Scotty Doesn’t Know: Adventures in Solitary Travel

I’m mighty reluctant to say that a really stupid movie encouraged me to travel. My much younger self would disagree, because she still remembers the words to the song from Eurotrip:

Scotty doesn’t know that Fiona and me do it in my van every Sunday. She tells him she’s in church, but she doesn’t go; still she’s on her knees, and Scotty doesn’t know. Whoa, Scotty doesn’t know-whoa. Don’t tell Scotty. Scotty doesn’t know. Scotty doesn’t know.

The first time I visited Europe, I was in my early twenties, and in a (very) long term relationship, and I wasn’t supposed to go alone. I remember being a much different person then. I remember being shy and angry a lot. I remember it was difficult to start conversations with strangers as much as it was to make friends. I didn’t exactly blossom because of the trip, over the course of which I saw most of Italy and Greece by myself, but I did learn something valuable, standing at a pay phone on the Amalfi coast, trying to call home: I didn’t mind the alone part so much. Time might have warped this interpretation, but I’m pretty sure that ex-boyfriend never once said he missed me either. I was gone for a month.

I came back home piqued, fired by the sudden knowledge that I could do what I wanted if I ditched everyone and went where I wanted, I returned home and started planning. There were cons in Salem, Vegas, and New Orleans. There were trips to New York for work. My first time at SXSW in Austin I sponged up whatever I could at Interactive Week, before I dragged the design team with me the following year while brandishing a Platinum pass (it was exhausting. I saw so many movies and so many shows and drank so much beer and flirted with so many DJs.) There was How Live in Boston, and when the time came again, I looked at the map of Europe. I considered the new guy I was dating who I didn’t care to hold onto, shrugged, and started planning again.

I spent a couple of weeks in Costa Rica in a rented house on the beach with friends in between all this, and took a Caribbean cruise with my folks, and went to Barbados to stay with family (conveniently missing my flight home), and even did an all-inclusive in Cuba with a bunch of girlfriends (we hated each other by the end of it. Took us a month to recover.)

Scotty Doesn’t Know: Adventures in Solitary Travel

Don’t tell Scotty…

The second time I went to Europe, I travelled. I wasn’t a tourist. I lived out of my backpack. I hurt everywhere. I was dirty, sweaty, gross. I got sick in Paris and spent three days in a hammock reading books in a Hausmannized apartment in Montmartre drinking French wine in all varieties and eating cheese and baguettes and macarons. So many macarons. I hated Paris, so this suited me just fine. (Still hate Paris. Never going back, though the wine was cheap and plentiful and yeah — Laduree? I’m okay with Laduree.) I ended up in Florence again and officially finished with Italy for the second time. Swore off chianti for the second time. I fell in love with London; it’s crowded streets, it’s constant bustle. The food, the people, the smell. The cobbled streets and the bankers and Harry Potter. Everywhere Harry Potter.

Pop-quiz: “Why do you think the Death Eaters blew up the Millennium bridge? Why that bridge, of all of them?”

I was never really alone this time. I took the trains and the planes and the busses and a couple of day tours, but there was always, freakishly, someone to talk to. To eat with. To drink with — except for the books and wine episode in Montmartre. (That was all me getting drunk by myself. Paris made me miserable. I was miserable for leaving London to begin with, but the cold and the snobbishness didn’t help.)

There’s a moral here, but I’m getting to it.

Scotty doesn’t know, Scotty doesn’t know.

I started writing this post in London, sitting cross-legged on a pretty comfortable bed in an apartment near Tower Bridge. I’m a big fan of AirBnB.com, so inasmuch as my accommodations are concerned, I stay with locals. It’s a great way to meet people, and they often know the area and have helpful suggestions: Want a proper curry? Go here. Don’t go down this street, it’s sketchy. Bring change to use that toilet, but don’t sit on the seat.

The third time I went to Europe, I was pelted with a few of the same questions: If you’re a woman, travelling alone, aren’t you afraid?

