Cycling and Other Good Habits

- by Fred Schlomka -

Uyeasound, Unst, Shetland -

It’s an idillic morning scene, at least it should be. Light cloud today and the wind is medium. In Unst that means you only have to lean a little into the blow in order not to be bowled over. A nice contrast to last month, which was mostly and unseasonably sunny with not much wind or rain. The water is lightly rippling today, and I hear the wind blowing over the sun room/conservatory attached to the house. I know the weather will not be too heavy today because the gulls and other birds can be heard over the wind, even through the conservatory glass.

I’m looking out across the sound to the salmon farm, a collection of huge cages floating on the calm water of the North Sea. I learned last night that the corporate fishermen shoot seals that get too close. I have no idea if or how the seals can hurt or eat the salmon, and am repulsed by the thought of anyone wantonly killing these majestic creatures. Another ripple in my northern paradise.

Over the past two months I have cycled almost daily along the bay at Haroldswick, and when the waves are calm, the seals haul themselves atop the rocks at the shore and lie there sunning themselves, sometimes for hours at a time. Occasionally their heads lift and their large swimming eyes peer around. They stare directly at me and seem to exude a wisdom that defies any description or rationale.

Just as the seals are content to lay on the rocks for hours in timeless harmony, so too my tranquil sojourn on the island of Unst starts to take on similar parameters. It’s been almost two months and despite the sporadic internet and lack of reliable mobile service, I am content to embrace a different rhythm of living, at least for a while.

I have my ‘Lerwick Day’, once a week or so. It’s not so far. Two and a half hours via mini-bus, ferry, then a larger bus and another ferry. I cross three islands to reach to metropolis of Lerwick - population about 7,500 - capitol of Shetland. It seems like I arrive in the city. I do other things for 24 hours.  Shopping at the Coop and Tesco. Live music at the Douglas Arms. Coffee with Dave and lunch with Diane. A bit of shopping getting bits and pieces not available in Unst.

Then back on the bus and back to the haven. Two and a half hours. Two Buses and two ferries. It’s nice. Uncomplicated.

I’ve cycled the length and breadth of Unst, and then some. Well over 1,000 miles ( about 1,600 kilometers) during the past two months. I love my new Raleigh Motus bicycle which will now reside in Unst and be ready for me each year. Complete with the latest Bosch technology these cycles can move briskly up any hill in any weather conditions.

The efficient little motor is built in to the bottom bracket and moves the cycle only when pedalled, thus every journey is still a good workout. The hills are still hills and muscle power still required. The gearing is sealed in the rear hub - eight gears by Shimano. One of the best. These machines make the ubiquitous cheap Chinese electric bikes in Jaffa seem like children’s toys. Next year I’ll do some serious touring on it. I’ll get one just like it for Sunita. The Scottish West coast and western isles beckon.

House hunting moves along. Our plan to spend about three months a year here includes finding a home. We zeroed in on ‘the Hamars’, a 17th century two-story stone house in Haroldswick next to Victoria’s Tearoom just twenty meters from the waterfront with a perfect view and a broken down old stone jetty poking into the bay. We have dreams of running it as a B&B and reserving one room for ourselves. The three bedrooms upstairs will each have tiny en-suite bathrooms, suplemented by a ‘bathhouse’ downstairs in what used to be the added-on chicken coop, complete with hot tub and peat-burning sauna. We’ll remove one of the staircases, take down some walls on the first floor and turn three rooms and the stairwell into a large farmhouse-style eat-in kitchen and a large ‘Great Hall’ with a fireplace at each end. The great hall will be the living room/salon, gallery for local artifacts, and venue for occasional harp performances.  It’s a lovely dream and depends on whether we win the bid that we are submitting by the deadline of July 12th. Send good vibes. Wish us luck.*

Also looking at other houses - just in case. But I’m feeling lucky.

My sojourn has been broken only by the arrival of this year’s tour group of harpists. A fine and eclectic bunch they are. I fly to Edinburgh to meet Sunita and get the tour started, then fly back to Shetland to await their arrival ten days later. The harpists had a fine time studying harp with Sunita and Corrina, a top Scottish clarsach player and teacher. They visited Loch Lomond, Isle of Arran, Loch Ness, Caithness, Orkney, and finally Shetland. Sunita took them hundreds of miles of driving in the coach, and six ferries to finally arrive at the isle of Unst, to be greeted, wined and dined by myself and local guide Les Sinclair.

A highlight for the group is the 3-hour hike up past Saxa Vord Radar Station to the most northern shoreline in Scotland with soaring cliffs and an unobstructed view to the most northern lighthouse of Muckle Flugga. Then a nice light hike along the heath to Skaw Beach, pausing for tea at a convenient clifftop, and a pause to Skaw Peat House for a wee dram. Only six out of the fifteen tour participants went on the hike after I reminded them that there are no trails, only rugged turf, and stout boots and a walking stick are needed. The rest went on a coach tour with Les, to see Muness Castle, the replica viking Longship and the Unst Heritage Museum with its fine local lace, woollen goods and artefacts.

