Glasgow: Wheelchairs, a Spitfire, and Mackintosh (Not a Raincoat)
Authors' note:This is the 9th of a series of blogs about our adventures traveling in Europe together in 2019. They will appear here on the fourth Thursday every month, and will eventually be compiled into a book entitled:Taking Chances, or How to See the World Living with Chronic Illness.
Glasgow was high on our places to visit in Scotland, primarily due to Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), who lived and practiced architecture and design there for most of his life. Not well known outside of Europe, Mackintosh has come back into vogue for his highly original aesthetic that blew away Victorian fustiness.
Located on the banks of the River Clyde, Glasgow became one of the greatest production centers of heavy engineering and ship building in the world during the 19th Century. The city, a major port and supplier of ships for the Triangle Slave Trade, grew and prospered in response to the growing demand for mass-produced consumer goods.
Today, the ship building docks and foundries along the Clyde are gone; torn down and replaced with a regenerated waterfront with new bridges, museums, arenas, restaurants and hotels including our hostelry, The Hilton Garden Inn. Glasgow is Scotland's biggest city and banking center, no longer grimy from coal furnaces, and full of lively sites and places to explore. However, many of the streets are still paved with cobblestones.
Wheelchairs are a fairly new invention. They are in many ways adapted to modern living. Therefore, I was glad to finally be in the city of Glasgow where the front doors are not on the second floor as at Castle Fraser. (Granted, there was a side door on the ground floor, a later addition, and terrible stone steps that wound up to the great room.) Cities and wheelchairs are made for each other in many ways. Though, I did experience my most spectacular spill right in the middle of Glasgow. More on that in a moment.
I cannot count the number of people trying to tell me they know how difficult it must be living in a wheelchair because they have tried it for a day, a week, or a whole month. But it is by no means the same as having to use it as your primary mode of locomotion. Particularly when the chair used for temporary purposes doesn’t compare to the one I use in any way shape or form. Nobody expects anyone to run a marathon in a pair of clogs many sizes too large for them. The mere thought of it is ludicrous. The chairs hospitals and others rent are a one-size-fits-all clog analog to the chair I use. These clunky, heavy chairs are made as emergency devices, not as a something to be used permanently.
I have been in a wheelchair for more than 40 years and done all sorts of sports in it. I know exactly what to expect from my chair. For the last 25 years I have used only custom-made chairs built to my exact specifications. My chair is best suited for all the things I need it for.
I don't have an alternative. There is no way I am getting up again after a few weeks or months. And, honestly, I don't even want to. Not only have I made the best of my situation, I have embraced it. I have chosen a fine-tuned piece of machinery that works for me in most everyday situations. The all-round device is my legs, my feet and my shoes all wrapped into one.
I have always had a strained attitude towards the wheelchair being the symbol of disability in general. Yes, it is very recognizable, and no, I never have to explain why I am disabled–—I am the embodiment of the symbol for disability. Therefore, while a wheelchair is seen as an inconvenience to most other people, I see it as a symbol of my freedom. From the time I was 10 years old, my wheelchair was a means for me to get around. Granted, I could walk with crutches until I was in my early twenties, but the chair was always my preferred mode of locomotion. I had mastered the chair to such a degree I was on the national wheelchair basketball team when I was 15 and the second person in my country to finish a marathon.
So, I never really thought of my wheelchair as an obstacle to living the life I desired. In fact, in many ways my chair was the gateway to many of my best experiences. It was the reason I got to travel the western world from the time I was a young teenager with wheelchair basketball and later wheelchair racing. It was also the reason I later became a ski bum in Colorado, not in a wheelchair, but a sit-ski made for people like me.
So, Glasgow was going to be a breeze. No dirt roads or extreme hills to climb. Reasonably modern buildings and elevators were standard most places. But there was one thing I had forgotten about. The scourge of European cities’ outdoor spaces: cobblestones.
Not all human inventions are made for each other. One of the great mismatches I have found all over Europe is wheelchair vs. cobblestones. Wheelchairs for outdoor use were not invented until we stopped cutting up granite into little squares only to put it back in the ground for somewhat smooth surfacing. “Somewhat” being the operative word. I think any woman who has ever tried negotiating a stretch of cobblestones in heels will agree with me: the road to Hell is paved with these insidious rocks.
So of course, I had to perform a spectacular spill right outside of our hotel in Glasgow on a small stretch of road someone had forgotten to pave over properly. I am so used to doing it that I usually land on the palms of my hands. But because of my inattention to what and where I was, I didn’t manage to stretch out my left hand and landed on my knuckles. And boy, do they know how to bleed!
After my spill on the cobblestones, I was patched up with Linda and David’s first aid kit. My hand might have looked like that of a mummy which was rather fitting since we were going to the “everything under one roof museum,” the Kelvingrove, afterwards.
This incident on the cobblestones in Glasgow was probably the worst thing that happened to any of us health wise. Considering the entire trip and everything that could have gone wrong with the three of us, I think we did exceedingly well. And, as soon as we got to the museum, I forgot everything about my mummified hand.
The Kelvingrove contains an odd collection of art spanning from Dutch Renaissance to Impressionism to the early 20th century Scottish Colourists, as well as a natural history department, a world-renowned arms collection, and a very fine display of the Glasgow Style of architecture developed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it has a very fine organ of nearly 3,000 pipes in an ornate, three-story hall. Not only did we go see the collection, we also managed to take in a concert with the hundreds of listeners crowding the hall floor and surrounding balconies. You haven't heard the theme from Star Wars until you've heard it played on a huge pipe organ.
