Wednesday August 31, Cambridge – London
My cousin took a special training class so she could take us up on the roof of King’s College Chapel.
Woo! She signed us in, got a walkie talkie and some flashlights, and unlocked the secret door in the back. We climbed 157 well-worn stone steps (the chapel was finished in the early 1500’s) of a dim spiral stairway and admired graffiti carved in the wall from throughout the ages.
The roof was great! My favorite part was climbing a ladder to the very tip top and just sitting there. I could have stayed for hours. I doubt I’ll ever have an experience like that again…sitting on the peak of a roof of a 600-year old church.
Also cool, we got to walk between the stone roof (that you see from the interior) and the wooden roof above it (the one with the lead that I sat on).
This isn’t a great photo, but it is above that ornate ceiling you see in the photo below
There are holes in the stone roof so you can peer down into the chapel. I felt, irrationally, that the roof was going to collapse under my weight!
The interior of the chapel is beautiful. We haven’t gone in too many churches on this trip so I wasn’t burned out on them and could appreciate it.
I don’t know why but I love these guys
After lunch we caught the train back to London and checked into the hotel – Citizen M. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a great concept. Super tiny rooms, almost like being in an RV, but with big beds and really nice common areas. The upstairs bar has great view of the Thames, couches, and you can hang out there all day and night.
We walked over Tower bridge (nicer than I remembered) and waved to our friends D. and J. who were just returning from somewhere by boat.
They are the ones that told us about Festival no. 6, one of the reasons for this trip. We met up with them at the hotel and had drinks at the bar, then took the tube to a great Chinese restaurant down an awesome seedy alley with shops selling poppers.
Tuesday August 30, Cambridge
My cousin was very sweet and understanding when we told her we were going to move to a hotel. Fortunately there was a Holiday Inn express five minutes from her house, along a pedestrian-only path that ran past an idyllic lake and field of bunnies. And, oddly, a military training course with a barbed wire fence–and bunnies.
My cousin is, I believe, a fellow (?) at Cambridge. I’m not sure if that is the right term. She does research and teaches. She’s got an office and a lab. And because of that we got extra special access to everything!
My cousin could eat three meals a day for free in this insane Hogwart’s style dining hall!
I’ll probably explain this all wrong, but from what I understand Cambridge is made up of separate colleges. Students apply to a certain college, regardless of major. Sounds almost like getting into a sorority. You live at the college and get lots of support from it, but your major is made up of people from all different colleges. My cousin belongs to King’s College.
All the colleges (that I saw) are collections of pretty, gothic-looking buildings, very ornate. King’s College is particularly attractive. Tourists aren’t allowed in so we felt very special. Also, only staff can walk across the lawn! She took us across but it felt wrong. It was so perfectly groomed.
The river Cam runs behind the buildings–fenced off to keep out “geese” according to the guard, aka the riffraff punting on the river. I’d have liked to take a boat out–the college has its own boats–but my cousin said she was not good at it.
My cousin’s office, where she does her teaching, has an amazing view and a fireplace. Her lab is in a modern building adjacent to the botanical gardens.
Downtown Cambridge is a mix of old and new–the new not particularly interesting (e.g. the mall) but the place feels vibrant and not trapped in the past.
R wasn’t feeling well so I had a good dinner at a pub with my cousin and her girlfriend, then made the long trek back to the hotel.
Monday August 29 – London to Cambridge
We checked out of the hotel and wandered around Shoreditch, trying to find the Nomadic Community Garden I spotted from the above ground train. A guy in a shop pointed us in the right direction but alas, it was closed on Mondays. We could still see a lot through the fence. It looks to be part garden, part burning man camp.
There’s a lot of nice graffiti art in Shoreditch. I think some of my problem with the paintings at the Tate is that they meant something viscerally to the people of the time, whereas we have to read the little plaque on the wall and even then it can’t resonate with us the way even graffiti can.
We thought we’d get lunch at a fancy food hall at Selfridges on Oxford Street, and we did, but it wasn’t that good.
The store was packed thanks to the bank holiday. I had the dumb idea to try to do some shopping but it was too expensive and I didn’t want to lug things around even if I could have afforded them.
