Friday, March 18, 2011

Japin' round the UK: Edinbuggery

Having lived in the UK for all of my 23 years I had never visited Scotland until last week. There was no reason for avoiding the country in particular, aside from just how far away it was. I know people (especially those from the US) will be quick to point out that the British Isles are tiny compared to most countries, but 400 miles is a long way to go for a weekend. As a result I flew.

It felt exciting yet strange to be travelling again, and despite the fact I wasn’t leaving the country and I was travelling using very dull familiar transport (aka the local bus and train) it was fun to be on the road again. It was stranger still to return to an airport nearly a year since I was last in one when I had flown home from Japan.

Being on a flight (albeit a short one) is quite similar to life itself I’ve discovered. You just want to ride it out as quietly and as effortlessly as possible, and you might set yourself little goals to achieve along the way to keep yourself active (like reading a book). Unfortunately, like life itself, you are constantly harassed by outside forces trying to pursued you to buy items you don’t want or to give you petty orders like keep “your seatbelt on at all times”, “turn off your electronic devices” and “pay attention to the emergency procedures presentation even if you’re a frequent flyer” (I personally continued reading my book as the stewardess demonstrated where the exits were and where the little whistle on the life jacket was).

On arrival I noticed that Scotland has a few odd little quirks – aside from the obvious and well documented presence of deep fried mars bars, kilts and bag pipes. I know that different regions of the UK have these quirks, such as Welsh road signs being duel language, or how Northern people using the term “mardy” but I still wasn’t expecting that Burger Kings in Scotland would sell kebabs. More surprising was the money.

For those who have never been there, Scotland has its own money. The money is legal tender across the UK but you can only get it in cash machines from Scotland. Whilst much of it was unremarkable I still smiled when I saw one note (I think it was for £20 printed by Clydesdale Bank) which featured Robert the Bruce and had a spider drawn in the corner and I couldn’t help but think of this.

Onto Edinburgh itself; the city has a very classical look about it. This is helped a lot by the university buildings and the numerous architectural monuments to classical philosophers and writers. I had been told before that the city was at the forefront of an entire wave of philosophy and literature during the centuries gone by, but I didn’t realize the extent that this was celebrated by the people of Edinburgh. It’s hard to walk far through the Royal Mile without finding a pub dedicated to one of the writers or great thinkers that once lived in the city.

The bar scene in general is very good too. It made a change to the soulless chain venues I’m used to in my local area. Strangely, unlike most international cities I’ve visited, I didn’t find an Irish bar, although I suspect there was good reason for that.

A weird pub however was the Greyfriars Bobby, a bar-shaped tribute to a Skye Terrier that never left his master’s grave in the fourteen years following his death. Outside there was also a statue dedicated to the pup. This seemed similar to Hachiko the Japanese dog that returned daily to Shibuya station in Tokyo to meet his master, even after his owner's death. Still, Hachiko didn’t get a bar did he!

The landscape around Edinburgh is very dramatic. You have the mount, where the castle and most of the gigantic ‘Kirks’ can be found, then on the other side you have the giant volcanic hillock of Arthur’s Seat and the failed-Parthenon-shaped National Monument adorned Calton Hill adjacent to that. Arthur’s seat is very strange to look at and it’s hard to view it without imagining the formation on a bottle of Highland Spring. Such is the sad truth that I can’t think of Scotland without associating it with Stereotypical imagery. I’ve become so American.

It was associations like this, and the fact I was wielding a camera that made me feel like a foreigner in my own land. I know Scotland is technically another country but we have the same money (in value and legality anyway), head of state and so on. Why should it feel so different?

The other side to this of course is I had become everything I have come to hate whilst being in London. Tourists here are a perennial problem. Whether they are clustering around in awkward little huddles, staring at you on the tube (staring at any person on the tube is a no-no, unless you are on first name terms), or are slowly walking in front of you gawping at Regent’s Street, they are a pain. The thing with Edinburgh however, is that it isn’t nearly as busy as central London so there is more room to amble lazily around.

Overall I enjoyed my time up in Edinburgh. It’s a fine city which is only let down by the weather and general chilliness.

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