Scotland is made up of the Highlands and the Lowlands. In the past month, I have been given lovely privilege and painful duty of traveling through both.
1. THE HIGHLANDS
During the final week of August, my brave mother and patient brother teamed up to take us to Isle of Skye, which is within the Highlands. It is one of the most magical places I have ever been to. Skye is a small island on the Western coast of Scotland -- a gallery of rolling green hills surrounded by the sea, which is grey or blue (depending on how merciful the sky is). Every morning in Skye began with a fully-charged camera and a steaming cup of tea (this place has made a tea-drinker out of me). Prayers would be made before my family faced foreign roads. These paths were narrow and daunting--oftentimes wide enough for only one car,. If these roads were clear of other vehicles, they would sometimes be overrun by herds of sheep -- who took their time as they retreated back onto the grass. Even with its charming problems, I thank these roads because they took my family to our temporary paradise.
Before these moments, I have never cried upon looking at natural beauty. I cry because of people and things, not places. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before. In Glencoe, my family had stumbled upon the most peaceful cabin tucked away in between the mountains. This cabin almost seemed unconcerned with the affairs of rest of the world. There was no other town nearby --only a bridge, a babbling river, and small pink wildflowers. Throughout Skye, my family traveled along the coast. We chased cliffsides and waterfalls, exploring the hills and then sitting down to enjoy the silence and sights and even the occasional double rainbow. The moors of Skye demanded that we take our time. Later on our way back to Edinburgh, we stopped by Eileen Donan. On that patch of land stood a medieval castle that seems like it was built for a fairytale the memory of loss loved ones. Its reflection on the lake was sprinkled with golden foliage. The colour in the surrounding hillsides would have fooled you into thinking it was spring.
These were the type of sights that made you stop in your path. The rocky hillsides were so massive and the green was so lush, you would feel a sense of reverence. It was a precious moment in which the natural world reminded you how big it is and how small you are. The loneliness you might have known, or the fear that you always carry with you is laid onto the grass and forgotten. You are only left with dew on your feet and a sense of awe.
The landscapes I have found there are the kinds I dreamt of in the months leading up to my departure. I remember watching Ron Swanson wandering through these hills in Parks and Recreation (click here if you're not sure what I am talking about). I had not only found green cliffsides kissing the sea, I found valleys of purple, as the August warmth made the calluna vulgaris (or the common heather) blossom. Before I departed California, I envisioned myself there, with the green, with that poem. Finally, I had made it.
II. THE LOWLANDS
In the beginning of September, my strong mother and gentle brother flew out of Edinburgh Airport (Edinburgh, which is in the region called the Lothian, or the Lowlands). We left to the airport before sunrise. After the goodbyes and hugs, I walked outside and was greeted by the early morning light and crisp air. I was thankful for the clear skies. The harsh rays of sunshine had given me a reason to wear sunglasses and hide my tears from anyone in sight; the bus driver, the lost Canadian couple who asked me for directions.
I had a week between their departure and the beginning of my orientation program, a week I intended to fill with exploration. The first place I went to was the Scottish National Gallery, a destination that make me excited about my newfound solitude. This type of exploration has always been a daydream of mine. The thought of wandering around a city was an idealism that pushed me towards this decision of leaving home. My suburban-raised heart dreamt of tall buildings that stretched toward the sky, of artwork and music that decorated the boulevards.
I got to the museum cafe and had a simple breakfast. The sunshine, though minimal, convinced me to eat outside. I found a table overlooking Princes Street Gardens, which offered me a view of the towering Walter Scott Memorial, of the tightly and neatly packed Victorian buildings in New Town.
It was in this particular moment that I began crying -- crying without ceasing, crying without reason. I wept quietly until I was done with my croissant and my tea, and until I had walked past a some Renaissance paintings I couldn't recognise, until I stopped in front of Van Dyck's Lomellini Family.(a painting that I hated in that moment). I turned around and found a wooden bench to cry on outside the galleries. I stayed there for about forty minutes.
I don't think there is anything noble about this kind of crisis. A small-town girl feeling scared in a big city resembles a bad beginning of a forgettable movie. There was nothing romantic about this fear or this loneliness. Many people around me (who are younger and possess more adversities), have left home indefinitely with the doors locked behind them. I knew moving wasn't a big deal, that I will become more comfortable with time. I also knew that I wasn't completely alone -- I was acutely aware and deeply thankful for my loved ones who always a quick text message away.
Despite of everything I knew, I couldn't ignore the weight in my chest. I could not ignore the unsettling realisation that I got everything I have always wanted, but I felt lost anyway. Every attempt I would make to build myself a home in this city felt like I was stripping away my home across the pond. In my months of preparing my study abroad experience, I anticipated these periods of loneliness and uncertainty -- I knew I had to be patient with my adjustment. I just didn't realise how difficult it would be.
III. THE PEAK
In order to conquer someplace, you have to climb to its highest point. Castles, old fortresses of protection, were placed at some of the summit of certain cities -- and infiltrating those places would be the beginning of a military victory. A woman dressed as a Tudor-era lady-in-waiting told me this. It resonated to me like mystical advice from a well-establised sage. It sounded to me like a mission, and I took it quite literally.
After two days of grieving, I woke up with the desire to climb Arthur's Seat, the pinnacle of Edinburgh. I was fuelled with a traditional Scottish breakfast (including haggis and black pudding, which is better than you think) and the desire to focus on something other than crippling dread. The skies were dark grey when I had left but, for whatever reason, hiking this hill was my priority -- regardless of the weather. It rains so often here that you learn to think like a mailman; you carry on in rain, sleet, snow, or hail.
A light drizzle greeted me as I reached the foot of Holyrood Park, which contained Arthur's Seat. By the time I was halfway up the hill, the sun had broken through the grey. The hills always looked so beautiful when you were blessed enough to see the sun shine upon it. This illuminated green was something I recognised from Skye. In that moment, I realised that is how you begin creating a home -- you become familiar with these small details that bring you peace. You retreat to it in moments of disquiet.
Once I reached the peak of 822 feet, I had asked a few strangers to take a photo of me and my victory. The winds were blowing so hard that I was a little afraid of flying away, but more amused at the sound of the wind beating against my ears. In that sunlight, I felt the humbling quality of seeing something this spectacular. The Isle of Skye was 251 miles away from me. My life in California was over 5,000 miles away from me. But the only distance I could think of was 822 feet -- the distance between the top of the hill and the bottom of the city that I was trying to call home.
You do not conquer a city after conquering a hill. I could not. Some days are better than others -- there are days like this day where I am at the top of the hill, but there are afternoons where I get hit by a biker while crossing the street. Even in my moments of discomfort (and physical pain), I am thankful I am here. I have lived in the same region my entire life, and I am thankful to finally know something different. I am grateful to learn that I can leave home and survive it. If this loss and loneliness is as central part to any human experience, I am glad that I can have mine in a place as beautiful as this. Edinburgh is a compact city-- a crucible that, with pressure and wind and rain, will form growth within me. Tomorrow is my first day of class and I cannot wait to begin.
I hiked Arthur's Seat again today. I went a different route but the hills looked just as beautiful.
If you've read this entire post, thank you so much. Anyone who has reached out to me with kind words has no idea how much it means. Also, another tremendous thanks to my support system back home -- my mother who will grieve and celebrate with me any hour of any day. My brother who will watch the same episode of Brooklyn 99 as me and send me photos of my dogs to show his steadfast solidarity. My dad, whose faith and pride in me as carried me through those harder days. And Ryan, whose love and stupid jokes make me feel like I have a small part of home with me no matter where I go. I am so blessed.