I was curious to see all the different types of Muslim outfits the women in London wear. I know only one woman in a headscarf in San Francisco (she goes to my gym and lives in my neighborhood and we chat). She is pretty westernized with just the scarf and otherwise “regular” clothes. I saw about 100 women in various forms of dress in Selfridges alone. Everything from the full black outfit that covers everything but the eyes, to a loosely-worn headscarf with regular clothes (granted with long sleeves). And all varieties in between. I need to read up on this because I could tell the women were from many different countries and I don’t know how much of the dress is cultural vs. religious. I don’t want to be ignorant about such a current issue.
(BTW: it would be easy for me to look stuff up after the fact and act like I knew all about it when I write this, but that isn’t the point. I’m trying to capture what I experienced and thought at the moment and in real life travel the only thing I google on the spot is train and bus schedules, locations of museums, etc.)
The men with these women are almost always dressed like extras in a soap opera based in Los Angeles. Western, brand-conscious casual sportswear. Jeans, expensive shoes, fancy shirt. Absolutely no indication of their religion or country of origin. ???
I wandered into Hyde park where truly insane people were ranting. Public speaking in the park is a tradition but these guys were garden variety lunatics. I found a quiet place to deal with my credit card being turned off, despite the fact I’d let them know I’d be away. Buying a $6 bowl of soup was considered mighty suspicious!
Late that afternoon we caught the train to Cambridge.
I was thrown off by the development around the train station. Most of the towns we passed through have the “old town” near the station but the station in Cambridge was surrounded by boring, haphazardly-placed, newly-built, 10-story apartment buildings. Not charming, and no where I’d like to live. My cousin told me (later) that Cambridge is becoming a commuter town for London, since there is a fast 45-minute direct train there, rents are cheaper, and schools are excellent. Unfortunately that means people that work in Cambridge are getting driven out.
My cousin lives in a short and skinny house with a long and skinny yard. She is on the end of the row of houses so she gets extra windows. It is a decent size for one or two people but I can’t imagine trying to raise a kid in a house that small. And no closets!
Nearly all the houses in town are more or less identical, following three main floor plans.
The majority seem to be row houses and are horribly monotonous (to me) especially given the lack of vegetation. What a cruel architect. Why not build in some variety? It is so dehumanizing. My house is..that one…I think. I see this kind of construction all over the U.S. as well, so I’m not singling out the UK. I don’t like it anywhere.
We walked from her house into the city center for dinner. The “old” town felt real and living, not geared towards tourists, which was nice. I’m amazed how nice the waiters have been everywhere, especially given that people don’t really tip. I think San Francisco might have the least friendly wait-staff of any city I’ve ever visited.
The guest bed in my cousin’s house, true to theme, was skinny…and we are not! The mattress was comfortable but we spent the night elbowing each other and trying not to fall off.
Sunday August 28th, London
I wracked my brain to come up with a good pun having to do with the prime meridian, longitude, mean time…I know I had some good ones…Help!
I thought going to Greenwich to see the prime meridian and the start of time was not something any other tourist would consider doing. WRONG! I also thought we’d pop over there for a few hours and then do other things but it ended up eating up the whole day.
Firstly, it always takes way longer to get places than you expect on the tube because the map isn’t to scale. R. read an interesting article about how people make bad decisions on which route to take based on that map. I made that mistake myself, choosing a line that looked like it was only one stop from our hotel, but turned out to be a mile.
So it was probably an hour before we were even standing on London Bridge dock. The woman in charge usually worked at another dock and was quite flummoxed, not sure which boat was going where. When our boat finally arrived they tried to say they were full but she fought for us, yelling at the man, telling him, look, 10 people got off, you can take these people. She triumphed!
Greenwich was jammed! A huge attraction apparently. The town is very cute. The last of the tea clippers, the Cutty Sark, is on display.
Everyone and their grandmother was clomping up the hill to the Royal observatory to straddle the prime meridian, even though we likely crossed it a dozen times walking from the dock.
I didn’t realize that sailors had latitude figured out, but longitude was the problem – for navigation. One of the most interesting exhibits at the museum was about the development of a clock by John Harrison (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harrison) that would work on a ship, given the changes in temperate and humidity and the motion.
His first three designs were beautiful (and large) and the fourth, an amazing apple-sized work of art that really worked! An enthusiastic American guy saw me admiring it and recommended a book called Longitude as a good read.
I also saw a very old telescope used to discover Uranus (?) and a camera obscura.
