A Tartan Tale

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Lairds! Castles! Heraldry!

On Ne’er Day Thea and I, one of us a little the worse for wear having rolled in at 9a.m., were on a mission in Buenos Aires. My daughter had promised to take me to the grandest shopping mall in town – Galeria Pacifico –  to buy me my Christmas present. The picture above is of the ceiling, I kid you not.

As you do when you’re with a teenager, we chanced upon the MAC (make up not computer) window. We we caused utter bemusement amongst the good citizens of this sophisticated city as, after a stunned silence, we shrieked with hysterical laughter, holding on to each other in paroxysms of glee.

The summer theme (it averaged 37 degrees while I was there) was tartan: a ‘Tartan Tale to celebrate holiday, in all its posh, punk, ancestral, anarchic, noble and naughty glory. Royal and raunchy, colours and patterns collide, fantasies come true, punk fairies take flight with enchanted new looks’.

True, the model portrayed a maiden who had apparently stepped from a book of Celtic fairy tales, right enough: straight-backed, green-kirtled; side-saddled, caparisoned palfrey awaiting beside a stylised thicket of medieval roses (I may have made it up about the horse).  Her proud demeanour suggested a damsel in captivity destined to grace the Round Table – and only to be released from the spell of an ancient and evil witch by the application of top quality cosmetics.

The lengthy story filling the shop window told of Castle McGregor by the banks of the River Laird in bonny Midlothian wherein lived the handsome Prince Edward who was yearning to marry the humble servant (who, we knew was in reality an enchanted princess). It was the name of the heroine that sent us completely over the edge to hysteria: Myfanwy.

You couldn’t make it up.

‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.’ Mark Twain

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I’m in reflective mode; thinking about travel. Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. ‘One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.’ (Henry Miller).

40 years ago I set off on my first foreign adventure: an exchange to the University of South Carolina for 4 months. I had never left England before. (The highlight of my travels hitherto was going on a boat to the Isle of Wight at the age of 8. I got sun stroke). 12 months after that first trip, the entire 3rd year History department of Warwick University – all 35 of us plus 2 tutors – spent the winter term in Venice studying the Renaissance. Right at the end of term I broke my arm falling off a ‘duckboard’ erected for the avoidance of the flood waters. My parents came to escort me home: it was their first time out of the country.

For many summers we set off into the wild blue yonder for the duration of the holidays, thumbs out. We roamed to Sicily, Dubrovnik, Athens… Reluctant to give up the itinerant vacationing when children arrived, we transferred to tandems, with them gamely pedalling on the back. We camped wild in Europe, becoming ever grubbier but blissfully happy. Oldest son is continuing that tradition and is well on his way to Croatia on his bike, having left Edinburgh a couple of months ago.

We just set off with few plans, not much cash, blind optimism (always justified), and very little awareness of how frightening this must have been for our parents. All they had was the odd postcard weeks out of date to let them know we were still alive.

How different it is now.

My children never did the now traditional gap year thing. Even if I’d had the spare funds to allow them the indulgence of partying on beaches under warm skies and tropical moons, I would not have handed it over. Call me old fashioned and a party pooper if you will. As James Mitchener wrote: ‘If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.’ This seems to have been the experience of many of the people my kids know. Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation!

I waved farewell to my daughter yesterday as she set off for her year studying Latin American politics and literature at the University of Buenos Aires. She has already had lengthy sojourns aboard on school exchanges: 6 weeks in the US, 2 months in Chile, 8 months in Swaziland. And although internet connection was intermittent in the latter country phoning was relatively straightforward. We remained connected.

When she arrives she will be met by a friend whose family lives in Argentina; she will view flats over the next few days arranged here in Scotland this past weekend; and she already knows the name and location of the night club she’ll be dancing in on Friday night with fellow students. What’s more, so do I.

I will be able to see instantly what her new bedroom is like and whether she’s wrapping up warmly for the snow that fell today. Of course, much of what I see will be censored. That’s as it should be. But at least I won’t have to wait weeks for a message, however carefully framed!

My wild envy is assuaged by the possession of my own ticket to Buenos Aires: I go out for Christmas and New Year. Can’t wait!

‘Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.’ (Pat Conroy)

Now I need to plan where I can go before term starts once more.