Sometimes, but I can do worse things to your face with my keys in my fist than you can try to do to me with that little pocket knife. I don’t carry much cash and people often refer to me as “Sir” because I walk around looking as scuzzy as possible with a cap down and my backpack strapped in. These sneakers? I realize they’re kinda frayed but I’ve run miles in them. I research the places I travel. I don’t go in blind. I heed the advice of my mother and I Skype home a lot so she doesn’t worry too much and you can bet that over the course of my adventures I’m geotagging the hell out of my snapshots in the event that someone needs to come find me and they need a general idea of where I was last seen. I know where the embassies are as well as the police stations, and I am very resilient.

Under enough duress, some ladies crack. Panic. Break down in tears. I’m not saying I don’t do these things eventually, I’m just saying — the time I snapped my favourite brown belt (which, incidentally, I haggled for at the leather market in Florence) I didn’t burst into tears (as my colleague pointed out most girls would do). I went to the storage closet and found tie wraps and strapped that thing back together. Went out drinking with the boys that evening, and no one knew the better.

Sometimes a girl just needs to Macgyver that sh*t and get on with things.

Hungover, tired, might have an ear infection, romping through crypts and graveyards. London calling.

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I am unafraid. I’ve come for the adventure. I ask a lot of questions, and I endeavour to see the things that most people don’t see. And I do.

On this last trip to Europe, bedraggled from work, exhausted upon arrival, I stumbled into Dublin and found myself under the shade of tentacles spilling from an apartment building. I must have fallen asleep on the plane, because it happened so quickly I barely realized I’d left home and had arrived across an ocean. Landed in this suspended freedom all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself.

I cam out here to have a little fun and honestly I'm feeling so attacked right now. #Dublin

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Free.

I felt as if I’d left mid-conversation, and words trailing, I set to wandering up cliff sides and across rope bridges. I stood on a dormant volcano, and climbed the volcanic remains it left behind miles away at the Giant’s Causeway.

Climbed the thing. 300 ft above sea level without a guard rail TAKE THAT fear of heights.

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I sat and looked at the ocean, earbuds buried deep in my ears listening to Teeel and We Love. I dallied near the edge at the Cliffs of Moher despite my fear of heights, and short of breath, I just wanted to tell someone about this feeling: it’s the closest I’ve come to bliss — arms thrown out, laughing wildly all by myself at the edge of Ireland. Totally terrified.

na Cailleach!

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I staggered off the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge with shaking legs and a desperate need for nicotine. Plonked down on the volcano and alternately sucking gulps of water from my Camelback and vaping, I settled enough to explore the hillside only to realize the only way back was across the stupid bridge. The second time wasn’t as bad. I looked down once, thought better of it, and bolted the rest of the way and up the narrow staircase that put me back on solid earth and in the midst of a group of college guys who applauded the fact that I did it twice despite obviously being terrified of heights and wobbles. I told them I needed a pint. I went and got a pint. And a shot of whisky.

Stupid bridge. Stupid heights. #didthething

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I found a first edition copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and proceeded to do everything illegal possible to the glass case it sat in just short of stealing it. I found wifi in various pubs, and over Guinness, carried on conversations back home, sharing private jokes scrawled in my notebook and held up to the camera.

So far away, and at the time I didn’t realize how much those conversations would weave through my trip and colour it with a sense of warmth — a connection to home with someone I hadn’t yet met face to face. How does that work? I can’t explain it.

I made friends with the guard at Trinity and he let me in to see the Book of Kells for free. More interesting than the illuminated manuscript was this singular staircase backlit by a little window in one of the alcoves. I snapped a quick picture silently in the presence of so many musty books, like standing in that library demanded reverence and respect.

Books. Beer. Books. Beer. Books.

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I took a literary pub crawl, proceeded to get completely blotto, and the following morning mistook a little tub of ketchup for strawberry jam and destroyed my toast. I ate half a slice before realizing what I’d done, questioning all the while, why it tasted so funky. The pub messed up my eggs too. (Yes, you can scramble an egg. I’ve done it. I don’t need to buy a second egg. You aren’t cracking them anyway. They’re in a vat of egg goop. Come on.)

I might be all the way over here, and you all the way over there, but we can still play this game: penis.