We got a snack and took an above ground train back instead of a boat, and saw the dock lands redevelopment (I tried to piece together what we saw and what a cabbie was telling us about Canary wharf being a place you’d never go 20 years ago and now his mate’s place is worth 1.5 million). Ultra modern enclaves surrounding quays. I got that I “could be anywhere feeling” when we passed through.
I hoped to do a little shopping but we arrived on Oxford Street at 6pm and everything was closing, so we got back on the tube and went home.
Lazy, at the hotel, we decided to get dinner across the street at a place called Dishoom. We’d been watching people line up for it for days. It was tasty Indian food but clearly benefiting from hype.
Tomorrow we head to Cambridge!
Saturday August 28, London
This hotel, the Boundary, has a really great store/cafe on the ground floor and where we get to eat our included breakfast. I wasn’t sure how it worked, but worst case, we pay for it.
It’s a bright happy space and I was content to be there. It was all the best of London and I didn’t have to move. Accents, a nice view, food. I asked for tea, and so did R, and the waitress said, “Tea for two?” OMG I’ve never heard that asked seriously.
I decided to walk to the Tate modern. It’s less than two miles from here. We are in a cute neighborhood with interesting shops, including a thing called Box Park that is a bunch of shipping containers side by side and on top of each other–with shops or restaurants in each.
Some impressive high rises are being built in Shoreditch (and everywhere. This town is exploding). My phone took me on a weird path through them. Felt like downtown San Francisco on the weekend. Scary and deserted. Still, I like that London is a living and changing city. A skyscraper next to an old pub, that kind of thing happens all over.
Right next to Millenium bridge, the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Thames and drops everyone at the Tate, was a steep stairway down to the muddy bank of the River. It was one of those “never in the U.S.” stairways, nearly vertical tiny mossy steps with no handrail. Still, there were people down there rock hunting so I crept down.
The bank/beach was interesting and horrifying. I sat on a damp rock to examine a few square feet and immediately found a bone that might have been a vertebrae. Also, lots of shards of cups and plates, who knows from when. I saved a piece, hoping it was from the 1800’s. Much terra cotta and/or bits of bricks. Rocks. Very few shells.
If you zoom in on the picture, you’ll see most tan things are bones
I thought my bone was unique, then I saw a two-year-old blonde Russian toddler bobbing her way back to her mother, holding a femur. There are bones EVERYWHERE. WTF? I’ll assume they are animal bones…
A sweet pre-teen came up and asked me if I’d found any treasures. I showed her my way too light (as in not heavy enough given their size) black rocks and she speculated they might be coal. Hmmm!
The Tate couldn’t hold my interest, not after the mysterious bank of the Thames. A giant building, tourists dutifully shuffling through, exhausted…Sometimes museums feel more like zoos, the art held captive.
To be fair, I really liked this pile of radios. Many were playing. There was nothing else like this though.
I’m a big fan of natural light and the Tate had little of it. I wish there was a way to display one masterpiece on every street corner. Would people even take notice? If we take these paintings out of the museum, are they no longer great works?
I’m pretty sure I’ve hit the wall that I usually hit much sooner. My brain is shutting off. When I’m wandering around the Tate thinking the art sucks that is a pretty good sign. I need a day in a white room!
I made it home on the Overground (I hadn’t heard of that until this trip!)
We did a little bar hopping in the area, but it is all 20-somethings trying to mate.
Nice alteration of a do not enter sign
Good people watching for sure and the weather was great, but in boring but real life, my tooth was hurting. I’m supposed to get a root canal but every time I’m about to make an appointment it gets better and stays good for half a year, so I put it off. It began to hurt in the morning and by night was really nagging.
I went back to the hotel and downed ibuprofen and R. brought back really good tacos and we ate in the room.
Friday August 27th – Edinburgh to London
Today was a travel day and I’m going to keep this short because I’m behind.
We said goodbye to Edinburgh with a crappy train station meal and beautiful clouds.
The train initially headed east and I got to see the sea again. It is a different sea than I am used to. Kind of sluggish, with barely any waves, and few sandy beaches. The land turned to mud and just lay there.
The people across from us had the good view
Too soon we were back in England. Edinburgh must be just north of the unofficial border. Many nice towns on the way south, but I can’t say I’d want to live in any of them.
