Sunday, June 2, 2013

Edinburgh and the Scottish Rite to Drink and Fight

Flying from Belfast to Glasgow seemed ridiculous to my backpacking sensitivities, but it was only 10 Euro more expensive than a ferry and bus ride would have been and it took hours off the transit time. I had two and a half days to spend in Scotland of which I had initially planned to split as best I could between its two major hubs - Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Going through airport security when flying between Belfast and Glasgow is quite a bit different than flying from Des Moines to Topeka, not that anyone should have excuse to execute that particular flight itinerary.
For one, I got to keep my shoes on. This was never something I found as oppressive as most American flyers. I rather like kicking my shoes off at the airport for a bit. 
Our whole adult lives we are made to believe we must wear black shoes with a black belt and always wear a belt if you tuck your shirt in and always tuck your shirt in if it has a collar and you are going to a place that serves entrees over $20 and so on. So the idea of losing my shoes momentarily for the opportunity to watch men in distinguished business attire discard their loafers and tip-toe awkwardly through x-ray booths while some 23-year-old slightly disgruntled TSA worker named Chet informs them they have been randomly selected for further inspection with a grin creeping across his face is a small pain which I am willing endure.
I had mistakenly packed a multi-purpose tool in my pack which carried with it a 4-inch blade that I was now attempting to carry on the plane with me. I had also neglected to put my nine bottles of liquid, moslty shampoo and travel-sized body wash in a plastic bag. Together these would have likely earned me and my rectum a thorough searching in the States and as I worked out in my head which stance would be the least painful to be in while having one's cavity prodded, the female security agent who had found the items came over to speak with me.
"You know you were supposed to have these in a plastic bag?" she said.
"Yes, I know. I was in a rush and it just slipped my mind. Just a mistake."
"And what of the knife?"
"Another mistake. I checked my pack on the flight over and forgot I'd had those on there."
"Alright, I just feel bad though, you know? I have to dispose of the knife unless you want to post it back to yourself."
"Oh, no. No worries. It's alright. I can do without it and it would probably cost more to ship back than it's worth. Really thank you, but don't worry about it."
"Are you sure it would only take a second and I can hold your stuff here so you can skip the line when you come back?"
It was a dramatically different conversation than the one I feared we were about to have. One that included which of the large gentlemen overlooking the security proceedings I would be getting to know much better than I had initially hoped.
I bounced from security knife-less, but invigorated by my good fortune of being able to sit comfortably for the next two weeks.
The flight to Glasgow was only about 20 minutes  and upon landing I grabbed a shuttle to the train station to collect my ticket to Edinburgh for the next day.
After Belfast, I was feeling slightly down about the prospects of Glasgow which was Scotland's financial and shopping center and thought seriously about taking the whole time I had allotted for the country and spending them in Edinburgh.
On a bit of whim, which I admit was quite freeing, I walked around the city hall area by the train station for 10 minutes or so, signed a petition to end the "Bedroom Tax" in Glasgow for which there was currently a protest in favor of outside city hall and also of which I am fairly certain I have no legal say in, took a couple pictures for good measure, and boarded a train for Edinburgh.
One the the great delights of not doing too much research on a place before you travel there is the propensity for surprise when you arrive, both for better and worse.
The train station in Edinburgh is essentially underground and so as I alighted from the car I was not certain what I would find once I reached the top of the steps.
As I exited the station I was frozen. Never in the planning or research for this trip had I expected what my eyes found before them.
The view in all directions was so picturesque, so fairy-tale like I had the feeling I had been deposited into the fictional set of a Disney princess movie.

Edinburgh as seen from the train station both above and below.

After a day in a city who had essentially been at civil war last decade, the panorama of gothic cathedrals, parliment buildings, ancient colleges, and a 900 year-old castle set atop a dormant volcano, was more than I could truly absorb. 
I was so overtaken by the experience that I rather forgot to go to my hostel and drop off my pack, opting instead to roam the city with a Sherpa's load just to see it. 
For the next two days I very blindly stumbled from one ancient, astonishing site to the next with little plan or checklist of must-sees and the whole event was sublime.
One of the first spots I  explored was also the most dominating feature of Edinburgh's Old Town which dates back to early medieval - Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle from the north

