My first experience in Scotland was using the wi-fi at a Glasgow bus-station cafe to find a hostel (no CouchSurfing hosts were available). As I compared prices and locations, a woman across the room yelled at her crying toddler to “shut up!” before taking the girl out to stand in the doorway of the cafe and wait in tears while her mother finished eating inside. I started a scorecard. Scotland was 0 for 1.
After checking in to my hostel, I went to a nearby museum with a young French-Swiss photographer, Zoe, who was staying at the same place. The museum had beautiful oil paintings (to my untrained eye, anyway) that were largely hidden by glare from harsh overhead lighting. Next to the paintings were painfully bad captions like “This piece depicts a woman holding her child, dead from probably the plague or starvation. It is meant to elicit feelings of sadness.” The museum’s prize piece, a painting by Salvador Dali, was missing from the exhibit — on loan to the States. Scotland was 0 for 2 as I departed for Oban after one night in Glasgow.
Most of the half-filled bus to Oban contained locals, some of whom conversed so quickly with their accents that it took me several minutes to determine that they were speaking English. The language mystery solved, I fell asleep until we were somewhere out of town.
An old man in the seat ahead of me did a triple-take when he saw my attachment to the window upon waking, my wide eyes transfixed and watering from the passing scenery. Through the pane was a violently rocky hillside, saturated with emerald grass and dotted by stone bridges that straddled the numerous streams — streams which just trickled but stood out clearly, sharply defined in their long-carved paths which cleaved forest and earth and rock into discrete, easier-to-understand sections. Loose clusters of sheep roamed the immediate and distant landscape with low stone walls to keep them domestic, but even the walls appeared untamed, as wild as the foliage that surrounded and threatened to swallow them.
It was an impossible contrast to previous experience, and I wanted more than anything to achieve equilibrium between what was now outside the bus and what was inside of me. I hoped for an osmosis of beauty to flow the landscape into me and push everything dark and hardened back out in exchange, to be assimilated by Scotland. Realizing this could not happen, that this place was made of something I could only visit and not absorb, filled me instead with an immense grief which made it difficult to breathe for the rest of the ride.
As our bus approached Oban city limits, I tore up my scorecard.