We arrived in King’s Cross station and though I didn’t realize I’d been missing urban energy it hit me the moment I got off the train. People, busy people, lots of them, going places, animated. A part of me I didn’t know had been tense relaxed. This, all this. The long taxi line. The woman trying to corral three children. The drunk Englishman meeting a friend. The fancy older woman in expensive shoes getting into a cab with a man in a patterned scarf. Us, getting in our own cab with a chatty young cabbie who wanted to know where we were from and telling us about his trip to Orlando with his children to Disneyland, and that he didn’t need to go back.
I’d thought of Edinburgh as a big city until just this moment.
Our hotel is just what I needed. No view per se on the third floor, but we have SIX windows. We had only a small one in Edinburgh. And they actually open, fully. Unlike Las Vegas, London is pretty sure we aren’t going to try to kill ourselves during our stay.
We went up to the roof bar for drinks and sunset, and to count cranes. London is under construction. I counted 22 without doing a full 360. The weather here is very good. Mid-70’s I’d guess. Way better than San Francisco, where my friend just instragrammed a photo of herself in a wool coat.
We sat next to a real London asshole. A guy with a wedding ring who asked where the cougar bars were in San Francisco because he is heading there at the end of the month. He had two pink rum drinks in front of him that he proudly proclaimed had FIVE kinds of rum. His button-down shirt strained as it tried to hold in his belly.
We left to go for a walk since we’d been sitting all day. Shoreditch has a fun Williamsburg-esque vibe. We ate at a packed food court/food truck thingy called Pump. Had a drink at some other place with a too-loud DJ.
I reluctantly rolled down all six shades and went to bed.
Thursday August 25th – Edinburgh
Yesterday I caught a cab home from Hollyrood park, and asked the driver about the walking path that runs along the Leith river. It looked pretty on the Internet. He said it was and got very enthusiastic, telling me to go to Dean Village and Stockbridge – where he was born and raised. Stockbridge was voted best place to live…in some publication. All the little villages around Edinburgh used to be separate but have been swallowed up.
When I asked how to get to Dean Village he made it sound like it was really far away. I’d have to take a cab or a bus but he didn’t know which bus because he hadn’t ridden one in years.
Well when R. and I set out to walk there today it turned out to be less than a mile away! The area around the little river was extremely charming, however, the path was closed in the direction I wanted to go (to the museum of Modern Art). I looked online later and discovered it’s been closed since 2012, and the council has been “evaluating” and “monitoring” the situation and repairs will be undertaken soon. Heh.
I’m embarrassed my taste is so predictable. I spotted a Dwell magazine-styled restaurant from a block away, Foundry 39. Old-timey lightbulbs hanging from an elaborate pulley system, interesting objects on shelves made from pipes, a big piece of beaten copper on the back wall (for no reason.) Ahhhhhh…yes. Hey I did pubs. I needed a taste of modern!
In more strange good luck, we sat down and the waiter informed us it was national hamburger day and all burgers were free. Free? Yes, free. So we had burgers, and they were good.
In this area, just steps from the tourist area and absolutely tourist-free (as the cab driver promised) I began to feel that maybe the bubble wasn’t as impermeable as I feared.
I returned to the book festival, which was coincidentally just two blocks away, to meet with Noel Chidwick, creator and editor of Shorelines of Infinity magazine, where my short story was published. I felt like a spy, going to meet a stranger in a cafe.
He spotted me, waved, then popped up to get me a cup of tea. We had a nice chat about the magazine and all his creative pursuits (author, musician, play write, editor) and he gave me a super secret preview of the next cover. I asked why Edinburgh seems so obsessed with murder and ghosts. I saw many ads for tours with these themes.
He laughed and said I hadn’t been here in the winter. He said the Royal Mile was completely deserted, as were all the closes, and that it was very foggy and windy and dark from about 4pm until around 9am. In short, very scary!!
After our meeting I went back to the river, heading in the other direction towards Stockbridge. The path was pretty, peaceful, and relatively busy. Dog walkers, kids heading home from school, teens making out on the bank.
From there I headed back to the shopping area, thinking vaguely of getting some souvenirs, then rejecting the idea of getting anything nice because we are going to be camping at Festival No. 6, and not to be overly paranoid, but I don’t know how safe our stuff will be and I’ve got to be okay with anything left in the tent possibly being stolen. I doubt anyone will steal my crappy clothes and I wouldn’t care too much if they did, but I’m not going to buy a nice new something and have that taken.