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I hugged the Lia Fail — the Stone of Destiny — on my way to Newgrange. I shied away from taking any perspective selfies of me fellating the thing, but the thought crossed my mind. (You would think about it too. Hush.) I soaked my shoes in that dewey field while traipsing over the burial mounds, but it was worth it. In the end, I arrived here:

I tried explaining the importance of this place over Facebook and failed. Newgrange, ever since I can remember, has been a site of pilgrimage for me. Since I was thirteen, maybe, I wanted to stand beneath the dome inside. It’s untouched — the stones settled exactly where they were when the site was first excavated — and photos are not permitted after entry. Neolithic spiral carvings ornament the inside. There are low altars. When the sun enters the tomb at Midwinter, something magic happens. The simulated the sunrise with artificial light, and standing for a moment in full dark and the quiet, I swore for a moment that something slipped back into place; though what that was I couldn’t tell you. I hadn’t known anything was remiss.

The entry from my journal on this day reads:

I have trouble finding the words to describe it: it was like saying hi mom, after you’d forgotten to call for ages. As I walked back, I kept reciting the charge to myself. I remember. I remember. There is magic in the world. Everything She touches changes.

I saw the site, appropriately, with a group of healers from Washington and Vancouver who were travelling together through the UK. Twenty or so women and men. Some brought their daughters. Some had been through eldering ceremonies. One of the women tossed an arm around my shoulders when I stepped into the daylight and began blubbering.

All she had to say was, “I know.”

LONDON I MISSED YOUR FACE. #intheair

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The London happened. My second visit to the city, and I had nothing planned. There hadn’t been the time. I made last-minute (read: extremely expensive) plans to visit Cambridge and Oxford and Bath, and went with it.

Georgian shenanigans.

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I ate lunch at the table where the discovery of DNA was announced. Drank a pint knowing it wouldn’t make me any smarter but as long as you’re thinking otherwise…

I highly recommend the fish n’ chips at the Eagle too. Eat the skin. It’s good for you.

They gave me a seat at the smart table (where Francis Crick and James Watson announced the discovery of DNA.)

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I found a Dalek outside Shakespeare’s birthplace. An acquaintance mentioned he’d seen it the week prior, so after a bit of hunting and finally asking someone in the gift shop, I found the blasted thing in a chunk of prime real estate that is basically “The Doctor Who Store” of Stratford Upon Avon.

My inner nerd had a field day.

The Dalek across the street from Shakespeare's birthplace.

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Saw some rocks for the second time, and actually managed a few very decent shots despite the hoards of people milling around Stonehenge. I am now in possession of two Stonehenge souvenir sweatshirts, and I should probably admit that in addition to handing off the british pounds I changed in Northern Ireland as actual British pounds when in London, I also stealthed my way through the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Center who, I should mention, will charge you eight pounds. Eight pounds. Just to go inside. Yes that’s where the bathroom is. No, I’m an asshole and didn’t pay eight pounds to pee.

I sweet talk and I cajole and I slap a big fricken smile on my face. More bees with honey. I swear.

It's not like they've changed since the last time I was here, but they're still pretty epic.

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You know I really love the henges, but they look exactly the same every time you visit and unless you’re taking a private tour, you still can’t touch ’em. I’ve sworn up and down that I will stand in the middle of that circle on Midsummer’s Eve one day, but I’m not entirely sure how long the waiting list is. I expect I might be sixty by the time that becomes a possibility.

The rocks will still look the same. Just up close. Where I might poke them.

I love this place. Circle of Lebanon, Egyptian Avenue, and the Cedar of Lebanon that once belonged to the Ashurt Estate.

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Then Highgate. Everything stopped for the one day I trekked up to Archway station and hopped off the city bus in front of Waterlow Park. I might’ve mentioned this about a dozen times already, but Highgate Cemetery is pretty much my favourite place in the world. It’s lush. It’s decrepit. It’s beautiful.

My novel is set in and around the cemetery, and after having a quick lunch at The Flask (it’s haunted — I spent an hour chatting with the manager gathering as much folklore as I could about the place.) I took the walk Eden takes as she returns from school and passes the cemetery for the first time in Wake the Dead. I videotaped parts of it, chattering excitedly and filling in the blanks that Google Maps couldn’t serve up properly.

