Colgan, take me away

500 Miles from YouYou know how sometimes a book just finds you at precisely the right moment? Our current lives, so disrupted by COVID-19 and politics and the accompanying worries of just … everything, well … I’ve been reading again. Reading like I’m not the overextended mom/wife/essential worker that I am.

In short: I’ve needed a mental escape. Enter Jenny Colgan’s 500 Miles from You, a sweet tale of two nurses — one English, one Scottish — who spend about 300-ish pages communicating primarily through text and email. Cormac and Lissa are strangers, but they’re connected through a job swap initiated after Lissa is a first responder at a terrible crime.

Sensing she needs a complete change of scenery, the NHS reassigns her to a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands. She trades roles with Cormac, a community paramedic, and the pair are dropped into each other’s worlds: Lissa to Cormac’s cottage in a town where everybody knows your name; Cormac to Lissa’s utilitarian flat in London, where he finds himself suddenly (and delightfully?) anonymous.

IMG_5793_originalThe plot is relatively simple: Lissa helps others in Kirrinfeif as she heals herself; Cormac experiences life outside the familiar paths and rolling hills of home. The two learn much about each other throughout their ongoing chats … chats about their patients, obviously. Of course. The patients.

The story branches in other directions (there’s a court trial, PTSD, the scene-stealing friendship with Kim-Ange), but its heart is certainly the growing closeness — however geographically complicated — between Cormac and Lissa. Which was genuinely sweet and believable.

Colgan knows how to build romantic suspense. And you know where else she excels? Scene-setting, because lord I wanted to cash in all the credit-card miles accrued from daycare bills and high-tail it back to the Highlands. Living vicariously in Kirrinfeif has recently taken the sting out of some long days.

My love of London is serious, too, but Lissa’s thread and the Scottish scenes were definitely my favorites. Only after finishing 500 Miles from You did I learn this was actually the third book in a series — though obviously reading it as a stand-alone was no problem.

So the good news? I get to go back!

Can’t wait.


Review copy provided by publisher
in exchange for my honest review

British escape, part V: Burns supper in the Scottish Highlands, Scotland

This is my fifth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

Undoubtedly one of my favorite moments on our great British adventure in April was our Burns Supper, or an evening we spent in the Scottish highlands eating delicious (and sort of scary) food, enjoying Scottish music and watching a spectacular sunset with our fellow tour group members.

If you’ve never heard of Robert Burns, “Scotland’s favourite son,” let me give you a brief introduction: he’s the most famous Scottish poet to have ever lived, most argue; his “Address To a Haggis” is epic and exceedingly well-known; and he was quite the charismatic chap with a reputation for lovin’ and leavin’ the ladies, if you pick up what I’m putting down. He’s well-known for verses like “A Red, Red Rose,” and our introduction to Burns’ work was highly entertaining.

Leading up to our Burns Night, we really didn’t know what to think. My sister and I actually had a running gag that this “supper” was going to be in the living room of some poor soul’s home. When forty of us arrived with our giant “coach” and blocked their narrow Scottish street, the innkeeper and their entertainers would have to run and duck for cover.

But not so. After spending a few minutes admiring the Scottish countryside, including the photo at top and the tower above, we arrived at a cozy hotel and were immediately greeted by gentleman in honest-to-goodness kilts. If you don’t think a man can look attractive in a plaid skirt? Ladies, get on a plane to Edinburgh. (Spencer, if you’re reading this, look away — like, go get some coffee or something.) As the gentle lilt of bagpipes poured over us, we exchanged smiles with a man and his sweetly-smiling son. And could you have pushed this American chick over with a feather when Duncan, the innkeeper’s very attractive son, asked how she was enjoying Scotland? YES. Yes, you could.

I didn’t take any pictures of Duncan. I was trying not to look creepy and bring disgrace to the good name of America. But I did get photos of the gentleman playing the bagpipes. And, you know, Duncan’s dad. And the sunset, upon which I was gazing and thinking, “Wow, it’s sunset. And I’m in Scotland.”

After enjoying the fading rays of another day in the Scottish Highlands, we migrated indoors and relaxed at a table with my parents, sister and a duo of our favorite travelers, Merv and his wife from Australia. I appreciated how understanding they were of our questions about things like Australian culture, money and politics. Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but one of the greatest things about touring with an organized group like Trafalgar Tours is the opportunity to meet so many different people. Though we don’t always keep up afterward, it’s fascinating to meet families and couples from our the world during your amazing trip together. No matter what, you’re always linked in that way. And it’s really such fun.

So dinner was interesting, warm and engaging. Duncan’s father — and that’s who he is; the talented innkeeper who kept us all in stitches — began to give Robert Burns’ most famous address: the one to a haggis. After poking fun at the tourists about what a haggis really is (and if you don’t know, maybe you don’t want to), a casing was brought out to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the room. Our entertainer recited Burns’ poem, asked for volunteers and put on a very amusing show.

So how was the famous haggis, a delicacy most people on the tour were brave enough to try — even my mother? Not too bad, really. Meaty. Warm. Kind of squishy, but not gross. Sort of like sausage, really, but with a spicier kick than I’m used to eating. Not the most awesome thing in the world, but definitely not the most terrible. And since it was an absolute requirement that we do a shot of Scottish whisky (that’s whisky, friends, not whiskey) before consumption, that warm buzz might have helped me push through it.

Our evening ended with authentic highland dancing and more lovely bagpipe music, and I was filled with the bubbly enthusiasm that typically accompanies an interesting evening out, good food and good company. Though jet leg was my constant companion during this entire trip, I really didn’t want the night to end. Waving goodbye to everyone as we boarded the bus again, I couldn’t help but think about whether or not I’d ever find that little tucked-away corner of the world again.

