Virtual Vacation: The Perils of Stuff, Day 6

Our last night in Edinburgh, Eileene and I had met up at the Urban Angel Café with Talin Vartanian, a journalist from Toronto, who would eventually be joining us at the retreat. Over the course of a lovely meal full of great conversation, she regaled us with baggage horror stories about Ryanair, one of the small airline companies that provide cheap commuter hops throughout Europe. According to Talin, these budget airlines bring “no frills” service to a new low. They have strict rules about the size and weight of luggage—and each extra kilo is charged on a precipitously rising sliding scale. On the lowest price fares, no checked baggage is allowed; you get one small carry-on that must meet specific size and weight restrictions. No exceptions.

According to a woman we met at a pub the other night, an enterprising entrepreneur has designed a special coat, full of many extra pockets, so you can wear your belongings on your body, so as not to be turned away at the gate. You get what you pay for, and in exchange for exceedingly cheap tickets, people are willing to travel with little more than a spare pair of undies and a toothbrush in their pockets. It sounds liberating, actually, if you understand the rules before you fly.

One of these small budget airlines is Flybe, on which I would be flying out of Inverness at the end of the retreat. Having bought my ticket through the international travel aggregator Vayama, I had no idea what restrictions there were on my Flybe ticket, but I quickly catalogued all the things I was carrying: a duffel-size golf bag, filled to the brim with clothes and a carton of books I’d made for my students, a black purse, a small fanny pack, a c-pap machine with its red and white medical tag, a backpack for my laptop, stuffed to bursting with my teaching materials, electronic cords, and my signature singing bowl for calling my students to order. I was also carrying a c-pap travel pillow, the beautiful Irish cape I’d hand-carried over on the plane, the small gifts I’d been acquiring for the past few days, and now, a shopping bag holding an unwieldy and extremely fragile glass lantern.

You can’t email customer service at Flybe–I found that out when I checked their website before I left California. But I guess that’s part of their no-frills service. All there was on their website was a European phone number which I couldn’t call, so I left home uncertain about whether or not I’d paid for my luggage. “I’ll deal with it once I get there,” I thought.

Back at Urban Angel, Talin cautioned, “You should google ‘Ryan Air Horror Stories.’ In the fine print, when you buy one of these tickets, they say they can turn you away without a refund if you’re way over quota.”

Way over quota was my middle name.

As we said our goodbyes to Talin that night, I shouldered my backpack, rebuckled my fanny pack, and picked up my shopping bag. “No matter what happens,” I thought, wondering nervously what my voyage home would be like, “it will make a good story.”

Two days later, once we’d had settled at Robyn and Geoff’s house, I was determined to get my baggage issues squared away. As I described my dilemma, Robyn remarked, “Europeans travel differently than Americans. People in the US feel outraged that they can’t bring their belongings with them. They feel entitled. But here in the UK people are accommodating and understand that these planes are small and only hold so much stuff.”

I’d never really thought about it that way and I fantasized about what it would be like to be the kind of person who could cavalierly toss a few things in the pockets of my coat or carry a tiny bag with everything I needed for a weekend away. Of course, in Europe, you can take a weekend away to all kinds of other countries. But I wasn’t here for a weekend; I was here for 18 days, I was a sleep apnea patient carrying a $4000 dollar piece of medical equipment, and I was teaching besides—there was no way around it—I  was encumbered with stuff.

With Robyn’s help, I was able to finally find the tiny confirmation number I needed to pay for my bags on the Flybe site. I purchased the largest option—23 kilos or 50 pounds. I knew my big bag weighed less than that—but I wasn’t taking any chances. I found out that I could take my c-pap machine as a second carry-on—as long as I had a note from a doctor—which I did. I’d been carrying that unopened envelope around for years—and now it seemed like I was finally was going to have to show it to somebody.

To make all this work, I was definitely going to have to ship a box home—including my precious, fragile stained glass encumbrance. No shopping bags allowed on this airplane.

Once I had my belongings sorted out, I emailed the writers who would be following me. (Just in case you’re planning any travel using one of these small cheap European airlines, you, too, can be forewarned):

Dear Writers,

I’m enjoying a wonderful breakfast at Robyn and Geoff’s magnificent table (you’ll have to read my upcoming blog post for more on that) and have been able to resolve my baggage issues. I have just a few notes to add to what Robyn already wrote to you:

1. I bought my ticket through an aggregator (Vayama) and when I tried to use the confirmation number on the Flybe site, it didn’t work–but when I looked more closely on my confirmation email, I actually did find a second confirmation number specific to Flybe. And it worked on their site–though I had to precisely make my name the same as it was on my reservation. The first time I put it in, it wouldn’t accept it, until I added my middle initial.

2. I bought 23 kilos of bag weight for one bag. This comes out to 50 pounds. Your choices are to buy a 20 kilo bag, a 23 kilo bag or two 20 kilo bags. This is the maximum allowed–and the weight limits are strict. Keep in mind not just what you are bringing with you, but any additional things you might buy while you’re here. (If you buy something you can wear on your body when you’re boarding–like a cape or a sweater, you’re golden). It costs almost three times as much to pay for your luggage at the airport–so do it while you’re still home.

3. Weigh your bags. Off load a bunch of crap you really don’t need. Once you get here, I swear you’ll wonder why you schlepped so much. But do bring warm things–a hat and gloves, a windbreaker, a fleece shirt or vest–you’ll want them once you’re here. And definitely a raincoat or poncho. You’ll be glad you had it. Clothes–you need very little. Newbold is casual and you can do laundry if you need to.

