Full day in Madrid

The palace in Spain is so incredible! Unfortunately they very strictly enforce a no photo policy so I don’t have as much to share with you as I’d like, but please enjoy photos from the squares and streets of Madrid 🙂

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Edinburgh

My last few days have been awesome. I got to go on a bus tour of the surrounding countryside, try new food (including more haggis and some whiskey) and meet new friends (including the fabulous Adele from Aussieland).

Driving through the countryside, I am enchanted. The landscape on the way out of Edinburgh is hazy with mist and dotted with many wee lambs in amongst the damp greenery. Small villages and farmhouses straddle the edges of farming estates, and we occasionally pass by paddocks with horses grazing. The hills gently roll away under the surprisingly bright blue sky, and patches of wild flowers flash their colors at us. If this is my redemption for the loss of my phone, I gratefully accept it.

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Throughout the trip, our guide peppers in history lessons with songs by the proclaimers, Dougie McClain, and other Scottish songwriters. We pass by swaths of prickly gorse bushes (like natural border fences, yellow and ouch!), and learn about the union of the Scotts and the Picts.
We arrived at Blair Atholl and took in the castle and gorgeous grounds.

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Next we moved on to a lovely hiking spot and a few other scenic overlooks before finishing the day at Killecrankie Gorge.

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There’s an old tale I particularly like about Robert Bruce when he was fighting against the English (you know, the Scottish national pastime). He’s lost 6 battles and has gone into hiding in a cave in the highlands. It’s a stormy night out, the storm churning up the landscape outside. As he sits in sullen disappointment in his defeats, he looks to the entrance of the cave and sees a wee spider. This miniscule creature begins to lay down 1, 2, 3 strings of its webs before they get washed away by the rain. It tries again and the wind rips through the delicate strands. Again and again it tries, 6 times, to fix its web before it finally succeeds on the 7th try and settles in to wait for its prey. After watching this Bruce thinks to himself, “if this wee creature can persevere on behalf of its home and overcome a foe bigger than itself, so I must try for Scotland.” So he returns to fighting the English. If you know history, his story is not so poetic as this inspiring call to arms at all times, as he murdered one of his greatest rivals in a church (Greyfriars) where they were supposed to come to an agreement.

I have enjoyed my time here immensely and I will be sad to go. Like its people, Scotland’s history exhibits strength and grit and resolution of will. I can understand why Adele was traveling through here, and just ended up staying. With the mist burning off the basalt rock that thrusts Edinburgh castle into the sky, I find myself with a similar impulse not to leave.

Stolen

So I would have loved to share the many beautiful photos test I took when I was in Glasgow, particularly those of a Socttish wedding that I took, but unfortunately my phone got stolen on Sunday morning and I have nothing backed up (port hostel wifi). That also upended my plans to go see my old family town of Annbank near the more well known town of Ayr, as well as the Highland games up in Gourock, as I spent most of the day trying to find my phone. After I finislly admitted to it being stolen I spent a significant amount of time trying to secure my accounts and getting new access to everything on my new temporary UK phone. 

Anyway, the rest of my time in Scotland has been lovely and I will happily share my stories and photos from Edinbourgh and the surrounding area. 

Exploring Brussels

It’s so hot! The streets are filled with people eating ice cream cones and dodging into the shadows of buildings to escape the heat. I don’t know why – perhaps because of the recent attack – I was really expecting fewer people out of the streets. But the city is jam-packed with locals and tourists, alike, from all backgrounds and speaking many languages. There is much greater visible diversity here than anywhere I have been so far… aka fewer blonds 🙂

There are a lot of military personnel at the train station and definitely a police presence around the major areas. Walking through the streets I see gay pride flags everywhere, walk by a lot of graffiti that sometimes strives for peace and sometimes has anti-immigrant sentiments. There is a memorial with flowers still present with a lot of crosses and peace symbols for the recent bombing.

As we weave our way through the crowds we don’t really require an intentional approach to see most of the sights. The streets curve and stretch around – unlike the New York grid that I’m used to – but all of the major buildings are around the same area. It seems that at every corner we stumble upon another church more fantastic and intricately carved than the last.

