My mom noticed that everyone on the ferry was feasting.
We were traveling from Ullapool, a village in the Scottish Highlands, to the Outer Hebrides island of Harris and Lewis.
I was seventeen, interested mainly in listening to Lonely Is an Eyesore on my Walkman, so I hadn’t been paying much attention to the people on the ferry.
But now that my mom pointed it out, this feasting was a strange phenomenon indeed.
I pulled my headphones down and looked up from Dracula.
“I wonder why these people are eating like it’s their last meal,” my mom whispered.
Ferry food in those days (this might have changed) was limited to ancient soggy sandwiches that had been indifferently slopped together in some factory outside of Blackpool. They were made of tinned meats and blackened lettuce. You could also get packets of crisps and crappy chocolate. And weak tea served kinda warmish in small plastic disposable mugs that were oddly equipped with, I believe, paper handles.
What heat the tea may have carried from the carafe was conducted directly to the action of melting the cup, which quickly crumpled on the bottom. These cups could therefore never stand up straight, and you could often find reams of them in the blue corners of the ships, swept in one direction by the occasional wave that knocked the contorted drinking vessels off tables.
Certainly sometimes you’re desperate, and you find yourself scarfing strange things, especially when you’re traveling. But these five people were storing up as if for a winter of want. We heard snippets of comments like “I’d much rather wait to eat,” but clearly, for some reason, they had to seize the moment.
And they were Scottish, by the way. They had some kind of insider knowledge that drove this strange action.
Each had several packets of everything, and they ate together at two tables, not casually or singly like they were munching something quickly on the road, but formally and unitedly like they were having a long dinner at a family event. They feasted like they knew they wouldn’t sup again for a week. And they stocked their bags up with extra packets of crisps.
I’m surprised my mom didn’t ask them why they were dining on mush with such zest. She loves talking to people. She loves learning about their likes and their lives and their ways and their whys. But she probably didn’t see a polite way into the convo, so she left the question in the air.
“What do they know that we don’t?”
The isle of Harris is composed entirely of black granite boulders and not a scrap of anything else.* The population is probably 46, if you include 38 sheep.
There was nothing on Harris, which caused us no end of laughter (and hunger). This was the island of our people, and there was nothing on it. We’d never heard of the isle of Harris before, but when, on our travels through Scotland, we saw it on the map, we knew we had to make this pilgrimage.
And there was nothing as far as the eye could see.
Except for black stones and a little B&B.
There were no restaurants. There were no pubs. There were no grocery stores. There was probably a little market somewhere, but wherever it was, it was definitely closed.
There was fog, and there was descending darkness, and there was mist. The mist turned to steady, cold, cold rain, and it was all pretty Dracula, so we stayed in our room and read our books. I had three crisps in my possession, so we each ate one and split the other.
I know we ended up laughing about something, because I remember that the owner of the B&B yelled for us to be quiet. We were her only guests, and this area was so remote that we were probably her first and last guests for a long time.
I’ve been a night owl since I was born, so I’m sure I was up extremely late reading and writing. In the morning, I could not get up. I was exhausted and for the life of me I couldn’t pull myself out from my slumber of the dead. And I didn’t even want to, because I was warm and sleep was delicious.
My mom went to the kitchen for breakfast, and came back talking about oatcakes. Through my dreams I heard something about sawdust and how “those stony little suckers could break teeth.” Apparently, not a drop of sugar, not a pinch of salt, not a splash of milk flavored the homemade hockey pucks.
We felt terrible that the owner of the B&B, a solitary woman in her 60s, had worked so hard and so thoughtfully to make us her special oatcakes—and not only had my mom barely been able to choke one down, I hadn’t even made an appearance for breakfast.
So I dragged myself up.
“Checkout time!” she yelled.
I scrambled to go brush my teeth.
“OK!” my mom called as she went to open the door. “Sorry—we’re running a few minutes behind. Can you give us 10 minutes?”
“Now it’s past checkout time!” the lady yelled.
She was tiny and feisty and steaming.
“It’s past checkout time!”
In the bitty bathroom I tore off my jammies and threw on some clothes, and then we chucked our stuff in our bags, which were oversized duffel bags.
No wheels. No backpack straps. Just short handles for carrying each monstrously heavy bag in your hands. Those bags were cumbersome as hell, and it was no easy task lugging them around.
“It’s past checkout time!” The lady was yelling. “It’s five past 10!”
We hauled our bags out of our room….
“It’s past checkout time!”
Down the hall…
“It’s past checkout time!”
Out the door…
“IT’S PAST CHECKOUT TIME!!!!!!!”
And to the gate…
Where the irate woman shook her fist in the air and screamed, “AND NEVER COME BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!“
We felt like assholes, but really we weren’t that bad. Sometimes people laugh at 8:30 at night. Sometimes teenagers sleep through breakfast. Sometimes people run a little late at checkout.
Sometimes angry people overreact.
We caught a bus down the road from the B&B. We barrelled away from black granite desolation and landed on the other side of the island.
Lewis was verdant. It was an oasis. It had food, and nice people, and buildings, and shops, and we visited the awe-striking standing stones of Callanish.
When we saw the following photo for the first time, we nearly died. We must have laughed for twenty minutes straight, rolling and snorting and falling on the floor.
This was no representation of my beautiful mother. Rather, it captured the hilariousness of how disarrayed we felt that day, rushed to check out, teeth barely brushed, hair wild in the damp wind, sporting bagged-out clothes the way you do when you haven’t seen a dryer in weeks.
To this day, we still refer back to this shot for laughs.
The other day I was cleaning out my sock drawer and decided to finally get rid of some socks I’ve been dragging around for over 20 years. I’d kept them because I bought them on Harris, along with my Harris tweed hat (which has long since been lost to time).
The socks are thick wool forest-green knee-high socks, which served me well during those damp, chilly weeks up in the remote Highlands.
Before I tossed the socks in the donation box, I thought I’d try ’em on.
They’re in perfect condition, and they are the softest, coziest, most wonderful socks for cold January days like these.
My mom’s last 20 years didn’t turn out the way we expected them to. She’s far from Costa Rica, where she wanted to retire. We’re not visiting the pyramids in Egypt or going to Bali together as we’d planned.
But we have memories of our travels to lots of cool places.
We have that funny picture.
And I’ve been wearing my socks for two days.
* I exaggerate about the composition of Harris for humor. The Harris side is bleaker than Lewis, but the whole island is stunning, as you can see in all these flickr pics. The actual population of the island is about 21,000. Our stay was a million years ago, and now there are loads of beautiful-looking Airbnbs. In fact, Airbnb is now sending me emails that say “Hi Erin, if you’ve been eyeing Isle of Harris, look no further.” This is very helpful. Cuz my heart’s in the Highlands.
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