London Ramblings pt 3: A little Scottish boy, Arthur’s Seat, and Italian Backpackers

The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain

BY WALLACE STEVENS

There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.

He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.

It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,

How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,

For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:

The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,

Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.

*This is a continuation of London Ramblings pt 1, and pt 2, on Basic England 

While in London, other abroads were accessible via a Eurorail pass, and the movement became addictive. One weekend it took us to Scotland. When we arrived in Edinburgh, it was late and we were famished, so we roamed the streets in search of Haggis and Scotch. Edinburgh is windy, literary, and old. And maybe this is my subconscious euro-centrism talking, but something about its oldness made it beautiful, made it art. I don’t know much about laws of aesthetics, but it didn’t seem to matter: the oldness of the place overrides the clutter and the decay sanctifies the bad weather. We finally found a place that was open called the Greenmantle and the joint was teeming with bodies and beards. We nestled in the corner and watched in amazement at the cliché of the moment: of course there is a band with a banjo and fiddle, of course the entire joint is joining in song and clinging glasses in the air, of course everybody here is in a flannel and has red hair. It felt like a place that I was destined to return and make my home. We left the bar, high on the authenticity of the experience, and trekked the streets towards our dorm. A friend and I tripped over each other and a fault in the ancient road, and laid pitifully engulfed in laughter for at least an entire minute in the middle of the street.

I, of course, continued to have trouble orienting myself to this city—my “home”—and its bus routes. It really shouldn’t be that difficult because the route pretty much only goes in two directions: If you just make sure you aren’t driving further away from your destination, you’ll get there eventually. But the artful massiveness of everything was intimidating, and we, of course, managed to find ourselves on the wrong bus, with the destination on our map apps floating further and further away from us. We became the classic huddle of young Americans, loudly arguing about where we were headed and what our next move needed to be. I noticed, in seats to our right, a little boy and his little sister, both no older than 9, intently observing us. I could tell he was worried for us. He had that protective air about him that adultless meanderings will give a big brother. It is safe to assume that he was much more intelligent and capable than the combination of the group of us, and he was obviously—while humbly—aware of this. Out of exasperation one of us exclaimed, “which way to London!” We all laughed, but the joke indicated to the young boy that he was now absolutely obligated to interject. “Excuse me, mam…” piped a darling Scottish accent, as he stood up and politely addressed me: “I’m sorry, but this bus is certainly not going to London… Are you lost?” Yes, young boy, I am very lost in your land, and I would very much so like to be your mother.

The next morning we woke up mangled and unrested, but determined to pretend otherwise. After eating what breakfast we could sustain, we set out to hike Arthur’s Seat. The art of the place came to be about the compatibility of environment and construction; nature and society. Someone decided to build the Scottish Parliament Building right next to Arthur’s Seat, and both seem to agree to be where they are. They each rest, settled and thankful. But parliament decays, while the mountain does not. The mountain exhales its acknowledgement of this temporary sufficiency, exclaiming in praise: “You belong here. You belong next to me. For now, you belong to me.” Unlike every other attraction we had visited (Greenwich, Cliffs of Dover, The River Thames, etc), Arthur’s seat was unaccompanied by gift shops or tour guides. It was steep and unpaved, and the wind made the peak seem exhilaratingly dangerous. From here we marveled at Edinburgh in its entirety: in all its history, beauty, and decay.

Late that last evening a group of us went bar hopping in the attempts to claim as much of the city as we could in the short time we had left. I was stopped by a couple of delightfully lost, backpacking Italians. They insisted I show them “where to go for a good time.” I debated for about .2 seconds whether I would play the “who, me? I am just a confused and fragile American who doesn’t know this city or understand maps” card, but instead responded, “Follow me, boys!” As we left one place in pursuit of another, I took an Italian in each arm and one situated in behind me (one can only assume this was for protection). Finally an entourage, I thought. They insisted I teach them more English, which somehow resulted in their chanting my name and referring to me as their “American Dominant.” Any and all present during this brief brigade would agree that this was the moment that I peaked. I can almost promise my foreign night life tales will never surpass this encounter with my Italian entourage, who nestled me tight into their attentive flattery. However, the high was as fleeting as one might expect and my Italians abandoned me for a club that looked like a better time than I could offer them. I suppose my concierge services were sub-par, and they were quickly disillusioned with me on account of this.

I knew better than to believe in the providence of the notion that Edinburgh is my home. Just as I had become disillusioned with Nashville the moment I called it my home, so would I become disillusioned with Edinburgh or London the second I dared to consider myself as rooted in it as its decaying buildings. It seems that the traveler’s lofty destination is never really met, the longing is never satisfied, and no rest will finally bless the weary trek. There will always be a little Scottish boy in the back of my mind, reminding that I will never get to what I believe to be London, via a public transportation system. The best one can do for art and for the places one visits and longs for, is respect them as moving reference points and be willing to articulate our lost and floating failure to reach the destination and find the center of rest. The best we can do is concede to the little boy’s directions, for he is the local and he knows best. The sojourning nature of finding solace in buildings one yearns to call home renders the attempt to participate in the institutions they represent the actual antithesis of their allure. I talk a big game about being a nomad and in finding sadistic rapture in homelessness and orphanhood, but there is something deep in me that finds comfort in the fact that Arthur’s Seat will almost certainly be the same, offering the view while the view itself fluctuates, falls, and rises. Art longs for the sojourning individual to be above it, observing it, moving along it. In short, there is something good, something that evades interpretation, to be a human with legs that scale mountains and eyes that appreciate the smallness of otherwise dwarfing constructions. But then one must leave before the solace abandons like a group of backpacking Italians.

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