Polka dot umbrella in hand, I bothered the caretaker enough that he showed me the (now closed) connecting tunnel between East and West sides of the cemetery so that caskets could be lowered and passed over for interment while still remaining on consecrated ground. It’s not part of the tour.

Finally!

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Plastering myself to the tour guide, I pelted questions at him for the better part of the tour. Once a fangirl, forever a fangirl it seems. How many bodies can you put in a family grave? How do you stack the coffins? What happens to the ones on the bottom? Will we see the Rossettis? Can we see Michael Faraday?

Can you tell me about the Highgate Vampire.

(That’s a show stopper. I was cautious to ask at the very end of the tour, after having being privately led to see Faraday. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery definitely don’t want to stir that one up again. He wasn’t too pleased with me after that.)

I ambled back onto Swains Lane and headed down the hill until I found the unlocked gateway to Holly Village.

You’ll need to trust me on this one: for a good three minutes I stood beneath the statues that flank the gate, bouncing on my toes, as if creeping forward would get me arrested or struck by lightning or a siren would go off on the spot if I crossed the threshold.

Private property. No flipping trespassing.

I tresspassed. Camera in hand. I trespassed hard. (I apologize to the people who live there. Your houses are beautiful. I needed to see your courtyard and understand its layout and see how the shadows fell. I needed to see where Graves stands in the gaslight for just a moment before vanishing. Thanks for understanding, I appreciate it in ways I can hardly express.)

Welcome to tourist country.

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I arrived in Prague half-asleep again. A quick look at the map and I chucked it. The city is so small that I wandered into Old Town Square in a matter of moments and situated myself even quicker than that.

Then I proceeded to get very, very lost.

Whoever said size doesn't matter is a fing liar. Liar!

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There was beer and goulash and pancakes.

There were the forty thousand bones at Kutna Hora.

Epic.

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There were miscalculated tips for great service and more beer. More meat. Bohemian music whose drums rose the hair on my arms and gave me shivers. There was a woman who danced with a snake in a medieval tavern, and more meat and more beer. Astrological symbols decorated the buildings. I climbed the hill to St. Vitus cathedral (while tipsy) and tried to retrace my steps through the palace gardens from the day previous and couldn’t manage it. Had another beer. Shambled back through Mala Strana and across Charles bridge. Took a cruise that felt like it went around in circles but actually didn’t. Drank some more. (People commented when I got home that in every other picture there was a beer in my hand. In Prague, you have two choices: light beer or dark beer. I alternated until someone gave me a litre of the stuff while waiting for the astronomical clock to put on its hourly show, and then I was hammered. And then I went shopping and somehow wound up with a winter hat with bunny rabbit ears and a tail. I will totally wear it in public, preferably around someone who embarrasses easily.)

I LOVE PRAGUE.

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I spent more than I should have, perhaps. I shopped more than I should have, perhaps. I saw a lot, did a lot, drank a lot, talked a lot, walked a lot, wrote a lot, took a lot of photos. Came home and promptly caught a cold, but in my defence, I think I earned it.

Without a doubt I’m prepared for a vacation from my vacation — something ultra chill involving a beach and a few margaritas. I’m thinking Christmas. I’m thinking Dominican Republic. I’ll go by myself if I have to, but for the moment there’s a cabin in the works — something a little reclusive and down tempo with a few board games and a few friends. My laptop if I get inspired, as is the case in these situations where you’re experiencing sensory overload all the time. My advice — bring a notebook or have an app on your phone to document everything. I was averaging twenty entries a day, knocking out notes on busses and on planes with snapshots attached.

I load the app on occasion because I use it daily, and if I need a little reminder between life stresses, there’s something hovering just underneath my finger tips to remind me:

Where do I want to go next?

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  • […] I reached the second week of my travels in Europe, and I was starting to slow down from too much food too much drink, I saved a day to visit one of […]

  • […] is the most recent batch of photos from my September 2014 trip to Highgate Cemetery West. I saw more of the cemetery’s hidden nooks than the previous trip […]

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