if I can get a somewhat adequate experience of places I want to visit. I may even visit places I have never intended to visit, such a climbing Kilimanjaro or crossing Antarctica.

In other words, first lesson learned: even though it was not the real experience, it was interesting, valuable and exciting in itself, not just as poor compensation.

On my last day, I finally had company. A friend back in Cambridge suggested we walk-along, and here is how we did it. I knew where she would be walking, and I sent her a map of my nature reserve with my route marked. We connected on WhatsApp and started walking, exchanging photos and observations on the go. What we could have done, if we were emulating Camino, would be checking where we would have been up there and looking up facts and pictures, but it would probably be too much. In the evening, we cooked the same local meal. Once again, not the real thing, but better than nothing. I will certainly do it again, with or without a virtual route.

Cooking local food was a huge boost. I always like to try local food when I travel, even if it is jellied cockroach (in South Korea) so I would definitely be eating the exciting Basque and Cantabrian dishes. Learning the difference between tapas and pintxos was illuminating, and I think I will include pintxos in my habitual cooking. I like cooking, but I am rather conservative so it was liberating to try something completely different and find it palatable. It wasn't so much the ingredients as the methods, and I now want to learn more. So this was a side effect. Attending a cookery school was a part of my retirement visions, and now I see that I don't have to travel or even leave my home. I know this option has been available all along, but like with so many other things, you need a push.

Did I find what I was looking for? Since I have no idea what I would have found on the real trip, it's hard to say. If I was looking for a way to make up for the canceled trip, I believe I was highly successful.

What can I recommend to a potential virtual traveler, based on my experience? Firstly, perhaps, consider what you want to get out of it. My objective was to emulate demanding and intensive walking, therefore everything else was a bonus. If your objective is to see a new city or museum you may do it without leaving your room. Secondly, don't be too ambitious. I could have enhanced my trip in many different ways, by reading some fiction and non-fiction, watching more videos, learning some basic Basque, making a virtual album of local plants, marking my progress on a map, keeping a journal and writing poetry. But it would probably have proved too stressful. Also, I cut the last day's walk because I had got tired. If you feel you've had enough, stop while you are still enjoying it. Thirdly, I missed sharing my experience. Next time, I will try to find a companion for the whole journey. There is an advantage with virtual travel: you can get offline if you don't want any more company that day. Like going up to your hotel room while the rest of the group is having drinks.

Anyway, I have enjoyed it, and maybe some of you will get inspired and go on a virtual trip of your own.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 3

Today we deviated from the Camino route and walked along the coast, first to the fishing village of Getaria, then to Zumaja, 10 km. You can see the trail if you zoom on the map. I don't know why the travel agent chose this trail, but my guess is that they had a good deal with a lunch restaurant in Getaria. This is usually the reason for detours, and I don't mind. Also the main route goes a bit inland, and a coastal path is always attractive.

In real life, I took a 11 km walk with a 167 m climb. I thought I would ache all over after yesterday's walk, but it felt like a leisurely stroll. I climbed hills, walked on lake shores, had my coffee break on a hill top and my lunch by the lake. I saw fields of lillies-of-the-valley, not in bloom yet, but soon. I saw cranes. I felt good.

For dinner tonight, I am making salmon marmitako.

My mock Atlantic

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 2

Today real walking started. We walked 22 km along the coast from San Sebastian to Zarautz, with a total climb of 550 m, enjoying scenery of exceptional beauty. You can watch this video to get some sense of the place.

In practical terms, I planned a walk in my nature reserve that I know well by know, and I estimated it would be roughly 22 km. I was right, 21,68. Of course, my climb wasn't quite the same, only 323 meters, but I didn't take any extra climbs. The walk took me seven hours, with a half-hour lunch break and two short breaks. I had more stuff to carry than usual: more provisions, water and extra gear, such as waterproof trousers, having the recent hailstorm in mind. They say Camino del Norte is less crowded than the main route, and I didn't meet more than a handful of people on my walk. Did I get tired? You bet! Runkeeper says it was my longest walk since I started using the app. On a longer walk you come to a point, for me after about 15 km, when you stop noticing anything around you and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. At 17 km, knowing how much I still had to cover, I sat down by the lake, took off my boots and sank my feet into cold water. It was bliss, and after this I suddenly had more energy. Right now my whole body aches, in a pleasant way.

Yesterday evening, I re-watched The Way, to get into the mood. A question that goes through the whole story, that the characters ask each other, and that the Camino managers ask them at the end: Why are you doing this? Why did I want to walk the Camino? I have no faith, I don't believe in miracles. I have done three longish walks before: Norfolk Coast Path, Hadrian's Wall and the Orkney Islands. Why? Just because I could. Because, as the saying goes, they were there. Did I find whatever I was seeking on those walks? Possibly. I had good company, the scenery was stunning, and walking gives me a peace of mind like nothing else. I enjoy a good chat after a long day, but I don't want to talk while walking (and listening to music would be sacrilege). I want to be in that place, that space, engaging all my senses in the experience. I appreciate beautiful scenery, even though it isn't essential. But Camino was supposed to be exceptional.

I hadn't planned any travel this year because I wanted some quiet time after the recent turbulent period of my life, with retirement, move to Sweden, and more. But when my walking society offered a walking holiday on Camino del Norte, I signed up at once (first making sure I had cat-sitting covered). Like with the Orkneys last year, I was a bit anxious about being fit, so I have been walking a lot in my nature reserve. I have walked 500 km since January.

It was of course disappointing that the trip was cancelled, but hopefully it will still happen next year. But why, you may ask, am I pretence-walking now? What am I getting out of it? I kept asking myself this question today, and I don't have the answer. Maybe again, just because I can? Walking keeps me in good physical and mental shape, and staying healthy and fit is right now my highest priority and a full-time occupation. I am fortunate to have this nature reserve on my doorstep.

Anyway, I am extremely proud of myself for completing today's walk because now I know I can do it, even though the climb will be twice as high. But the scenery will be my reward.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Mock Camino, Day 1

This week I am doing a virtual walk of Camino del Norte, a dream shattered by the current situation, but now scheduled for April 2021 so this will be a good preparation.

On the first day, we are strolling leisurely around in San Sebastian, place name that rings many bells, but I haven't been here before. The closest I have been is Pamplona, which is inland and already a different kind of place.

I have done some homework, learning to begin with that the correct name in Basque is Donostia, which is etymologically the same as San Sebastian. The city has a remarkable history, including being burnt to ashes by the British during Napoleonic war. It was the European capital of culture in 2016. Those of you who wonder why I am doing this virtual trip: why would I otherwise bother to learn facts about Donostia? The only incentive to learn something is when it's relevant.

Other interesting facts include that Donostia was the first city struck by influenza pandemic in 1918, and that it is the second in the world, after Kyoto, in the number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita.

I have watched some videos about Donostia, including one on local food. As a part of my immersive experience, I have made pintxos. The proper way of having an evening meal in Donostia is to go on a pintxos bar crawl. I am going to four bars tonight: Sukaldea, Balkoi, Egongela and Logela. Now you have something to figure out.