When I got out of the store, the fog was rolling in! I was happy to see it as I feel like I got to experience all the weathers…except the wind which is fine.
I met R at a pub near the hotel and we had a pint and planned the evening. We had tickets to an organ concert and absolutely were not going to put ourselves through that again. Noel Chidwick recommended going on the Mary King’s Close tour. He said he’d been on an unofficial tour before it was done up for tourists and it was a way to see how people lived in the 1600’s.
Well…his unofficial tour was probably much better than the real one. It was way overpriced and covered almost no ground, relying instead on the guide to tell stories of the Black Death and such.
Still, it piqued my interest in sewer systems of the past (I initially got interested when I Iearned how Chicago reversed the flow of the river and sent their sewage downstream instead of into the lake). In Edinburgh’s case, there wasn’t one. Everyone dumped their waste in the streets in old town, where it gradually made its way downhill to a lake of crap. OMG!!
I can’t wrap my head around this. I thought as a species we evolved to know that good smell = good and bad smell = bad. I seriously want to read more about this so if anyone has any book recommendations…
After the tour we had delicious Indian food. MMMmmmmm! We decided not to do any Fringe events and call it an early night at 11pm, though we didn’t get in bed until 1am. It’s hard to wind down after such stimulating days.
Wednesday August 24th – Edinburgh
I’ve got no idea how this city functions or any insight into to the real personality of the place. What people think or do for a living. If I had to speculate based on personal observation I’d erroneously assume everyone works in a restaurant, drives a cab, or is an architect (I’ve seen several offices in old town).
I’m in two huge bubbles, first, being in Old Town in the tourist area and second, having Fringe Festival happening around me. I’m seeing zero reality. The extra weird thing is that I’m having a good time. Old town is gorgeous and mysterious. Tonight we got off the bus after dinner and found ourselves on top of a big arch/bridge that we’d been under the night before and had to figure out how to get back down.
R saw what looked like a passage on the phone, and there we found an ordinary door propped open, revealing a steep spiral staircase–old brick with tiny, scary stairs. We walked gingerly down, worried we were going to end up in someone’s apartment, but we exited into an alley. The bottom door self-locked behind us and when shut, looked like any other apartment door. The alley had walls of fat cut stones that towered up on either side of us.
All the closes and secret passages are being used so the city feels very real, very alive, despite the tourism. Plus, the tourists around me are for the most part European – so still foreign and interesting! And the attractions are historical, not faked up like fisherman’s wharf in San Francisco.
Though Fringe Festival is also a bubble of sorts, it has gotten me out and about and into venues I’d never have seen if I was here during a normal time. I should put venues in quotes. Some of the places seem to be storage rooms.
Anyway…it turned out to be an unexpectedly sunny day today, and me of course in a long-sleeved shirt sweating profusely. R and I got irritated with each other in the hot sun. Everything is good as long as we wander aimlessly but when someone wants to go to a specific place then phones must be consulted, bus tickets must be acquired, routes argued over. We agreed to both do our own thing for a few hours.
I wanted to see the ocean. It wasn’t far. I took a bus to Ocean Terminal…which turned out to be a mall–and also the location of the royal yacht Britannia. (Which I did not tour). The mall was bland, and the view of the ocean somewhat obscured, but I did get to see the Dazzle Ship – which I really wanted to see! It is part of the International Festival and I’d seen ads for it. It was a cute modern take on the old war dazzle ships.
I asked a woman working at the mall falafel counter which bus to take to get to Hollyrood park, or I as put it, “the big volcanic hill over there.” She was decked out in a full chador (Islamic full body cloak worn by Iranian women when going out – thanks Internet) and I expected a middle eastern accent but she replied in full Scottish brogue. Surprise! There are many Muslim women here. Who knows how many men because they don’t have to cover their hair. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? I won’t start.
A woman on the bus told me where to get off for the park. You’ve got to love any directions that include, “walk along the wall behind the palace.” Ah Europe!
I saw two ways up the hill. One steep and one gentle, each heading in a different direction. I wanted to get to the tip top and assumed the steep path would be faster. Hmpf. I got 9/10 of the way there and the path began to descend and I saw it went almost all the way to the base then zig zagged back up. No freaking way! It was already 5pm and my legs were tired so I turned back.