4. As Robyn said, only one carry-on is allowed–so everything must fit in that bag. I realized I could put my small purse (empty) in my suitcase and fit my fanny pack with my essentials (passport, wallet, phone, notebook) in my laptop backpack–voila–one bag. This, too, needs to fit size and weight requirements.

5. If you use a c-pap machine, as I do, you can bring this as an extra carry-on, but only if you have a signed letter from your doctor. This is true of any other medical equipment you might have.

I hope this helps! I had a little anxiety over this since I discovered these rules once I was already here. You have the advantage of being able to divest yourself of unnecessary STUFF now before you come.

And believe me, it’s stunning here and everything you want it to be. Just take ten things out of your suitcase–and come to paradise.


In the afternoon, Geoff and Robyn took us to a lovely old antique shop full of ancient, fascinating quirky stuff. I knew I wasn’t buying, but it was fascinating to look. This was an old wringer washer:

There were special little rooms for everything:

And there was this lovely little glassed in room—you see them everywhere:

As we drove down the beautiful roads on the way to Logie Steading—an old farm estate that been turned into shops and gardens, I asked Geoff, who’s from California, what it was like to learn to drive on the left side of the road. “It’s like learning to lie consistently,” he said. “For the first couple of months, it was mentally exhausting.”

We passed road signs in English and Gaelic and a beautiful garden along the side of the road. Robyn explained, “Gardening is part of the culture here. Everyone who lives in an apartment gets an allotment—a space in the community garden.”

I laughed when I saw a sign by the side of the road, “Overtaking lane ahead.” Yes, they speak English here, but everything is not quite the same.

When we reached Logie Steading, Robyn ran into a small shop and came out with a sealed plastic bag. “This is the best jerky you’ll ever eat. It’s no-nitrate chili beef jerky from grass-fed cows.” As I took a piece and it burst into spicy flavor in my mouth, we walked down a grassy path toward the river. To our left was pastureland for a herd of Highland longhorn bulls. This fellow looked at me mournfully. I think he sensed that I was eating one of his relatives:

The hike to the river was stunning.

The paths were lined with heather:

And I fell in love with this willow archway:

After our hike, we headed to Elgin so I could make copies of the handouts I needed for the retreat and ship my excess purchases back to California. The woman at the counter of the stationery store asked me what size I wanted my copies to be, and I replied, “8/12 by 11.” She looked at me blankly. Oops, I thought.

She showed me the paper she had—a little longer and thinner than our standard paper back at home—but it worked.

She brought a few cartons from the back of the store. I bought a roll of bubble wrap and borrowed her tape and then tried to figure out how to package my glass lantern, cushioning it so it had the greatest chance of making it home intact. I used bubble wrap, tee-shirts I’d bought as gifts, balls of wool, and an excess shirt from my suitcase to protect it as best I could. Then I sealed the whole thing with strapping tape and borrowed a thick black marker to write, FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE on all sides.

With ten minutes to spare, I made it to the post office, and quickly realized that it was going to cost me more than the cost of my lantern to ship it home. I was just over the weight limit for the cheaper form of post, and there was no way I was going to repack that box. And I had come too far to turn away now—I was committed to the damn green thing.

The woman asked if I wanted to be able to track the package (yes), whether I wanted it insured (yes), whether I wanted it to arrive in five days or a month (five days). With each yes, the price went up. I laughed at the cost and my foolishness in buying such an impractical souvenir. Either my gorgeous green lantern was going to make it home in one piece—and I was going to treasure it always—or it was going to arrive home in shards. Either way, I was paying a high price for a good story.

As I filled out the customs forms and she stuck additional FRAGILE stickers all over my box, I asked, “Do you think they’ll treat it any differently if it’s marked fragile?”

With a perfectly straight face and a Scottish lilt she said, “Maybe they’ll throw it a little more gently.”

After all our business had been taken care of, and Eileene and I were both confident we could make it home without having to buy trench coats with a hundred pockets, Geoff and Robyn took us to their favorite pub in Findhorn Bay for dinner. We were checking out the restaurant as a possible pub stop for our group, and it definitely met my enthusiastic approval.

There was this sign right outside the door:

For dinner, we all had the best fish chowder I’ve ever had—full of chunks of fresh Scottish salmon, and a salad with fried/sautéed goat cheese on top—with a spicy sweet sauce on the top. There was fresh crusty bread and that organic local butter that tastes nothing like butter back home. And we each had a pint of beer. Every mouthful was perfect and all I could think was, “I have to come back here and eat this again.”

The pub was full of families eating together and a lot of good cheer. It was just the homey atmosphere I was looking for.

After we ate, we took a walk to work off our meal. The bay was grey and mesmerizing. The sky fantastic. It reminded me so much of Ketchikan, Alaska—all the boats in the harbor and the every-changing grays of sea and sky.

Once again, I was glad I had on my borrowed purple hat and my big wool cape. “Fall starts at the beginning of August here,” Geoff said. And it was true, I could feel a lovely nip in the air.

And then we drove on to Newbold House so we could see the place before the sun set. I was grateful that I’d be able to unpack for good—and finally see the place that was to be our home for the next 12 days.

P.S. I just had breakfast with Julie from California. She said she got my email at the airport and immediately took ten things out of her suitcase and handed them off to her husband. She said it felt great!

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