Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Needs More Bagpipe

The end of the year is a good time to look back over the past, or so I hear. I did a little reflection yesterday as I walked around Edinburgh, thinking about the fact that the last time I was here I was 16 years old, on a highschool month-long trip led by the Honors English teacher Mr. Merriman, whom we christened "Mr. Grumpy" by the end of the first week or so. I don't remember more than one day in Edinburgh back then, so the visits were about the same duration. I remember climbing up to the top of Holyrood, to Arthur's Seat, and taking a photograph of a thistle on the ground, because it was Scottish. It was the first time I'd been overseas and everything seemed exotic just because of the location. I think I remember seeing the slide of that photograph among the many that I threw away this past summer, its exoticism tempered by time and experience. But on the other hand, the child's eye, the beginner's mind, the ability to stop and take a breath and look around and fully appreciate the wonder of being where you are - that's something to keep.
I didn't climb up the hill this time, though there was a fairly steady line of rain-jacketed folk doing so; the weather wasn't inspiring, and due to the traffic my bus had gotten in later than expected, and there were other things I wanted to do with my time. I went over to look at the Palace of Holyrood House, "the Queen's official residence in Scotland" as the sign on the gate informed me. They were charging admission to get in, and while I considered making the argument that since Clan Farquharson had given the Queen Balmoral Castle, I should be allowed to go in for free, I decided to keep walking up the Royal Mile. We (she says with proper pride) still have another place farther north, Braemar Castle, and I would like to plan a trip back to Scotland in the summer months to explore the highlands and see it.
If you don't live in the castle, you live in the scruffy place across the street, or down one of the narrow alleys (wynds) threading through the buildings on either side of the main street.
I didn't go in to any of the churches, but there are plenty to visit. I stopped to sit for a bit in the courtyard of Greyfriar's Church, home of the iconic "Greyfriar's Bobby," a terrier that faithfully sat vigil at his master's grave for 14 years until he died himself. I can't decide whether that's a touching vision of enduring commitment and love or an example of pointless dedication to something that is dead and gone beyond recall. As it applies to my cheese career, it could go either way. There's a photo/meme going around the internet lately that I like, something about taking the perspective that one step forward and one step back isn't a retreat, it's a dance. Sideways is a good move too, if the only thing stopping forward movement is narrowly but solidly blocking your way.
At the top of the Royal Mile is Edinburgh Castle, a high fortified structure built on an old volcanic plug that has been used to defend the surrounding territory all the way back to the time of the Romans. It's no longer used as a royal residence, but it still gets a lot of tourists, and two of the woman staying here at the hostel who also went over for the day took the tour and said it was very interesting. But I had a mission to find lunch, and a gluten-free recommendation for a place down by the harbor.
I did more walking into more neighborhoods than there are photos; intermittent squalls of rain made me reluctant to get my camera out, and the light was iffy. Edinburgh is a hilly but very walkable place, and the bus system comprehensive even with all the detours for the street fair. I caught one of the lines that head down into the area called Leith, near the harbor, and went to Roseleaf, a funky little place tucked away near a kilt museum (something else for a future visit) that offers gluten-free options for their homemade food. Unfortunately not a lot of it is also dairy-free; though you can get things vegan, most of those are breakfast dishes, and I wanted something more substantial. I ended up getting a nice beef patty, and a pint of Scottish cider. I know, burger and fries is just too, too American of me, but I couldn't help it. The haggis wasn't gluten-free. Though there is a local butcher who makes that dish.
Then it was back to wander around the streets which were becoming increasingly filled with people, and with buskers, and vendors shouting about warm hats and mittens, and with the skies sort of almost clearing off, the temperature was starting to drop. I had my two wool scarves and Papa's Italian gloves, and they were keeping me warm for the moment, so though I was tempted (okay, not really) by the hats formed of fake orange-red frizzy hair topped with a garish red tartan tam o'shanter, I just snugged my scarf closer around my ears and kept walking. There were a few pipers playing in doorways; John had mentioned that one of his nephews, I think it is, had been busking in Edinburgh this week and had made 80 pounds in one afternoon, and I wondered if one of these pipers were he. There was a street performer as an empty-suit mime - wearing a too-large suit, with a hat and glasses suspended above the collar, and I think gloves on wires at the end of the sleeves - and another who was Charlie Chaplin, and The Most-Pierced Woman In The World, according to her claim.
