"Favorites"

By David Kessler

In this Installment: Choosing a favorite moment from the trip.  Scotch broth and the search for delicious.  "Ganefs"?!!

A musician who was often asked to play his favorite song once wrote a song as an answer to this request, saying in it that he doesn't sing songs that aren't his favorite.  So what was my "absolute favorite moment on the trip?"  That would have to be the trip itself!  A good trip is a collection of events that somehow turn poetic and become a unified store of personal mythology. They aren't always connected geographically or temporally, and they don't always work best chronologically.  The stories I tell from them are of people and events that I hold dear enough to remember, or that have been burned into my memory for one reason or another.  Some unfolded more poetically, more classically, or more melodramatically than others, and all are my favorites while I am telling them.

So here are a few more stories from the trip; Shorter ones, that have almost nothing in common.  Each has something to it that makes it a favorite, or makes it come to mind when I am asked to choose a favorite.  Listen for that kernel and you'll know why it made the list.

By the time I had bicycled out to the standing stones of Callanish, my knees were a wreck!  The damage I did to them my week in Glen Nevis and Fort William never had a chance to heal with all my continued walking, climbing, and general adventuring; More than once in that first week I had difficulty falling asleep from the pain I felt whenever I tried to shift position, and more than one day ended with a teapot of hot water or a towel full of ice wedged between my knees, as I wrote travel notes or watched the BBC.  I just couldn't bring myself to slow down, and - unfortunately for my knees - the joy of the trip gave me the spirit to deal with all the difficulty this stubbornness created.  On my first full day in Stornoway, I bought a knee support (a tube of stiff, elasticized fabric that provided a nice placebo effect), and rented a bicycle so I could travel to the west side of the island and see the standing stones of Callanish.

I was feeling all right that morning at the outset, but decided to take the shorter and far more scenic Pentland road that cut just north of due west, rather than the longer coastal road dotted with half a dozen historic sites.  The 15 mile trip on single track road was beautiful; nothing but low rolling peat bogs, small lochs, occasional outcroppings of rock, and maybe a car every 20 minutes.  There were sheep here and there, a couple stone shacks in the middle of nowhere, and at one point I saw a man in the distance, silhouetted on the bright southern skyline where he was stacking blocks of peat to dry.

I stopped to take a photo of a bog with recent harvesting marks (I'd read about cutting blocks of peat for fuel, but never actually seen it) and in the process, sunk my right leg up to my calf in a soft spot of the bog.  I sat down by the side of the road to dry out a little in the sun and breeze and begin writing in the journal I had bought an hour before.  By the time I got back on the bicycle, all muscular momentum I had at the beginning of the day was gone.  A mile or 2 of experimentation found the best ways of keeping my knees happy and the bike moving forward, and the island seemed to have a general and gradual slope down to the west, so I made good progress despite the pain.

With about 2 miles to go I had to stop and hold my knees for a little while.  When I got up I decided to walk the bike for a little ways, until I could bring myself to get back on.  As I hobbled along, a car going the other way pulled over to ask how I was.  In the car were 2 English physical therapists on vacation.  Their son is about my age and was on a bicycling trip across India, so they were particularly interested in seeing if I was okay.  I asked what they would recommend short of staying off my feet, and they gave me some advice before wishing me well and continuing on their way.  With their wishes, I got back on the bike and made my way to the standing stones.

The stones were very interesting and thanks to a camera crew having been there that morning and the late hour of my arrival (almost 4pm), I had them all to myself.  I walked through the gate, up the path to the stones, and then walked fully around them twice, keeping them on my left.  With no one else around to get angry, or get the wrong idea about how to treat the stones, I walked off the path and got a closer look.  The stones themselves are fascinating!  They have a swirling grain to them, like wood or Damascus steel.

I took a few photos and spent a while looking at them and the fields around them.  Then I went to the low stone house just outside the fence with the small sign advertising tea and crafts.  The house was in an old style, and may even have been period; long and low, with very thick stone walls, few and narrow windows, a roof set for thatching, and a doorway I had to stoop a little to go through.  The day was bright, sunny, dry, and hot - a rarity for Lewis - but inside was cool and comfortable.  I ignored the crafts to look at the brief menu and ask if the Scotch Broth was vegetarian or had meat in it.  They answered vegetarian, and I spent the best 1.25 of the entire trip.

There's a great children's book called "The Search for Delicious" that tells the story of a king who is putting together a dictionary.  He sends his advisors all over his kingdom to find definitions for words, but the definition for "delicious" proves so elusive that he sends them farther and farther afield.  After a particularly long and arduous journey, one of these searchers stops at a humble house for refreshment where he is given a cool drink of water.  He instantly knows that he has found the definition on taking his first sip.  I could describe the soup they gave me in great detail, but everything you need to know about it can be expressed by saying that it was truly "delicious".


Easily the most surreal moment of the entire, strange trip took place at my B&B in Stornoway.  The place was small and clean, the location convenient, and the owners very friendly; When I arrived that first evening on the late ferry Mr. Hill had opened the door and said hello before I could even ring the bell.

One morning I needed to fix 2 of the buttons on my vest (a fantastic cool weather travelling vest with deep pockets that I wore almost every day).  I went downstairs and asked Mr. and Mrs. Hill for a sewing kit and they replied that there was a complete and very nice one in my room, in a small leather case.  I looked where they said it would be, and returned downstairs to report that it wasn't there.  This concerned them, as it was a very nice kit, so Mr. Hill came upstairs with me to look for it, telling me how the last guests in the room had used it only a few days earlier.

When he found the kit to be missing he cried out, "Ganefs!"

Now in Yiddish, a ganef is a thief, but I knew that this kindly Scot in his late 60's or 70's, up here in the Hebrides, gripped by sudden frustration, was not speaking Yiddish.  I was certain of this.  No, there must be another explanation, my startled brain said, and it set out to find it.

After spinning in place for a few seconds, I hadn't come up with any explanation.  I had to know what was going on, so I asked if that was a Gaelic word.  He replied that, no, it was Yiddish.  I quickly explained that I knew the term, but had not expected to hear it used in Scotland!  He said that, many years earlier, he and Mrs. Hill had briefly lived in London where they had some Jewish friends.

For the rest of my stay, He happily inserted words and phrases of Yiddish whenever he had the chance.  It was pleasing, amusing, and a little startling (all at once) each time he did so, but never nearly so much as that first time, when I was so disoriented by it that I considered the possibility that "ganef" might have a similar meaning in Gaelic!


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