And the answer is “probably not,” because I really have no clue where we were.

That’s the other adventure of going on an organized tour: all the legwork is done for you. You sit back, relax . . . and wind up in very random locations you’d never be able to find by yourself.

Pros and cons to everything.

British escape, part IV: Edinburgh, Scotland

This is my fourth post featuring a spring trip abroad.
For previous travel posts, visit here.

After leaving the English Lake District and heading north, we stumbled across the Scottish border to arrive in Gretna Green — a lovely stop with infamous roots. The sun was shining and the people were friendly — plus, I managed to grab some whisky (no “E” there in Scotland!) as souvenirs. Who doesn’t like alcohol as a “Hey, I’m back!” present?

Our first night was spent in Glasgow, where we had a late dinner and didn’t get to explore much of the city. We were on the outskirts, it seemed, and far from anything we could walk and see. But our second day in Scotland brought us to my favorite city of the trip: Edinburgh! And how alive, intriguing and beautiful it was.

Leaving America for Great Britain, you definitely know you’ve left America — but in England, a place that’s growing familiar to me, I didn’t feel quite so out-of-place or foreign. Not so in Scotland, which was so unique and interesting to visit . . . a place that really felt far away. I loved the unique mix of the old and new as you wound your way through cobblestone streets on the Royal Mile and gazed at Arthur’s Seat (at top), which is quite famous and a place of prominence in David Nicholls’ One Day. We had lunch and walked along High Street, pausing to admire the wares of vendors, ducking in souvenir shops and listening to the cackle of street performers and their audiences.

If I thought I loved photography before, this trip completely transformed me. It was the first time I’d been away with my Rebel and wow, am I in love with that baby! I could have wandered around Edinburgh for hours, people-watching and capturing the flavor of the city. Though it was a chilly and drizzly day — much colder than the days to follow, we’d learn — I was bolstered by the city’s energy and my desire to see as much as possible in a short time.

One of the coolest things we spotted there was the Scott Monument, a Victorian Gothic structure commemorating the accomplishments of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. My dad remarked that it “looked like something out of ‘Lord Of The Rings,'” and so it did — this looming, creepy and remarkable edifice in the middle of the city. No matter where we turned in Edinburgh, I kept a close eye out for its spires. If we’d had more time, I would have loved to stand beneath it and peered in; we saw people ascending stairs there, too.

I was also amazed by how comfortable I felt in Scotland. The hustle and bustle of London is one of the things I love about it, but it can get overwhelming — as any major city can. New York and D.C. are like that, too, but I’ve grown used to those. Edinburgh is a giant, sprawling place, too, but it didn’t feel quite so hurried. Maybe I was in a different frame of mind then, too. Our time in London was my responsibility to plan and adapt and change. Having never been in charge of an itinerary with my family, the pressure was on. But in Edinburgh? Well, I could just hang out and let someone else worry about the plans.

So much to see there, and so much I’d love to see again — including the view from Arthur’s Seat. Though we only spent about six hours in the city, I’m looking forward to returning . . . and doing more shopping on the Royal Mile. And maybe consuming some whisky. And, more than anything, just roaming around and maybe getting lost. I’m learning that, above all, that’s what travel means to me: losing track of time and yourself and your worries and scattering. Edinburgh is definitely a place I could scatter and peruse and daydream about and love.

Gretna Green: The Jane Austen connection

Arriving in Scotland after hours on a tour bus, I was a sweaty and harried mess — and desperate for both the loo and WiFi. I had no idea that our “comfort stop” would be in Gretna Green, a town famous for its clandestine marriages and elopements for centuries.

I recognized the name instantly from Jane Austen’s classic Pride & Prejudice; it’s the town to which Lydia and Wickham were believed to have been headed in an effort to “seal the deal” and marriage in secret. As the Jane Austen Centre points out, eloping in Austen’s day was anything but romantic — and would only lead to scandal and heartbreak for the families of the “fallen” woman who would agree to or be coerced into such a terrible thing.

Gretna Green first gained its reputation for quick marriages for underage lovers when, in 1754, England passed a law “requiring all marriages to be recognized by the church and that couples under 21 have parental consent,” the Centre writes. “Scotland was more liberal at the time; couples as young as sixteen could marry freely simply by having their marriage proclaimed in front of two witnesses, no clergy needed at all. This caused a veritable stampede of anxious young lovers, spurring on their horses only as far as the first town across the Scottish border, where they could marry safely and consummate their unions with a clear conscience.”

And y’all know teenagers are all about consummating their unions.

Wickham never had any intention of marrying poor, naive and ridiculous Lydia, though; the guy was a schemer and a jerk (though totally hot, especially in that uniform). Though they did eventually marry, eloping was seen as a bad omen for the start of wedlock: a union not blessed by a member of the clergy had no bearing, regardless of whether or not it was “legal.” And goodness knows the Bennets were none to pleased with the arrangements, though at least Lydia was married and not just living in sin with the guy.

Today, the Old Blacksmith’s Shop still stands to welcome those wishing to marry without delay — and a bevy of shops and a Scottish bagpiper are accommodating to visitors, too. As we wandered through the stores (and may or may not have purchased a few flasks of Scotch Whisky), the Blacksmith’s Shop began to buzz with the entrance of a bride and groom. We didn’t get to stay for the wedding, but we did hear a few traditional songs on the bagpipes — and I snapped tons of photos.

A lovely little place and a worthwhile stop. I can see why Lydia would have wanted to make haste to seal her union with Wickham . . . I mean, let’s be honest: Darcy is brooding and unexpectedly kind, but Wickham was the real roguish hottie in P&P. You can’t fight danger and intrigue!