Random Scottish bits

We just wandered today – with no theme or plan in mind. The overcast sky threatened rain, but none fell and the temperature stayed close enough to 50 to keep us mostly comfortable.

We hit two of the ‘must see’s’ in the guide book though, the graveyard at Greyfriers Kirk, and then Dunbar’s Close Garden. Both are described with words like, green, lush, beautiful. And I’m sure those descriptions are accurate, in the summer. But in the winter… well, cold and muddy would be the words I’d use to describe the graveyard, at least. The garden was still very nice, even if the trees were bare and lifeless.

Despite the mud, the graveyard was fascinating: old and creepy, just the way a graveyard ought to feel. With stones dating from the 14 and 15 hundreds all the way to today. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many carvings of skulls and crossbones outside of a pirate ship in my life. It was a photographers dreamland20141222_131804.

I have to mention two interesting bits of J.K. Rowling lore I’ve run into here in Edinburgh. (I read the books and enjoyed the movies, but as I was not a teenager at any point during the Harry Potter ‘thing’ I would never call myself a passionate fan, but these are interesting nonetheless.)

First of all, just down the street from our hotel is a little café called The Elephant House. Apparently J.K. Rowling wrote the first few books in of the series in that café. The place has a line almost out the door every time we’ve walked past it. Now, I understand on some level, it gives me a little thrill every time I see a sign that reads ‘Boswell and Johnson ate here’ or ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle walked this way’ but even for those literary giants I wouldn’t stand in line for two hours to get a glimpse of the chairs they sat in. Maybe they’ve bronzed the crumbs that fell off a biscuit that touched her lips. OMG! Let’s Go!

The second weird bit was in the graveyard. Now the whole place was muddy, but not too bad over all, until we came upon one section. I saw some people (late teens, early twenties people – that should have tipped me off) having their picture taken in front of a certain gravestone and the way leading to it was ankle deep in mud. When Will and I squelched our way close enough to read the marker we saw, ‘Thomas Riddell, Esq.’ I turned to Will in confusion, and he said, “She must have gotten a lot of the names in the books from this graveyard,” as it is located so close to the Elephant House. Right, Rowling again. Of course.

We walked the whole of the Royal Mile today (a Scots mile is apparently a bit longer than a regular mile.) The whole length is mostly just shops selling tourist crap, with the odd pub, museum or ghost tour tucked in here or there for variety. At the very bottom is Holyrood Palace – where the royal family stays when they’re in town. From near the entrance to Holyrood house, you can see the path up to Arthur’s Seat. We have plans to hike all the way up there on Christmas Day. Oh boy. I hope my legs can take it.

I don’t have an opinion on the idea of Scottish independence. I can understand both sides of the argument, and they seem equally valid to me. Having said that, I am aware that I come from a country that tore itself away from England, once upon a time, by “hiding behind trees and shooting at the English till they got tired and left,” as Will puts it to every person we talk to here. But there is a huge difference between our situation and theirs. It is called The Atlantic Ocean. I think from Edinburgh to London, it’s like a three hour train ride.

The Scottish take a huge amount of pride in being Scottish, it’s everywhere you look. Even our cab driver the first day said something about being a Scottish veteran, and resenting the fact that his discharge papers say he’s British.

Most Americans still take more pride in their European heritage than in being American. Would we act differently if we were still tied to England, and needed to emphasize our differences?

There’s no crying in Scotland!

I cried twice today.

The first time was upon entering “Game Masters – The Exhibition” at the National Museum of Scotland. The first part of the exhibit, called Arcade Masters, looked just like a real arcade from when I was a kid. And there was Space Invaders and Pac Man and Missile Command, all the old favorites. I saw moms and dads holding up their kids, showing them how to play, saying, “look this was my favorite when I was your age.”

I almost sobbed. Why? Oh, maybe I’m PMSing and tired from two days straight of walking, but I think it might be something deeper than that.

Will and I played a few games, I totally crushed him in ‘Elevator Action,’ but he’s generally better at all of them than I am. We moved on to the next section, I think it was called Modern Masters, showing the games from the last decade or so that have made their creators millionaires and have added the word Industry to the word Gaming. The room was full of Xbox’s, PlayStations and PC’s, all loaded with titles like Sonic the Hedgehog, Rock Band, all the Lego games and, my personal addiction, World of Warcraft. (I lost most of 2006 and a fair portion 2007 to that game.)

It was in this second room that I started to understand my emotional reaction. Along with the games, there were pictures of concept art and diagrams of game levels. There were videos of interviews with the designers, programmers, writers, with all the whys and hows of what they did. The creators are almost all like me, born in the 60s and 70s and grew up with the games. The loved the games so much, that they made their own, or found ways to get hired by the new companies that were popping up all over. All the games in that room represent creativity and passion and dedication and hard work. In other words, art. But the game isn’t removed from us, the audience, it isn’t hung up on a wall, it isn’t something we passively listen to or watch. It only lives when it is played, when the audience interacts with it, and through it, with each other.

Games are the perfect art form.

The third and final room held the Indie Masters. Angry Birds, Machinarium, Braid, Minecraft, etc. Some so brilliant in their simple playability, and others, well, more like a bit of modern art that leaves me scratching my head, huh?

I looked, but I didn’t find my game, Halloween Candy Capture, or my sister’s game, Mix Match Draw, among the games in this room. Ah well, someday.20141221_121407

Will and I spent the rest of the day in the museum, exploring Scottish History and eating in the amazing Tower restaurant there. We both feel that the museum is worth a return visit.

