There's so Much World Outside the Door
I Want to See What People Saw
When was it that I fell in love with Scotland and all things Scottish? How did that happen? I’m not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment; I believe it was a process, but the Scottish band Travis is certainly a big part of it.
At 13 years old I was already dreaming in English, which probably had more to do with my parents getting cable TV than with studying the language after school, and my musical interests shifted from boy bands to Britpop and rock. It was in this particular period in my life that my older sister came across The Man Who and the rest is history. Travis’ music teleported me to a place among mountains where the sun rarely shone, where people spoke in funny accents and, despite the fact that they were an ocean away, it felt like their songs could have been written by someone in Uruguay. I spent hours attempting to translate their lyrics and looking at the pictures in the album artwork. One day I would go there.
I Want to Live in a World Where I Belong
After spending my first Christmas away from my family in London, I got in a ScotRail night train bound to Edinburgh. I arrived at Waverley Station early in the morning and as I was making my way to Princes St. I was able to make out Scott Monument a few feet ahead of me. It was as if I had been traveling through time and space, and I had just stepped out of the Tardis. I was overwhelmed, happy, and so tired. I was going to get a cup of coffee and wait for a more decent hour to go to the B&B where I would meet Mariel, but I started walking, suitcase in hand, and without even realizing it, I was suddenly in the Royal Mile. My eyeballs practically out of their sockets, unable to take it all in. The city was just waking up and for a few minutes it was like having it all to myself. These are the moments you cannot plan for when you travel, they just happen.
I was eager to have my first real conversation with a local. Was I going to understand their accent? Were they going to be as nice and friendly as I pictured them to be? I went into the first coffee shop that I saw open (this was before having Google maps on our phones) and I excitedly order a cappuccino and a blueberry muffin. “Where are you from?”, he immediately asked noticing my accent. My face must have shown utter disappointment. He turned out to be Spanish. “I’m from Uruguay”, I replied, barely bothering to open my mouth to articulate these words. “Norway?” “U-RU-GUAY”. “¡Ah, te viniste desde Uruguay!”, he said in Spanish, showing almost as much excitement as I had a few seconds earlier, anticipating what was supposed to be my first Scottish encounter. We chatted for a bit, he recommended I pick up the tickets we had purchased for Hogmanay (the New Year’s Eve party/concert) at the Fringe box office and wished me a happy new year. I found an empty table for one and sat down to watch people walking by.
When it was time to leave for our lodgings, I walked to the bus stop the owners had mentioned in our email exchange. I somehow got mixed up with the route changes due to streets being closed down for the big celebration and I was just standing there with a map in my hand and a confused look on my face, not knowing what to do next. A man came up to me and asked if I needed any help. He was an actual Scotsman! And he was talking to me! He not only helped me figure out where my stop was, he also walked me there and told me how long I had to wait for the next bus to arrive. Let’s be clear, this happens somewhere else in the world and: 1) good luck finding someone who notices you’re lost and 2) I would have been concerned about a stranger walking along with me and knowing where I was going. Well, not in Scotland. I blame the trustworthy accent.
I Want to Sing, to Sing My Song
Once Mariel and I reunited, we planned the next few days and, as would later become a tradition of ours, we immediately booked a walking tour. It is the most efficient way to get acquainted with a new city. The tour guides not only teach you interesting historical facts about the place where you are standing, they also know where to go and what to eat, how to move around the city and they usually share their favourite spots, those hidden gems that we, tourists, may overlook as we focus on more touristy, must-see locations, especially as first-timers.
A few minutes into the tour, I learned that the Scottish are a superstitious bunch and they have been blessed with the gift of storytelling. Allow me to elaborate. What comes to mind when I utter the words: Hume’s toe? Yes. David Hume, the philosopher. Probably, “what the heck is she talking about?” How about Greyfriars Bobby’s nose? Bobby who, you say? Well, as it turns out, people in Edinburgh seem to get a kick out of these traditions. As the legend goes, when you pass by any one of these famous statues, you must rub their toe and nose, respectively, in order to have good luck, in exams if you’re a student or just in life, and who is to argue?