The organ rendition of Star Wars wasn’t even the most extraordinary thing about this place. In another great hall off to the side from where the organ was I found a collection of exotic stuffed animals, a giraffe, a tiger, and an odd collection of other large mammals. Most famous among them, Sir Roger the Elephant, who had toured Scotland with a circus in the late 1800s and finally had to be put down and stuffed when he became too unruly in 1900. This assemblymight not have been so unusual if it wasn’t for the Spitfire fighter plane suspended only a few feet above Sir Roger’s head, ready to crash into the giraffe.
But there was more odd stuff. A great collection of armor in one room, right next to an exhibition of prehistoric life with small dinosaurs and other creatures from millions of years ago. From there it was only a few steps to a room full of Dutch masters. On the way there, I passed a narrow side-gallery where Salvador Dali’s Christ of St. John of the Cross attracted a throng of people. This painting is rather odd as many of Dali’s paintings are. The crucified Christ is depicted at the top of the painting, but viewed from above while it is hovering above a landscape with water and what appears to be a fishing boat, as if Jesus has ascended to heaven with the cross and is now looking down on the earth along with us, the viewers.
The Dutch masters were interesting. The time span stretched from classical Dutch Renaissance to post-impressionist paintings with Van Gogh’s portrait of the Glaswegian art dealer, Alexander Reid, as the best example of the latter. In one corner of the room I suddenly found myself facing a painting I had seen in books many times, Rembrandt’s A Man in Armor; a portrait of a young man in full plate armor, looking rather uncomfortable, with a helmet that is slightly too large for him, accentuating his obvious youth. He is something out of antiquity with his full armor, his lance and his round shield. Maybe an attempt to depict a time long gone.
Being a visual art buff, I spent most time in the different art sections. But, I also managed to see both a bit of natural history with pre-historic creatures as well as the vast design wing with the Mackintosh collection.
We spent hours in the Kelvingrove. Starting out together and quickly drifting apart, we would meet up once in awhile, maybe exchange a word or two before we split up again. There was so much to see that each of us had to choose what we found interesting.
Difficult as it was to depart the Kelvingrove, a meal was in order. David sometimes becomes so immersed in looking, reading, photographing, emailing, tweeting, he forgets to eat. I have to remind him that the low blood sugar alarm is about to go off. In Glasgow, I had very specific culinary wish: afternoon tea at Mackintosh at the Willow in downtown Glasgow. We had made reservations.
I’d looked at photos and renderings of Mackintosh’s path breaking designs for years. At the Kelvingrove I’d marveled at individual pieces created by Mackintosh and his followers. The tearoom would place the three of us in a Mackintosh environment.
What better way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon than at Mackintosh at the Willow, fine tea, scrumptious cakes and sandwiches and unequalled decor by Charles Rennie Macintosh, Scotland's greatest modern designer.
Getting there was somewhat of an adventure, since the Willow is on a former commercial street turned into a pedestrian mall. It's accessed via a large parking structure adjacent to a department store, but, standing in the parking garage, a route that avoided stairs was unclear. Fortunately, a forthright Scottish lady—actually I’ve never met one who isn’t—gave us detailed directions: down one elevator, through the department store, and up another elevator to the pedestrian mall. After a brief walk through the mist of a gray rainy day, noting a handy Boots Pharmacy on the way, we spotted the Willow sign in the unmistakable Mackintosh type font and entered the bustling tearooms.
The original tearooms opened in 1903, but the spaces filled with natural light and open stairways still amaze today. “Art tearooms” were the brainchild of Catherine Cranston, daughter of a Glasgow tea merchant and local businesswoman who sought an edge on the competition. Conceived as venues where people could meet and enjoy non-alcoholic refreshments (Cranston was a temperance adherent), the establishments featured a variety of different "rooms" within the same building. Each area featured a distinctive color scheme and design motifs.
Mackintosh at the Willow comprises the only surviving tearooms designed by Mackintosh for Cranston. The Willow had reopened in 2018 after an extensive renovation involving an army of top-flight artisans who brought Mackintosh’s brilliant creations to new life.
Eating in a Mackintosh-designed environment, with its iron, tile, wood and glass decorative materials in subtle warm colors on mostly white walls, is not only a unique experience but highly relaxing. The three of us were seated next to an elegantly etched white plaster mantelpiece with geometric accents and in the shadow of the baldacchino, the grand metalwork canopy suspended from the ceiling. We dallied over afternoon tea—finger sandwiches, scones with homemade jam and clotted cream, cakes in irresistible variety—for quite some time.
Knowing when to slow down, relax and eat while traveling is of vital importance to anyone living with a chronic illness. Afternoon tea at Mackintosh was a special treat, but memorable eating doesn't have to be expensive or complicated. (There’s a completely impromptu and unlikely solution to “What’s for dinner” in our next post.)
I recall reading somewhere that the food experiences that stay in the memory are situational, and I think that’s true. I’ve forgotten what I ate at any number of fancy restaurants, but I remember vividly the fried catfish I enjoyed overlooking the Mississippi River in Vicksburg or the ordinary but toothsome chicken salad wrap I consumed in a serenity garden on the USC medical campus after David had received some very nice news. And, of course, I won’t soon forget the perfect crumble of the scones at Mackintosh at the Willow.