The castle as viewed from the south.
The Castle gates

Edinburgh Castle stands atop the basalt core of a lifeless volcano and many of the buildings behind the castle walls were erected in the 12th century. Over the centuries the fortress has served as a palace for Scottish royals, a military garrison and even a prison. In one room, the notorious Mary, Queen of Scots, the only female ruler of Scotland, gave birth to future British king James VI. Later she would have her head removed for treason after being charged and convicted in the Babington Plot, a plan to assasinate Britain's Queen Elizabeth, a protestant, so that Mary, a Catholic, could ascend to the crown and rule from the English throne.
The Scots had a centuries-old history of resisting English rule before eventually signing a union between the two countries in 1603 to unite under the flag of what would then be called Great Britain. 
Some of the most inspirational words ever spoken about freedom come from the ancient Scots.
In the Declaration of Arborath, a Scottish  declaration of independence that land barons sent to the Pope in 1320, they asserted their loyalty to King Robert the Bruce, famed in the movie Braveheart, and their willingness to fight to maintain independence from England.
"As long as only one hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be brought under English rule, they wrote. "For we fight not for glory, or riches, or honors, but for Freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life."
If those words do prickle the hairs on your arms, likely none will.
And while no Scottish landowners are painting their faces blue and charging into armed aggresion against the English crown anymore, they all are more than a little prideful of their history.
Despite being under the flag of Great Britain, refering to a Scot as being English is likely to earn you a headbutt to the teeth or a beer bottle to the back of the noggin. Especially if this misnomer is cast down at a bar, where Scots are no strangers.
The men of Scotland drink as if every night is their bachelor party and every day is a vacation.
They drink scotch whiskey as if they were diabetics and it were insulin.
And they fight.
I only saw one fight given, but I was only in country for two days.
After watching how the Scots interact drunkenly at pubs with kilts full of agression and confrontation in their words at every vowel, I began to appreciate them a bit more as a people.
They are not hiding from this reputation of hard drinkers and willing combantants. They embrace it. They are unafraid of fighting, mostly because they do it often, I think.
The one thing about being punched in the face a few dozen times in your life is it makes each future blow to the jaw remarkably less newsworthy. 
It is not a rare occurence to walk by the alley pubs behind Princes Street at night and see a small gang of Scots stumbling through the doorway spitting blood and slapping each other on the back. 

headstone at a cemetary in EDinburgh.

On my final day in Edinburgh I retired to my hostel early for a nap so I would be rested for a night out. 
It is an unusual situation to sleep in a room full of bunk beds and 10-15 other people after your last year at summer camp in your youth.
Someone will snore. A few will stumble in proudly drunk and wishing to tell you about it at 3 a.m., and someone might steal your shit.
The last item had been a worry of mine before departing the states and I had bought several locks to secure my things when I was away from the hostel in each city.
As I settled in for this nap, I kicked my shoes to the side of the bed and thought momentarily about locking them in my locker before tired eyes got the better.
I awoke to find they were gone. 
I rolled around the bed, butt in the air peaking underneath and yet there was nothing. I was the only one in the room, but the door which usually remained locked and shut, as it was when I went to sleep, was now ajar. 
I did a cursory search of the rest of the room before bounding furiously to the front desk.
"Someone stole my shoes. Stole them straight away from my bed while I was  sleeping. I have no shoes!" I said.
I do not usually speak in a tone that would require exclamation marks, but the verocity with which I engaged the diminutive Canadian girl at the front desk called for one.
"Do you hear me? Someone stole my shoes!" I very Americanly announced again for good measure.
"They stole..."
"Yes! My shoes. While I was sleeping!"
"I don't think anyone would steal your shoes."
"Well they did. So, there's that. I want to search the other rooms."
"I can't do that, sir."
"Why not?" I demanded.
"I don't think I'm allowed to do that."
"Should I walk barefoot to the train station tomorrow? What elsewould you   have me do?"
"You can have a look around the room. Did you do that?"
By now my volume had attracted a crowd of a half-dozen other hostel guests who had been eating the the nearby community area.
"No. In all my dismay and anger I somehow forgot to actually look in the room. Is that the kind of idiot you think I am?"
"I'm sorrry, it's just no one would steal shoes."
"They would," I said, then gave a slow accusatory look  around to the other guests before finishing with emphasis, "and they have."
The whole merry band of us decided to go have a look in my room for the shoes and actually collected a couple of other search party members on the way.
Upon entering I showed them the empty floor from where my shoes had been abducted.
Giving them a gratifying and arrogant glare as I pointed to the floor as if to say, "You see now you thieving jackasses?"
With almost perfect timing a Spanish fellow who had been using the bunk next to mine returned from the shower to witness the scene.
By this point I was in full flight.
"What is eh going on in here?" he asked in slow practiced English.
"My shoes aren't here, they've been stolen. Did you see them? Did you leave the door open so someone could steal them?"
"No, well I did leave the door open because I did not have my key, but.."
"Really? Do you realize you've just cost me my only pair of shoes? I have no damn shoes now all because you'd rather not have to bother with the laborious task of knocking? Are you serious?"
I do not scream generally, but this was as close as I had been since riding The Revolution, a particularly topsy-turvy vomit-inducing roller coaster in my hometown, when I was eight.
"My friend, it is okay. Your shoes were in the floor and I did not want them to get in the way or get lost so I put them on your bed rail."
Silence falls upon the room. 
All eyes to me and then eventually to the small piece of bedding that is hanging over the side bed rail.
The man I had been practically accusing of petty theft and overall low moral character for the last few moments walked to the bed and lifted the sheet to revel a pair of white Nikes.
The offended and decidedly foriegn crowd turned to leave and with my pride shattered and replaced with pompousness I dropped my head and thanked the Spaniard.
The young hostess who had earned the initial attack offered the final blow.
"Those are the safest shoes in Europe," she said. "No one here would ever wear white shoes. Europeans think white shoes are for old people." 
I could only nod in defeat.
With a hostel full of freshly minted enemies, I was suddenly excited about the prospect of traveling on to London the next morning.

overloooking Edinburgh.

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