As I was saying, I flew to Edinburgh on the spur of the moment, staying nine days from the end of August through early September. In my earlier post I covered the generalities: the whys and whats and wherefores. I went because I could, because I had the time and the freedom and the money. I went for the Edinburgh International Literary Festival (which expanded to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as a bonus) and out of love I’ve nursed for Scotland as close to all my life as it interests me to relate.
What makes this remarkable isn’t just that I upended my life and left; it signaled the end of one very, very (very) long married phase and the beginning of the rest of my life.
Dull. Let’s get to the fun bits.
I have no reason to lie to you; the trip cost a fucking fortune. Nervous breakdowns are expensive. I’ve been using the bank statement listing all my foreign transactions as note paper; I can’t bear turning it over and facing reality. I know what the plane cost (ouch) and roughly the hotel (oucher). Food, cab fare, festival tickets, souvenirs, beer… Not like I can return any of it for a refund or would even want to.
Note paper. All note paper.
Flying into a European city at the height of its festival season (books, the arts in general, the military tattoo and films: four separate affairs) without having pre-planned to do so, at a time when hotels are booked to capacity, is nothing short of foolhardy. In any case save duress, this would be a very bad idea. Duress, in my case, meant if I didn’t get the hell away I would risk losing the last bit of my goddamn sanity.
I had all of two hotels from which to chose, two with rooms available so late in the festival season. One was a guest house/B&B so expensive it gave me a nose bleed, the other a mansion far out of the realm of reality even if I’d knocked over a bank. Because I’m too pretty for prison, I went with the nosebleed, a beautiful little B&B – Appin Guest House – off Dalkeith Road, in a residential area to the southeast of central Edinburgh. I was by Arthur’s Seat, not far from the Palace of Holyrood, the walk to the Old Town roughly half an hour to forty minutes depending how many wrong turns I took and how many distractions.
Now, the B&B was expensive but it was ungodly amazing, like walking off the streets of 21st century Edinburgh straight into the Edwardian era. Have you seen that horrendously saccharine time-traveling film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour? Something something in time? That but without the gagging, a sort of time warp, space/time anomaly, timey wimey wibbly wobbly thing. Step outside and I’m a tourist in rumpled, not fresh as they could be clothing, dragging luggage. Step inside and my high-fashion silk dress squeezes me into a perfect hourglass, lace-up leather boots with sharp toe ringing on the floor, all topped with a hat nestling my well-coiffed hair – as opposed to flat and somewhat frozen locks on the one side, from resting it against the wall of the plane, sticking straight up in front because Edinburgh’s more than a little bit windy.
The floors of the hotel were marble, broad stairway showing gracefully well-worn wood, crystal chandeliers hanging from coffered ceilings, tastefully muted tartan carpeting throughout and general gob-smacking splendor. Fresh from navigating the streets of Edinburgh, dragging my worldly belongings behind bumpity bumpity down cobble-stoned streets, reaching that foyer I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the floor. And this before I’d even experienced their Full Scottish Breakfast.
Many more photos of Appin House here on Bluestalking’s Tumblr
The absolute silence of the place was a bit spooky. I’d forgotten hotels in Europe aren’t like those in America, they all but close down for several hours between breakfast and check-in time. I knocked on the “Employees Only” door, receiving no answer. I strained my ears to hear even a whisper of human noise, even the scurrying of a mouse. The quiet was almost oppressive but there was a chair to rest my weary bones, an outlet to charge my phone and little else I wanted aside from that. Half a sandwich from a New York layover sufficed for lunch with water from the Edinburgh airport.
I could wait ’til Doomsday, if need be. Communication with the outside world re-established, weary self safely and warmly ensconced in a luxurious setting frankly too good for me, it was time to start texting bragging pictures home.
Eventually, it was the maid who came along to save me, tsking both that I’d had to wait so long and also that the gardeners had left the front door unlocked, allowing me to come inside in the first place. I’ve never received such a warm and assuring, flustered and disbelieving welcome before in my life. Welcome! And how did you get in here… ? Oh, and your room isn’t ready, did I mention that?
My room hadn’t been cleaned but she took care of it in less than an hour, while I sat unmoving in the foyer, alternately texting madly and cackling at the consternation of friends I’d awoken at an ungodly hour back home in Chicago. For all I cared she could have repainted and tiled the walls, while she was at it. I had Facebook! Twitter! Text messaging! Pictures I’d already taken! THE WHOLE DAMN INTERNETS!
But breaking eye contact with my phone screen long enough to – with no small degree of annoyance at the interruption – look up at her antiseptic-smelling self hovering above me, I fell in love instantaneously. As the clouds parted, she handed me the key. “You must be so tired,” she said, in the way soothing, ethereally beautiful angels must, at the point of our death. I’d been bright-eyed and more than a little manic-looking, eyes evolved huge and staring wide from gazing at the flickering blue screen in the almost dark, but her eyes were so kind, her raw need to see me rest so urgent. Pulling the charger plug for my phone from the ancient socket in the wall, cord whipping behind me, I charged up the stairs into my newly-cleaned room, peeked to see that there was in fact an en-suite bathroom (it’s Europe, you can’t take these things for granted) and threw myself into sheets so white and starched I thought I’d never crawl out again.