We start at the closest church: St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral.


As we pass through the large Warandepark in the royal quarter, I see the US embassy through the trees. I was going to go snap a photo in front of it but was quickly reprimanded by several US military men in full uniform/rifles standing outside, so we moved on to the palace (Palais du Bruxelles).


We walk through the Grand Place, visit the Manneken Pis (along with a hoard of other tourists), pass by Bourse de Bruxelles, stop inside Les Halles Saint Gery, and visit inside the Église Sainte-Catherine (Saint Catherine’s Cathedral).
In the center of all of this is the central Train station and my hotel 🙂


After a lovely day adventuring, we enjoyed a restaurant popular with the locals recommended by the concierge at the hotel (so much French!). P and I shared insights with each other about our two countries, their education systems, health care, religion, politics, and daily life. It was very pleasant to have a friendly face around for a few days (in a row!!). I completed my day by returning to the hotel to kick my feet up and stretch out before sleeping for my early start the following day.
I am currently sitting on a Eurostar train from Brussels to London, where I will spend a very short visit (one very long day, just about 12 hours) enjoying the sights until I leave by overnight bus tonight at 11pm, for Scotland. 

Belgique

As I’ve traipsed from city to city, through hotels, hostels, and homes, I can feel the pulse of this continent – the interconnectedness. I’m currently in a country that shares 4 borders, has 3 national languages, and headquarters NATO and the EU. As much as the US is supposed to be a melting post, this place is definitely making a run for its money. I’m so excited to see what particular adventures I will have here.

EU

In other news, I wanted to take a moment to discuss freedom of travel as it pertains to terrorism. I had two responses from people when I told them I’d be traveling through Belgium after the recent attacks in Brussels: “Aren’t you afraid?” and “Good for you!” Obviously, I am classified in the “good for you” category, and I’ll tell you why.

I remember 9/11. I was a young teen at the time, and – as most others in America and particularly those who grew up outside New York City – I could tell you where I was sitting and what I was doing when the first plane hit. I remember how no one knew what to do with us at first, and they let some of the other kids whose parents worked in the city go into the teachers lounge to watch TV, just to feel like they were doing something. I remember that cell service was overloaded (which was still a younger tech), and no one could get through to anyone else. I remember how my father had been to the towers for business meetings just days before, and was supposed to go to a meeting in the building across the street from the towers that day, and he played hooky to stay home and garden with my mother, instead. I remember attending the candlelight vigils in the town square in the weeks that followed, as we came together for those who had lost people to those horrific acts.

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It is not in spite of those memories but rather because of them that I travel as I do. It’s not just because I realize that these horrible acts can happen anywhere at any time, but it is about enjoying every day we have because life is precious. It’s about meeting the world’s people. I feel so compelled to live my life and explore the lives of others as much as possible to determine the things that bring us together and recognize what draws us apart. And thus far in my travels I have learned that if you strip away the cultural norms and layers of ideology that have been thrust upon us by our communities, we are all so fundamentally the same. As much as I had an aversion to being forced to read about philosophers in college, some of that resonates with me now: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. First, the most basic needs of man: satiating thirst and hunger. This is followed next by safety and then connecting to others, connecting to oneself (self-esteem), and the ultimate goal: self-actualization.

“What a man can be, he must be.” – Abraham Maslow

I don’t say any of this to be preachy or to tell you how to live your lives, but only to express some insight into how I feel that I must live mine. My desire to travel will never be sated. Although we may share the fundamentals, there are innumerable combinations of how the facets of a person come together on top of that base. As often as I take photos of the architecture, tour the sights, and absorb the historical commentary relevant to the areas I visit, there is one thing that drives me to leave the comfort of my home, time and  time again: people. This is why some of my fondest moments not only include peacefully drifting down a canal in a gondola in Venice, but also shivering while crammed inside a tent at 12,000ft with a storm barreling down the mountain on top of us. It is the shared experience. It is the love of an old friend and the forging of a new friendship. It is connectedness.

This is why I travel.

– Elsie