Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Monday, February 9, 2009

Dining Alone in the Hebrides

A single candle. A single glass. A single wicker chair with two worn cushions, one for below, one for behind.

“Yes, I'll have a glass of wine. The Sancerre, please. Thanks.”

She sits looking out at the wee bay that separates Iona from Mull. Between them, in the gathering dusk is the Island of Women, a small, barren rock not much larger than a city block.

She wonders if all the single ladies are plopped here on the sun porch while all the partnered people and single men are gathered together in the dinning room behind her. Twisting in her chair, she peeks through the glass window behind to see folks in the full swing of their meals.

Is this sun porch really her own Island of Women? Well, Island of Woman, singular, to be exact. When Columba claimed Iona for the church he banished all the pagan witches to the rock across the bay. Perhaps his descendants still harbor a tiny distrust of independent women.

“Yes, I’ll start with Foie Gras.”

She sounded sure of herself, though inside she was a little conflicted. Did she really want the pate? She loves pate, but Foie Gras is such a delicacy and it comes with the price of the room, so has decided to be decadent. Even as the nice young man walks away she still feels torn.

Maybe her exile from the other travelers is her own doing. Didn’t she request that afternoon to be seated on the porch to enjoy her afternoon tea? The porch, where she can watch the people go by, the rain fall, as it always seems to be falling, on the Scottish sea and cliffs and granites of pink and green. Perhaps the inn keeper, respecting her solitude made it known to all the staff that she would be taking all her meals at that little table, with the single wicker chair, it’s partner pulled aside and secured against the wall lest anyone mistake her for a woman who was waiting for someone to join her.

The foie Gras arrives.

“Thank you this looks delicious. I’d love to have the chicken with rosemary next. That comes with asparagus? Great!”

The appetizer resembles a portrait out of Gourmet magazine. She thinks. She doesn’t really read gourmet magazine. But this little gelatinous rectangle of duck innards and fat sits somewhat tantalizingly on the plate, like a centerfold on a luscious bed of croutons and watercress. That first bite is rich and earthy and she closes her eyes to appreciate what a fine piece of work is this little concoction. It’s good, very good. Yet, she wishes she had just ordered the pate. This thought makes her smile. Why can’t she remember that although she appreciates foie gras, it is too heavy to eat much of, too challenging to her palate to really enjoy.

She sips her wine. Here she made a wise choice. The buttery complexity of this Sancerre delights her. Why are Sancerre’s so hard to find in the states, she wonders. It is such a magical little grape that never fails to tickle her palate.

The sun, which made it’s first appearance of the day late in the afternoon, is begrudgingly making its way to the other side of the world, somewhere behind her. As it sends it’s dazzling rays eastward it catches the rain and does that thing rain and sun do so well together, and a rainbow magically appears over the shimmering bay. She snaps pictures and turns to the empty porch, then looking through the glass partitions that separate her from the other guests. She is hoping someone else can see this gift that the heavens are delivering. But no one inside seems interested in what is happening outside. She turns back to the to the rainbow, to the water, to the boats that bob up and down as if they are trying to capture a bit of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple light before they are swallowed by the darkness of night. She alone will have to be their witness.

“There is rainbow out there, see just there. There were two of them just a few moments ago. Spectacular. Oh, yes, I’m done, thank you. It was wonderful but a little too rich for me.”

Perhaps the natives are too used to rainbows to find them noteworthy, she speculates when her plate has been cleared and she is once again alone.

The chicken arrives. It smells of rosemary and pepper, of warmth and comfort. Where the foie gras was exotic and alien, the chicken is inviting and familiar. The asparagus is crisp and buttery. She takes a bite of each, both are moist and exactly what she expected, only tastier as if this Scottish rosemary and pepper and butter and sea salt are really determined to make a name for themselves.

She settles into her chair, relaxing into the heart of her meal. The rainbow has faded away and a silver gray twilight is fast engulfing the view. In the distance, beyond the Island of Women, are the crazy cliffs of Mull. What are they called, she wonders. The land just there looks as if some giant picked up the island, turned it up on it’s end and made an accordion fold in the landscape then laid the island back down. The resulting effect, especially at dusk, makes it appear as if some ogre deep in the cliff has just slightly opened his blinds and is peeking out to watch the sunset.

She smiles across the water to the ogre, knowing his secret, solitary pleasure.

“Goodness, yes, it was truly delicious. I’d love another glass of wine, and maybe the pudding. That’s cake, right? I mean, it’s fully cooked. I mean, in the states we call pudding “cake”, so I just want to make sure you mean cake. I’m allergic to most puddings, like tapioca. It’s the milk, you see. Great, I’ll have the pudding.”

She loves those little discoveries of cultural differences. After three months of traveling, her mind is full of them. Each country and city seems to have it’s own way of doing things. Crossing the street in Rome is a leap of faith, best to find a nun to walk behind; Romans seem disinclined to run over a nun. She feels sure Londoners will run over anybody who gets in their way, regardless of their moral standing in the community. Parisians kiss on sidewalks seductively, Italians kiss hungrily. The Brits don’t seem to kiss. In Paris the men smile in appreciation. In Italy, the men chase and pester, while the women keep their distance. In Ireland, the gift of the gab is a true stereotype and conversation is ripe for the picking, In Wales and Cornwall and Edinburgh, and here, in the Hebrides, her final stop, she has been pretty much left to herself.

The pudding arrives. And the second glass of wine. Both feel like extravagant little afterthoughts. Like down pillows on a featherbed. Dense and chocolaty, the pudding melts as she chews. This isn’t the soft billowing sinful pleasure of a mousse in Paris. She doesn’t close her eyes to register its effect deep down in the sensuous depths of her belly, as she did when she dared that milky treat two months ago. Instead, this cake settles in closer to her heart.

Tonight, she decides, she will visit the chapel with the swallow chicks and the abbey cat. She will reflect on this journey that has unexpectedly brought her to this little sacred isle. She yearns for clarity, for revelation, for meaning. Why did she choose to travel when the economy is spiraling downward, why is she so alone, what will she do when she goes home, how will she make money, what is the purpose of her little beautiful life?

Tomorrow she will get up and make the pilgrimage to Columba’s bay, just as pilgrims have done for thousands of years. Perhaps it will be raining. Perhaps she will find the answers to her questions. Perhaps it will just be another step toward the unknown and unknowable future.

A couple in their early sixties enters the sun porch which now awaits the arrival of the full moon. They sit together on the love seat. They carry a collective sense of peace and compatibility. They nod in her direction, but they do not speak.

She is aware that somehow, in this short evening, she appears to have adopted a proprietary claim on this little window on the world. She’s become at home here. Though she welcomes visitors, the couple seems reluctant to shatter her solitude.

Closing her eyes and breathing deep, she finishes the last of her wine. Even though she predicts that she will be eating in this same spot tomorrow, she wants to soak in the feel of her little wicker throne on her little island of woman.

She opens her eyes and gathering her camera and the journal that has lain unopened on the table all evening, she stands to leave.

“ Isn’t this a lovely little spot? I’m just on my way out for an evening stroll.”