The sun went down, and the alcohol came out. I am not sure if it's legal to drink on the streets in general, or just during a street fair, but there were lots of bottles and cans and glasses of beer and whiskey and anything else you can think of being consumed, and often tossed on the street. It was mostly the young men who were shitfaced first, but as it got later there were more young women in that group, many of them in short prom dresses without coats, barefoot on the icy cobblestones. I went down to the pub where I was to join up with a group at 8pm even though it was only 6pm because it was dark, and getting cold, and since I didn't have a ticket to the céilidh or the street party and fair area, there wasn't much else to do after walking up and down the main road. I'm not much for crowds, or for shouldering my way through masses of people with drinks in their hands, though the fair area seemed more family-oriented, with the carnival rides. I did not want to even think about those carnival rides in conjunction with the inebriated young men I passed, especially not the one ride that swung people on either end of a long arm vertically high overhead in circles.
I walked back up to the castle one last time to see it lit up for the night, and for a quick hit of fireworks - they were doing brief bursts on the hour, leading up to the midnight finale - and then went all the way back down to the bottom of the hill to the Tolbooth Tavern, the official meeting point for the Couchsurfing group. The locals were there at that point, with more people eating up in the area where we were going to meet at 8pm. I asked for a bit of peppermint tea (still dealing with the aftereffects of rich food, oysters, and forbidden dairy [yes, I nibbled some cheese and had a strip of buttery roast turkey skin]), and tucked myself away into the corner of a small round booth to read and people-watch. With my second cup of tea I had a shot of OVD (Old Vatted Demerara) rum, a dark smooth sipping rum from Guyana and a taste of British colonialism.
At 8pm the other meet-up people started to arrive, and while I spent about 15 minutes or so chatting with a young man named Isosceles from the Philippines, just finishing up three months in Scotland for his investment company, I realized that I didn't want to be chatty with anyone else. That, in fact, I am not chatty. I am not a mix-and-mingle sort of person, something that was evident at the wedding a few days ago as well. I could have gone around introducing myself and finding out about people - I often have a "What Would Bea Do?" mantra going in social situations, she being the most unselfconsciously social person I know - but honestly it had no appeal; at the wedding as well I truly was not feeling good, and ending up going home and into bed and falling asleep for 12 hours by about 6pm that night. I wasn't feeling poorly last night, however, and I could have done what Iscosceles did after I started to get ready to go, which was to pick up his drink and go right over to another table and start exchanging names with the people there. I could have even waited until the other two women from the hostel arrived, Mirna from India and Seishi from Japan, both now studying in England. Seishi graduated from Waseda University, although we weren't there at the same time. As a matter of fact, the year I was there was the year she was born. Passage of time, anyone?
I had climbed up to the top of Calton Hill just as the sun was going down, earlier. I'd misread the Hogmanay website and thought that there would be a torchlight procession up to the top of the hill, but that turned out to have been the day before. So I missed the massed bands, which I really wanted to hear. There was just not enough bagpipe music around in this street fair; the musicians on the stage at the céilidh seemed to all be contemporary rock groups, and other than the lone busking pipers shivering on the street, or the piped music coming out of the dozens of authentic Scottish souvenir tartan kilt paperweight tea cozy magnet get your clan history here stores everywhere, all I heard in the shops and restaurants was 80's American pop. I will have to look for events with the music I want to hear, like a pipe band competition perhaps, and see if I can combine that with a trip back up here to visit the ancestral castle, and also Bill and Sheila Garden again. Bill is one of Papa's remaining Scottish cousins, and the only one still living in Scotland. I went down to Beith where they live on Sunday, and they took me out to lunch, and we enjoyed a quiet afternoon's conversation. Sheila's invited me back any time, saying that the guest room is ready.
There will always be reasons to come back, and always reasons to move on and see something new. Part of revisiting a place is thinking about the years that have rolled by; part of planning for the new is hoping for the years that stretch out ahead. More often these days, whether due to physical setbacks or dated references that people around me don't understand, I'm reminded of my age, and that there is indeed a limit to the years I have. It doesn't bother me, but it is starting to spur me to see and do everything I can before I can't anymore. But there's one thing I can cross off my list, now: I've watched the fireworks over Edinburgh Castle welcome the new year in with exuberance, beauty, and light. I will take those three qualities with me into 2013, and enjoy making new memories.

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