The view from the nearly top felt so familiar…I could swear I was looking at the San Francisco Bay. They even have an island that looks like Alcatraz, and the hills beyond could be the east bay. The rolling hills could be many places in California.
When I got back we immediately went out for a pint at a pub. I don’t like beer much but it felt absolutely obligatory. I really liked the beer I picked randomly (Belhave Black Scottish Stout) and the servers at “the oldest pub in Edinburgh” were friendly as were the patrons, the guy next to me advising me which whiskey to try.
We then went to an excruciating organ concert in a pretty cathedral. The music was all gloom and doom and gut shaking bass. I figured it was rude to leave so I spent the time trying to decipher the flags hanging above me, one of which was belonged to the civil defense messengers from one of the world wars.
After that we hopped on a bus to Leith walk to a restaurant I’d found – which stopped serving food at 9pm!!! We got Italian instead. Do restaurants close early here?
We bused back and got off in our neighborhood, not sure what to do next, when a woman handed us a flyer for The Secret Circus, and asked if we wanted to see tits. “These tits! My tits! Her tits!”
What is cool about Fringe Festival is all the free shows, and that the performers stand outside the venue recruiting people, then run in and do the show.
I assumed from the “tits” reference that the show might be burlesque, so we went in. It turned out to be a great variety show! A couple burlesque acts, a comedian, musicians, a magician. Super well done. Better than many shows I’ve paid for. I got pulled up on stage after I ignorantly agreed to hold a piece of paper. A bit embarrassing but interesting to realize you can’t see a damn thing when you are on stage with those lights in your eyes! So fortunately the performers didn’t realize there were only 20 people in the audience!
It was another very good day.
Tuesday, August 23rd – Edinburgh
I can’t believe we only arrived on Sunday. I’m still a little stunned every time I walk outside and realize, oh wow, we’re here–and I’ve already seen so much!
We got off to a late start. I slept well but woke groggy. I’m embarrassed to say that late breakfast was at Pizza Pronto. At some point it is better to eat what is in front of you than to trudge on angry and hungry trying to find the perfect most unique restaurant.
We walked to the eastern end of the royal mile. I keep wanting to call it the miracle mile (as in Chicago) and can’t get that out of my head. Most of the street is taken up with Fringe Fest (promotional activities) and is crowded and crazy. From there we headed up Carlton hill, which is supposed to have a great view from the top, but we didn’t go all the way up since the vista seemed just fine from where we were in the middle.
From there I hightailed it down the hill, hoping to hear an author speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
The book festival was physically smaller than I expected, taking place in a fenced-off block that is normally a park. Temporally and event-wise it is big, running over several weeks with back to back events every day and a 1/2 inch thick program. The space (which must be totally empty normally), is nicely furnished with tents and raised walkways as well as two cafes and a full-size tent bookstore.
I got a ticket (kind of pricey for a one hour event) to see/hear Mark Haddon (author of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which I read and am pretty sure I liked.) It was a great talk. To paraphrase – he said he is a white guy with a middle class upbringing who wants to write about the things he knows, but is bored of books about things like that. But introduce a sawed off shotgun…and then you can write about Christmas and all the knick knacks…as long as a stranger comes to the door.
He also said it takes him many drafts to get a story to a point where it isn’t awful. Thank god. I’m sick if hearing from writers who pop out a first draft in a week and finish a story soon after. He also said writers “start from zero every day” and if you don’t worry you are never going to be able to write again then you aren’t a writer. Writers have to balance “grotesque egotism with surgical self doubt.”
I waited out a heavy rain in a clear tent/cafe area with a cup of tea, then walked down Rose Street, a fun, cafe-filled street I’d like to go back to in better weather. I keep thinking, this place must be nice in the summer, forgetting this is the summer! : )
We are staying on the south side of the big ridge that has the castle on it (everything on that hill is old town), so to get anywhere we have to walk up and over or around.
The book festival was in new town to the north, so it was a hike to get back to the hotel, and the moment I got back we had to head out again to a Fringe Festival event…as our cab driver pointed out, “Why’d you come all the way to Scotland to hear an American band?”