The tour highlight on Shetland is the concert that we produce annually as a local event to benefit the Unst Heritage Trust, with Sunita and several local musicians performing. This year we also ran a raffle and raised almost £400 for the charity.

Then we tour back south to Lerwick and spend a day visiting Jamison & Smith Wool Brokers, and the Mirrie Dancers artisan chocolate shop, before turning the group loose for an orgy of shopping at the many craft shops in town.  Sunita leaves with the coach and the group on the night ferry to Aberdeen, then Edinburgh via Cairngorms. She flies back to Shetland a couple of days later and we luxuriate in Lerwick’s finest B&B at South Ness House hosted by Pippa and Colin. It is Midsummer’s Eve. We missed the carnival a few days ago, but the sunset light was magical.

The bright yellow/white beams flashed off the wings of the birds as they flew past our bedroom window, easy to miss lost a wisp of brilliance too quick to capture, but I did, in one lucky photo. Click the photo on the left to see the magic.

Then back to Unst for our final two weeks.

I’ve used my time here to try my hand at serious writing, with sporadic results. The novel is definitely in the works. The idea is well advanced, and outline and synopsis in it’s sixth version. The amount of research still waiting to be done is awesome. Most will wait until I find time to rummage through my sister Helen’s archives and interview a long list of people back in Israel/Palestine. Four chapters have been written and rewritten more times than I care to acknowledge. The main struggle is to nurture and allow a voice to emerge that is uniquely mine. It’s a lot about letting go, and not trying too hard, kind of like what I tell my karate students:
 ‘Relax the upper body, and allow the core to initiate the techniques.’

I think that with creative writing, the upper mind, the ego, needs to step aside a little, and allow the all-knowing core of our spirit to emerge and drive the narrative. It’s hard. However I do believe that the challenge will define much of the process, and perhaps never be fully realised. There’s always another to height to crest, with the all-illusive goal never quite within reach.

Perhaps the journey to reach that goal will become the defining characteristic of the book itself. Hard to know at this stage. Journeys are never the same when being experienced, as opposed to hindsight. I do believe that whatever modest success I have achieved is when I focus on refining the journey and leave the goal, the destination, to take care of itself. We all have our own process. This is mine.

Sunita is also hard at work with her writing - music in her case. New arrangements of her inner beauty as expressed through her chosen medium, the harp. She’s hoping to have several arrangements of devotional Celtic music ready for a publisher by the time we depart Shetland. As I write the sounds of her process to refine the music arrangements drift through the house and meld with the blustery sounds of the winds and the gulls. Definitively Shetland for me.

Eric and Ann came for dinner last night. Lovely people. English. They came to Shetland eight years ago and never left. They are both artists, gentle souls whom we are proud to call friends. The islands are a pleasing mixture of interesting people from outside of Shetland, and indigenous folk, many of whom still ply their timeless crofting trades and fishing, yet welcome those of us who come in search of something intangible and not available in our ‘other’ life. We are made welcome and can quickly become part of the wider community in a manner not readily found among islanders who can also be quite clannish. This is a partially open society and I am grateful.

There’s various ways that I’ve quickly become known here. I teach karate twice a week at the local ‘Leisure Centre’ and shop once or twice a week at all three of the peerie island shops in Baltasound. Showing up at local events expands acquaintances as does stoping by unexpectedly to visit crofts, workshops and offices. I even tried my hand at cutting peat with an ancient farmer. It helps that I cycle everywhere with my bright yellow flag flapping atop a flagpole on the bike. I’m quite noticeable and a few people call me ‘Fred the Bike’.

Soon Sunita and I will be off again, me to San Diego to visit Logan the grandson, and Sunita on a performing tour. We’ll meet again at the Staneslow family reunion in Minnesota couple of weeks later, followed by the Schlomka ‘Gathering’ in Santa Cruz. Busy times. Life is good. Then I’ll be off exploring more of America, picking up where I left off last summer, this time trying to focus on cycling  through some of the ‘other Americas’ - Native American and Latino communities. The border regions. I hope to continue my search for the Real America begun last summer when I cycled several states. One thing I did learn. The USA is more than one nation - as is Israel. Perhaps this is the prime commonality of both countries - They pretend to be one, yet nothing is further from the truth.

* Fred & Sunita were successful in purchasing the house

Fred Schlomka is the CEO of Green Olive Tours and currently spends about half the year in Israel/Palestine, and a few months each year in Shetland and the USA, where his grandson Logan came into this world in 2016.


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