by Frances Park
For a reluctant traveler, I felt at home in Edinburgh. And by the time the hired car pulled up to the G&V Hotel, I knew the lay of the land. Me, who feels lost when I step off an elevator. Right? Left? Maybe I’d been here before, in a dream, or was still dreaming, looking up at Edinburgh Castle perched atop Castle Rock. Wow. You don’t see things like that in the States. On that chilly-for-July morning, maybe our delightful driver, a sturdy Scottish blonde woman, had helped set the tone. I was tired and mute but listening.
“So, are you vacationing in our lovely country?”
“Actually, I’m here for a conference. My wife’s keeping me company,” my husband said, always eager to engage in light-as-baton banter considering his field and family’s background – the Holocaust. Plus, right now he’s a happy traveler who got some sleep on the plane, at least.
“What a shame. You just missed Royal Week.”
“Royal Week? When was it?”
“Last week. It was a grand affair,” she replied with grand details. “The Queen came for tea, if you will.”
Pointing out landmarks, she asked us where we were from. A Jew, an Asian. Could be anywhere.
My husband quipped, “The Washington, DC area.”
Well, I am; most of the time he’s a hundred miles away enlightening young minds about The Third Reich in a sleepy university town.
“Have you visited our nation’s capital?” he asked her.
“I have. Wonderful city,” she recalled. “But I must say, there was one big disappointment: The White House. I grew up looking at pictures and postcards of this impressive-looking building. But in real life, oh, my goodness, it was so small.”
Too early to check in, we left our suitcases – mine, a mess inside; his, arranged neatly as a bento box – at the hotel. To pass time, we had coffee and croissants in a sweet bakery on Victoria Street. Our room still wasn’t ready when we returned, so we waited on a plush sofa in the lobby. While my husband catnapped, the Euro-chatter of privileged young men who hung out in vineyards and brought beautiful girls back to their family apartments in Paris and Rome rang in my ears like echoes from a memory or a foreign film, something I couldn’t quite touch until it hit me, right now: my childhood travels, decades and decades ago. Summer, the sixties and seventies. My dad served as the faithful leader of our pack, a Korean family from white America. I loved that, his lead. His worldly stride. I felt safe following him and not safe when he died. Even in my deepest fog, one thing is crystal clear: He deserved his golden years.
These days my husband, famously late to everything but airports, takes charge.
Edinburgh that first evening cast a gloomy yet invigorating charm. Though I hadn’t slept in nearly forty hours, I was able to keep up with my husband and his fellow Jewish academics on a walking tour of storied sites in Old Town. The odd one out, I kept on truckin’ even when the rain came; slipped into the shadows and went into ghost-mode as the night wore on. Afterwards, a reception in the city’s synagogue then dinner for thirty in an Indian restaurant. Spoke to a soul or two but no soulful exchanges.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no little mouse. I don’t take crap and I drink my coffee black. But I wouldn’t argue that maybe I carry a ghost gene or two. Deactivate nearly every hotel key I touch; possess an acute ability to sense, even to the day, when people from my past, even my long-ago past, are dead; and, according to TSA’s Global Entry Office, have no registerable fingerprints. Also, if nobody’s listening, I fade and disappear.
The next afternoon I spent alone roaming up and down the main street known as the Royal Mile – castle on high end, palace on low end – over cobblestones and plaques and under clocks of yore. If you told me I’d been here before, I’d believe you. Half-believe you. Dotting the steep street were open-gated alleyways crowned with ye olde world nameplates like Real Mary’s Close, Advocates Close, Lady Stairs Close, appearing to open up to gothic labyrinths of communal living where Cinderella might’ve toiled – tenements, courtyards, stairs. In memory, vapors from the Plague are seeping out onto Royal Mile. Derived not from the word ‘closets’, as was my educated guess, they were called ‘closes’ because villagers had to close their gates every night to lock out drunks and enemies back in the day. Don’t ask me what day, I’m only my own historian.
Like typical tourists, we took in Edinburgh over the next couple of days. Though a homebody at heart, I found it a most charming place, familiar and inviting, full of darling cafes with darling servers. The decors, the simple bistro food, the archaic water jugs, rich coffee in big mugs, love, love, in a light singsong way.
Yet I kept thinking about those closes. The mere idea of them drew me in like a neglected cemetery. On our last day we decided to step into one and surprise, surprise, the gates didn’t shut behind us as we stood in a courtyard and imagined life back when your neighbor might toss the contents of their chamber pot out the window when you were minding your own business below.
“Gardyloo!” my husband shouted, imitating a Scot from the Middle Ages warning passersby to Watch out for the water! I’m guessing he read that somewhere.
Departure morning. My husband was chatting with our driver, a sad Scottish gent of fifty or sixty, slight with a crewcut gray as the day and a thick-as-pudding accent. Hours of watching Masterpiece Theatre did us no good here; we found ourselves inching up in our seats to decipher what we could.
“No, sir, I’m sorry to say I haven’t been to the States. It’s my dream, though. Problem is my wife won’t fly.”
“Oh,” my husband said, feeling for him. I’m no frequent flier but at least he can get me on a plane once in a blue moon. “That’s a shame.”
Our driver nodded. “Yes.”
“So,” my husband wondered, “how does the life of a driver work? Do you have another job lined up after you drop us off at the airport?”
Whatever his reply, it led our driver to reveal he had to wake up in the wee hours the next morning.
“I’ll be driving a client to the seaport. Like my poor wife, she’s deathly afraid of planes, so she takes a ship wherever she needs to go. It will be a ten-hour drive to get there.”
“Seriously? Ten hours?!”
“You know, if your wife won’t fly, why don’t the two of you travel by sea?”
Our driver sighed. “The only thing my wife is more afraid of than planes is water.”
OK. Laugh or cry? I mean, it was almost funny. Almost.
“My dream,” he said, “has always been to go to the Great Lakes. I love to fish, and I’ve always wanted to fish there.”
I couldn’t imagine that dream. Or driving a stranger for ten hours, for that matter. This was a man who’d never known a frill in his life.
At the airport, my husband was figuring out a tip while our driver politely set down our luggage. We said our thank yous and good-byes and turned to go. For some reason I looked back at him and spoke the only words I clearly remember saying in Scotland:
“Hey, I’m really sorry you have to drive ten hours tomorrow.”
We exchanged a genuine moment, the kind of soulful look I live for, even with a stranger I’ll never see again who just wanted to go fishing in America. I would say with certainty that his eyes summed up all the long days of his driving life and the dread of tomorrow.
Back home, those closes on Royal Mile came back to haunt me. Behind one of those imaginary mist-ridden gates lay something hidden and buried for me. Not literally but figuratively. Then my head unlocked.
Lately, before going to bed, I’ve been tidying up, not a lot, just a little. For me, no neatnik, it’s an effort and I watch myself as if it’s not me but someone else. A shadow on a private stage. Gather my shoes from the floor, arrange them neatly in the closet; clear crumpled tissues off the vanity, hang my big pink comb back on the hook. It’s so quiet. Meanwhile, a thought pulls me in like a mysterious Edinburgh close whose nameplate has weathered centuries: My dad was younger than me when he died in his sleep. If I don’t wake up tomorrow, I don’t want to leave this world looking like a slob.∎