Later that night, after fish and chips and mushy peas, we turned on the telly and watched ‘Scrooge’ – The 1970 Albert Finney musical version of A Christmas Carol, which I’d never seen before. Will says the movie was an unfortunate part of his childhood, as his mother watched it every year around this time. I’m a sucker for a musical, even a bad one, (this one is really bad) and I watched the whole thing.

And it made me cry. A lot. But I will blame that on being exhausted.

Stamina, Schmamina

Jill’s Tips for Traveling: Eat often. Sit down when you see a seat.

Stamina n., enduring physical or mental energy and strength that allows somebody to do something for a long time

Stamina is not one of my strengths. In fact, if I could re-roll this character, I’d make stamina my primary trait, as its lack is something I miss constantly.

We spent about four hours at Edinburgh Castle yesterday. Four cold and windy hours. But I don’t want to complain, I want to tell you how beautiful it was, perched up on its rocky peak, amazing views everywhere you look, century upon century of human history underfoot. I want to show how awed I am by touching stone walls touched by some hard working mason four-hundred years ago. Some dude, who probably went down the pub that night and complained about repairing walls his great-grandfather built.

Almost looks as cold as it felt.

I want to tell you about all the people I saw, all the different languages I heard, and how the staff were all so patient and kind. Well, all except one guy…

In the Scottish National War Memorial, they have two dozen or so books listing the names of all the Scottish soldiers who died in the two world wars, arranged by regiment. It has a somber air, and is the only place where no photography is allowed. But the books have heavy covers, edged in metal, and the first time a new visitor opens one, they inevitably drop the cover onto the pedestal holding the book with a loud crash. And then they slink away, embarrassed by the noise they’ve made, afraid to touch the book again. At this point, the staff member, a wiry, middle-aged man with a quick, nervous step, rushes over to the book, and with a frown and a sigh, closes it. As I sat, resting, I watched him dart from book to book, closing each one, and sighing every time.

I would have giggled if I’d had any energy. The War Memorial was about as far as we got on the tour before I had to call it quits. The sun was setting, even though it was only 2:30, so maybe that had something to do with it. My brain has always had a strong connection to daylight.

Despite all that, Will has remarked often thus far how positively chipper I’ve been. But a few hours later, after a nap and some shopping, we started to search for a place for dinner, and my crabby side emerged. In my defense, we walked for an hour around the supposedly ‘quaint’ in-between streets of the New City (or is it new town?) before giving up and heading back to the Old City where our hotel is located. Rose Street in particular, I had read, was supposed to be a good place to find a restaurant, but all we saw was a lot of the same bars, over and over, and a lot of drunk barely 20-somethings, not at all dressed appropriately for the near-freezing temperature.

Now don’t think this was just my crabby-induced intolerance speaking, Will is the one that said it reminded him of South Street in Philly on prom night.

When we finally sat down to eat, my cheerfulness returned instantly.

Eat often, Sit when you see a seat. Stamina, schmamina.

Flying to Edinburgh

It is hard to explain my dislike of flying. Yes, I have those typical moments of fear, or rather, lack-of-control anxiety, during take-off and landing, but that goes away quickly, and is non-existent when I’m reading/listening to a really good book. (In other words, not paying attention.) My dislike is more about… feeling trapped in an uncomfortable seat for hours, hours that cannot, really, be counted on, as they are in constant flux, determined by weather and the whims of air-traffic controllers. It is about being surrounded by strangers when one has no social skills. It is about having to follow illogical and outdated rules, enforced by idiots, explained by no one. And that no one else seems to care that the rules make no sense.

Unfortunately, that is going to be the memory I take away from the flight from London to Edinburgh this morning. The memory of almost getting into an argument with an incurious, rule-following, high-heel wearing flight attendant. (Seriously – is showing off your calves really worth ruining your feet? Now, I love the way a pair of heels make my legs look as much as the next girl, but I don’t work on my feet all day. You do know that heels were invented to keep feet in stirrups, right? You can take that anyway you like.)

It was raining when we landed, and I realized we didn’t bring an umbrella, but it was ok because it feels like it ought to be raining in Scotland in December. Will was crabby and tired because the seats on the plane to London from Philly sucked and he didn’t sleep and he hadn’t had a cigarette in 14 hours. I only slept because I drugged myself up like someone going into major surgery.

So, neither of us were at our best when we got the funny-looking play money from the ATM then got into a cab. But our moods swiftly took an upturn. The first moments of being on the wrong side of the road in the UK are always thrilling/scary, like roller-coaster rides, where you know it is all fine, but it feels so dangerously wrong. The cab driver talked about the weather and about the failed attempt at Scottish independence, (“The people voted with their fear, not their dreams.”) and told us a funny story about the dysfunctional tram system the city of Edinburgh has (sort of) installed.

His brogue wasn’t too heavy, so I only missed one word in five, but the story goes that to get the local populous happy about the years long project that would make a mess of the city, they would start it off with a grand celebration: they’d roll a trolley down a small section of track, and break a bottle of champagne, make speeches, that sort of thing. Well, the big day arrived and the trolley was brought in, only to find the track was the wrong gage, the trolley wouldn’t fit. Apparently the people in charge of procuring the trolley never spoke to the people laying down the track. Head shaking and finger pointing ensued, and no champagne was drunk. (But probably lots of whisky later.)

The story is funny, but being told that story by a true Scotsman with his rolling brogue in a British cab, on the wrong side of the road, in the rain, in Scotland… well it was a wonderful moment. And that is why we are here, on the other side of the pond at Christmas. To have those little moments, to add to the story database. So that next Christmas, we can sit around with friends and family and say, ‘Remember that cab driver in Scotland…”
Hopefully I’ll forget all about the idiot flight attendant.