Well, we don’t live in New Orleans so a New Orleans Jazz band is still pretty cool to us! Super small venue, cute crowd of older Scots who were made to dance by the singers. One of the singers came around at the end of the show and hugged and/or kissed every single audience member. I teared up a little at that. I mean, how freaking kind.
We got a great dinner afterwards at Rollo. The food in Edinburgh has been very good. About 90 percent of restaurant workers seem to be not Scottish, so if this brexit thing goes through – the restaurants are going to all be in big trouble!
We had tickets to a comedy event later that night: How to save the world without really trying. We arrived at the address (at ground level) walked down a flight of stairs, were directed to another flight of stairs, over and over again, until we arrived five stories down on a completely different street! The steepness here is mind boggling.
R picked this act totally randomly because they had a science fiction theme…and it was the absolute best thing we’ve seen here (future me concurs). London-based Bourgeois & Maurice – go to their site and watch a video. They are really funny. Comedy and songs, political and social satire.
Many of the venues during Fringe are probably not usually used as such. The room used for this show had a good sound system but was damp and hot and smelled of mildew.
On our way back to the hotel a comedian handed us a flyer to his own free show, which was happening right at the bar we were walking past and the theme was Drunk but Not Wasted, four drunk comedians, so of course we had to go. It wasn’t actually in the tiki theme bar, but up a flight a stairs, then another flight, then another flight, and we finally ended up at a dark dead end. On our way back down we noticed a piece of paper on the dirty wall with an arrow pointing to a closed door. Right then the comedian who’d given us the flyer ran up and opened that door and told us this was the way, but it wasn’t starting for 10 minutes. So we were obviously way too early!
We walked through a couple of mostly empty rooms to end up in a room full of chairs with blacked out windows–where we were clearly going to be killed and eaten!
Though we survived, poor R was the chosen victim of the night and was teased by all the comics…I guess that is a comic thing…to find a theme and stick with it. He didn’t mind. After all there were probably only 10 people there and no one was recording the event.
Finally – BED! Soooo tired…
August 22, London to Edinburgh
I woke at 3:30am, starving, but forced myself to stay in bed until I fell asleep again a bit before 5am. There are worse things than dozing in a king bed in clean white sheets waiting for the sun to rise in London…I kept telling myself.
The included hotel breakfast was good–fresh breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt, meat and cheese and tea! I’m so happy to be in tea country. When you ask for tea no one says “Mint, Green, herbal…etc.” they bring you black tea that is really nearly black and a pitcher of milk. Mmmmmm.
I had two hours in London before catching the train to Glasgow and managed to get to Hatchard’s, London’s oldest book store, and some of the other oldest shops in town including Fortnum and Mason, Floris (Perfume), and Paxton and Whitfield (Cheese).
Sadly none looked particularly old inside. Ironically, I ended up on a street full of men’s stores, while R ended up on a street of bookshops! None open yet though. I also ran through the National Gallery, heading right to the “modern” section (19th and 20th century) and saw some nice Monets and Turners.
We caught a cab to Euston station, which was crammed with people watching the departure board…all of whom ran to our train to Glasgow when the platform was announced.
It was a perfect day to ride the train. We were still jet lagged and confused so it was a relief to sit back and watch the scenery and not make any decisions for 4 hours.
We paralleled a canal for the first hour or so and I saw locks and the skinny barge/houseboats. I couldn’t really take any good photos from the train because we were going 120mph and there was glare on the windows.
The scenery, rolling green hills, farms, sheep, small towns, was bucolic. Literally bucolic:
2. of, relating to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life.
I get to use the word literally so seldom I had to look up bucolic to make sure I had it right.
I was a little disappointed in the lack of change of scenery when we got to Scotland. I don’t know what I expected but I’ve been imagining the place for so long. I thought maybe towns would thin out…there’d be about 20 miles with no people, then we’d come over a rise and there would be a landscape of rolling hills, no trees, and a big lake. Maybe a heath, whatever that looks like. And in the distance a smudge and that would be Glasgow. I heard it was industrial so it would have some smokestacks. Then we’d get on another train to Edinburgh and pass through empty countryside again, and then Edinburgh would rise up, a jewel-like city on hills.
In truth I never saw much of Glasgow because all we did was change trains there. (We’d gotten a ticket to Glasgow before we decided to stay the whole time in Edinburgh so we had to use that ticket). We got on a slow commuter train that stopped everywhere and gradually emptied. I didn’t mind that though the landscape remained too bucolic. Too English looking. I wanted my imaginary Scotland!