Local traditions, whether real or made-up to keep tourists entertained, don’t end there. Near St. Giles in the Royal Mile, there’s a heart on the ground. The Heart of Midlothian marks the doorway to where once, in medieval times, stood the Tolbooth, a government building where people were usually incarcerated for not being able to pay their fines. Passers-by spit on the heart as a sign of contempt for the authority it represents, or for good luck. Again, who is to argue?
Another great tradition is naming pubs after bizarre events that are passed down generation to generation as folk legend. For example, Maggie Dickson’s pub. What’s in a pub name, you may ask? Let me explain. This pub is located in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, where public executions used to take place. Maggie Dickson was a woman who, in the 1700s, committed the crime of pregnancy concealment and was sentenced to death by hanging. But, as it turns out, she was being taken to her hometown to be buried when the coffin moved and she was found to be alive. It was determined that her sentence had been carried out so she was allowed to live. She lived for over 40 years after this mishap and it is said that she would offer refreshments and words of encouragement to those about to be executed across from where the pub now stands.
Then, we climbed Calton Hill and we discovered one of the sweetest traditions that has now spread to other parts of the world. At the top, there are benches overlooking the city and these benches have small plaques with dedications in the memory of loved ones who passed away but felt connected to Edinburgh when they were still alive. I’m not going to lie, we looked up how much it costs because of course we want to have our own bench in this magical place. FYI, it’s almost 2,000 pounds for 20 years of maintenance, and there’s a waiting list.
We’ll Never Learn Unless We Grow
Last but not least, let’s talk about what really matters. When it comes to Scottish cuisine, I wasn’t sure what to expect, the blogs I read were contradictory on this subject. We didn’t have to wait long for the moment of truth since our hosts, Annie and Sandy, prepared a full English breakfast every morning we stayed in their place, including black pudding and porridge. We are not used to eating that much food at the start of the day but it proved to be the necessary energy boost to walk around the city in the cold weather. Still, we both agree that it’s something we could never maintain for longer than three or four days, especially if we had to make it ourselves. Since Uruguayans are full on carnivores and waste no part of the animals they consume, I didn’t find the black pudding particularly disgusting, its contents and taste is similar to that of our morcillas. I did find it a little bit weird to have it for breakfast, but there are weirder things in life.
Speaking of weird, let’s dive into haggis. This traditional dish composed of the liver, heart and lungs of the sheep is not for everybody. I would call it an acquired taste, though when you have been walking outside in below zero temperatures and you go into a cozy pub and they offer haggis with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) with whisky sauce on the menu, you cannot refuse a hot, alcohol-infused meal… nor the calories. The beverage that comes with that, well, that’s another story. Have you ever heard of Irn-Bru? Up until that moment we had no idea that this radioactive-looking orange soft drink was 100 % Scottish and their sales surpass those of Coca-Cola within their borders. It’s not easy to describe its flavor; it is artificial, without a doubt, something along the lines of a citrus drink or Gatorade.
I Want to Feel Forever Young
I will never forget the first time I heard a bagpiper playing the soundtrack to our Scottish adventure or the “kilt alert” game we invented while walking up and down the streets of Edinburgh. Ok, I’ll admit that once you’ve been in the city for a couple of days, the song book tends to be quite repetitive, but play a bagpipe anywhere near me in any other part of the world and a smile will immediately be drawn on my face. The same thing happens when I think back to the days of our hunt for the perfect “man in kilt” photo to show our friends, which was not nearly as embarrassing as it is now as I type this. It happened rather randomly, as soon as we realised that during the holidays it was quite a common sight; whether you were wearing combat boots outside the cathedral, playing drums in a NYE’s gig (shirtless!), going to the pub or to a wedding, kilts were the must-have item. It was paradise.
I Want to Feel Like I Felt Before
Do you know that feeling you get when reality doesn’t match your expectations? Call it disappointment, frustration, anger, or simply sadness, none of this could ever apply to my first time in Scotland, and we hadn’t even been to the Highlands yet. Every little thing we did was met with a childlike sense of wonder and I think that I’ve been trying to emulate that feeling in every trip I’ve been on ever since that last week of the year in 2012.