The angel left quietly, soft clouds caressing my cheeks in her wake. To sleep, perchance to awaken and shower before nightfall. “Sleep, my precious… Sleep.” she whispered.
Three minutes later I heard her above, vacuum roaring away. My angel.
Thinking back, I’m not positive I ever once set out in an intentional straight line from the hotel to central Edinburgh. Lie: I did but never made it without streets changing names and buildings popping up where they hadn’t been the day before. Greyfriars Cathedral alone must have gone poof and re-assembled itself in a different location a good dozen times before all was said and done. For one solid day it was there every time I turned a corner, like some sort of twisted-ass Harry Potter wizarding trick. I could set out with it at my back, make a beeline in the opposite direction, then find myself smack in front of it again in half an hour without having made a turn.
It was not rational; it bent the laws of physics in half.
It got to the point I found myself ecstatic to recognize places I’d gotten lost previously. It’s not that I remembered how I eventually managed to get where I was going from these points. Rather, I was disproportionately gleeful I came to find streets I hadn’t meant to be at least once before. If I’d been anyone else tagging along with me I’d have ripped off my head, shoving the map down my neck as blood spurted from my arteries like a sprinkler. On my own, I just slapped myself on the back – a bit too sharply, at times -laughing it off.
In my peripheral vision, Greyfriars stood sentry, biding its time.
So, I spent these first couple days wandering, getting my bearings and memorizing every line of Greyfriars Church. I had no agenda save book festival events a couple of days hence, leaving fate to take me where it would. Putting a foot out the door each morning, I had no set plans. I picked a direction and followed my nose, which also seemed to pop up in unexpected places several times an hour. My map and smart phone were in my backpack for emergencies but the only real need I had of them was navigating back home at the end of the day. Because, well, they weren’t going to get me anywhere I actually intended seeing, anyway.
I floated through the city, embracing my own discombobulation, getting lost cutting through dark alleys, taking photos of details.
Uphill and downhill… Up and down, each up more steep than the downs, I swear to God. Defies all laws of physics. Or geography. Or geological who’s it. But you cannot tell me it’s not so.
Thank goodness for those huge breakfasts on subsequent days. I didn’t need to eat all day, not until dinner.
So I walked.
And got lost.
Walked some more, got tired, sat, got up and walked. Found a pub, had a pint.
Sword Swallower – Fringe Fest
Finding myself in Princes Street that first day, I blended with the crowds watching street performers.
And cringed along with them.
Found myself in the square in front of St. Giles Cathedral.
I gawped up at the architecture.
Gawped some more.
A bit more.
The cathedral was emptying out for the day, whisper quiet as I walked around taking photos. Just me and a handful of other tourists.
St. Giles, Interior
One last look, before they closed for the day.
Outside again, dusk had begun falling, travel weariness dead on its heels. All the early excitement walked out of me, I started coming back down. I dreamed again of starched sheets, dreamed of dreaming on starched sheets.
Just as I’d begun drooping, the Fringe Festival was revving up. Actors and comedians and singers passed out handbills to lure in well-fed and watered tourists looking for entertainment. At any given time I must have held thirty advertisements in my free hand. Not sure why but grabbing papers from strangers became almost giddying, all those hands stuffing things at me at once, elevator speeches chattering full force. I found that manic smile on my face again.
Crowds don’t usually amuse me, much less crowds popping out with hands. Must have been over-exhaustion making me slap happy. It got to be a game: how many papers can I grab?! I must have all the papers! GIVE ME ALL THE PAPERS.
So many venues, so much to see and quite reasonable. Dirt cheap, most of it. Had I not enjoyed so much free sampling on the streets earlier I may have been tempted, myself, on the first day. But I was growing exhausted.
And evening was coming on quickly.
Performance artists posed.
And all the posters and posters and posters glued everywhere.
Buildings grew dark as street lights began to glow.
And while the excitement of the revelers was palpable and alluring, gearing up for a long night, I’d just flown in from the States. Already awake more than 24 hours, I hit a wall.
Hungry for the first time since that hours’ old sandwich consumed at the B&B, dinner was another cold sandwich from a shop. Quick and easy. The forty to fifty to three hour walk back was exchanged for a cab.
Day one – a mere late afternoon and evening – was done. The next would be my first full day in the city. What little energy I had left I’d use reading that guidebook I packed, to research what I hadn’t made time to before, leaving in such a rush, and study a map more for ornament than anything. Then shower dust and sweat and the palms of dozens of people I’d brushed from Chicago to New York to Edinburgh, falling asleep on sheets ironed by an angel.
Grateful I’d fought against every excuse to not, yet came, anyway.
Back to Edinburgh.