I wish I’d been air-dropped into Edinburgh because it is the dramatic city I imagined. Castles! Cliffs! Ravines! Spires without churches under them (probably also known as monuments). We got a cab to our pleasingly decorated “Euro” hotel. Clean and tasteful with blonde wood–I could be in Finland.
We went out right away because we were starving. The front desk gave us some bullsh*t recommendations on where to eat but we found our way down a close to a great place. What is a close you ask? We wondered the same thing. An amazing tunnel/alley thing between very high buildings! They are really cool. We had a great dinner on Advocate Close at Devil’s Advocate. Where we noticed that no one around us was Scottish.
Oh yeah and the Fringe Festival. It’s a huge deal! Kind of like South by Southwest but it goes on for weeks and weeks. The streets were closed, people sang and played guitars on stages or in alcoves…and that was just random people not official events. We didn’t try to go to anything yet.
On our way home we stumbled upon the infrastructure associated with an event called “Tattoo.” We had no idea what this was. Firstly, we saw a Cinderella carriage guarded by police. We waited, expecting someone to get in, but no one did. I asked a guard and she said it was the Queen’s carriage and it was there because of the celebration of her 90th birthday. Okay??
The carriage drove away.
We walked on and came to a street full of bus after bus. Then we came to the horse bus – with horses. And guys that looked like they’d stepped off the set of Lawrence of Arabia. And then men and women in kilts with instruments. Then we heard bagpipes from the castle, which was right above us. Then gunfire, then fireworks.
What is a tattoo? We had to look it up:
“The Tattoo is an iconic Edinburgh institution, and a sellout year after year after year. Music, dance and precision display with the Massed Pipes and Drums, the Massed Military Bands, cultural troupes, singers and the poignant refrain of the Lone Piper against the stunning backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.”
It runs for about three weeks every August and people were scalping tickets on the street for 120 pounds!!! Bizarre!
We got a quick drink in our hotel bar and a crashed hard and slept all night! Yay alcohol cures jet lag!
U.K. Invasion 2016
We are headed off on a back and forth trip across the UK. London Glasgow Edinburgh London Cambridge London Port Merion London home. It’s going to take me a few days to get into blog writing mode. I’m always stiff at first. It’s hard to write what I’m really noticing instead of the standard laundry list of what we saw, so bear with me.
We took a Virgin Atlantic 787-900 from SFO to Heathrow. The plane was pretty good for a plane; comfortable seats, big screens, best food I’ve had on plane yet, and very quiet – quieter than Bart (we measured the decibels). The flight attendants were one version of cliche “English” that I have in my imagination – cute, blonde, elaborate hairstyles, big teeth, big smiles, bright red lipstick and all of them in uniforms two sizes too small–which I assume is Virgin’s fault not theirs.
Getting through customs was oddly easy. No one went through our bags–we just walked out. We took a speedy and expensive train to Paddington station, and from there a cab to the hotel.
LONDON!!! I haven’t been in over 10 years. We ditched our bags and went right out, though we were beginning to feel tired. London is so stately and serious. So grown up. Our hotel was in the theater district, right near the National Gallery, and Big Ben was just down the street. Total immersion!
Traveling is more fun now that I’m owning the fact that I’m a tourist and not slinking around trying to fit in. Yeah, technically not on a tour but I’m going to carry my camera and stop suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk and gawk. I think I have some credits due me since San Francisco is such a big tourist destination. I can’t apologize for thinking London is interesting and wanting to take pictures.
Funny – I haven’t been on vacation in a place where people speak English in quite a while. It really takes the stress out of everything. It’s also interesting to realize how many people have foreign accents, whereas if I was in France I’d assume that anyone speaking French was a native.
I loved that the cab driver asked if we were staying a fortnight. Ha! I had to look it up.
We heard Big Ben chime 6pm, looked at the London Eye from across the muddy river, then began to crash. We made it to a great gyoza restaurant just as it started to rain.
R. went up to the room and fell asleep early. I tried to stay up until 10pm by hanging out in the lobby. The hotel, at least formerly, was “hip” but it wasn’t very hip on a Sunday night–families with kids, everyone in sneakers.
I made it until 9:45pm…a good effort! We had a great first day.