Kristen – 0
Scotland – 1
Ok so maybe it’s not fair to give myself zero points because it felt more like a victory. Well, at least it felt like a win last night. Today – not so much. Turns out losing hurts. Bad.
It was a brutal battle. An extremely well fought yet long hard, bruising, and head-bashing kind of psychological warfare that induces a strong sense of happiness, laughter and fun but then blindsides you the next day with lingering physical effects including shakiness, headaches, insatiable hunger and irrational anger directed towards the 2 old ladies sitting behind you at the café yelling about current Scottish politics. Can’t they see your head and the rest of your corporeal form are in an ensuing game of tug-a-war over which one gets to spontaneously combust first?
Seriously, what is with the universe’s unfair checks and balance system? Sure, go ahead and enjoy that slice of cake (but you’ll have to work an extra 30 minutes at the gym to burn it off). Nice, a $20 bill on the street (too bad you’re about to lose your metro card with a $55 credit still on it). Of course you should buy that dress you’ve been eyeing in the window for the past month (but then good luck on being able to afford to turn on the heat this winter).
Why is everything fun imminently followed by some sort of punishment? You want to drink Scotch Whiskey with the locals? Knock yourself out! Go crazy! Have a blast! Oh, but if you do you’ll be unable to function tomorrow and will end up spending your last day in Edinburgh in bed.
Sorry – I guess I should explain that (like so many that have come before) this story comes fully equipped with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The Beginning – A Taxi Driver and a Waitress
In complete contradiction to my best friend Betsy who is the master of all things spreadsheet including itemized lists detailing how every last second of her layover in Paris will be spent, I am the world’s absolute worst planner. The type who sits at work on a Thursday and at 4pm realizes their flight to Edinburgh takes off in a mere 5 hours. A realization swiftly followed up with the inquisitive thought of Huh…Did I book a hotel yet?
Needless to say – I obviously did not research Scotland. AT ALL. No guide books, google searches, or Wikipedia for me. What did I know about the region? Besides Braveheart, kilts, lake monsters, and thick accents I wouldn’t be able to understand? Not a thing. (Well, except large consumptions of whiskey – but more on that later).
So clearly it’s no surprise that I hadn’t a clue about the £5 tram ride from the airport to Edinburgh’s city center. Instead, I climbed into the £25 cab after a restless redeye flight (in which I annoyingly found I’m immune to sleeping pills) and wasn’t exactly my best self as I crawled into the back and gave my most fearsome if-looks-could-kill expression when, much unlike the mute NYC cabbies, the driver started to do the unthinkable…….talk.
Maybe it was magic fairy dust or some sort of invisible euphoric haze that washed over me, but halfway into the ride my grouchy disposition melted away as he drove towards the city merrily rambling on about what that was, and this was, and why that street was named that. His jovial temperament was contagious and his friendly nature rubbed off on me as unabashed excitement started to replace my weariness.
When ensuing conversation revealed that I was only in Edinburgh for a quick spell before a 3 week work trip to London, he replied with “Ha I think you’ll find quite a shock going there after Edinburgh. Aye the Scottish are much friendly than the Brits”, I couldn’t help but hide a secret smile in the backseat thinking to myself If that’s the case, this is going to be a most excellent trip. I’ve never had an experience short of wonderful with the British.
After my chatty new cabbie friend gallantly walked me to the door of Abbotsford Guest House to make sure I got in ok, I unceremoniously dumped my bags and ran out to start discovering Edinburgh. Or more specifically – the Leith area.
My tendency to avoid residing in city centers when travelling makes it easier to continue my life-long love affair with local cultural connections. Whether said connection takes the form of a restaurant, park, church, animal, man, woman, child, or mineral, I find that the outskirts of town are typically the best places to forge authentic ones.
The first in Leith came in the form of a restaurant I blindly stumbled into, aptly called the Lioness of Leith, where not only did I practically inhale a remarkable brunch of Scottish salmon and eggs but found it was the perfect platform to partake in my favorite pastime (well, second favorite after eating of course) of somewhat blatant people watching.
As the only foreigner in the place, I observed young lads in full school uniform driving their moms crazy begging to play on the pinball machine (which was actually used as a dining table) while 2 handsome men in business attire conducted a meeting in the corner booth. The proximity of the table to my right allowed for easy eavesdropping as 3 women dissected how best to create a website to sell their handmade purses (haven’t they ever heard of Etsy?) and I even found a ‘guinea pig’ in the friendly young waitress whose “Oh you must go there” helped me with my first entry in a new travel writing series (albeit unbeknownst to her).
Walking home with a newly minted list of things to do in my pocket, my website name was further validated when a young man (who clearly deemed me a local) asked where to buy cheap wine. His facial expression fell in extreme disappointment when the sentence “Oh I don’t know, I don’t live here” popped out of my mouth in tandem with a ridicously unsexy American accent.
The Middle – A Bartender and a Neighbor
After going to bed at one of those God-I-hope-I’m-not-getting-old early hours that make you question your real age, I greeted my first full day in Edinburgh with the hyperetic energy of a 5 year old kid at Disney World.
I practically skipped up the path towards the city center while stopping along the way for a deliciously salty (and artery-clogging) Scottish breakfast at Embo where I was once again astounded by the Scottish hospitality that I’ve come to deem as rather synonymous with the South (hell, it may even surpass the South).
I had a lengthy conversation with the proprietor about the overwhelming amount of options that lay before me of things to do and he added to my ever growing list I’d never be able to finish on this quick trip. Rather than stressing myself out (afterall I love any excuse to revisit a town), I stuck to my self-proclaimed ‘travel system’ – hit up one or two touristy things I have an interest in and then find a way to mingle with the local people. So I took up my waitress’ suggestion from the previous night and toured the Real Mary Kings Close before wandering along the old cobblestone streets to Edinburgh Castle.
After imaginatively pretending I was the doomed Mary Queen of Scots and nearly being arrested for trying to steal the crown jewels in broad daylight, I left and headed in the complete opposite direction of the castle. Once I was far enough away to have a lovely view of it, I walked another 4 blocks, took a random right, and then a left onto a street devoid of human beings and walked into the first place my gut thought that’s the one. On that particular day, it happened to be Mother’s Gin & Draft Bar (the irony of ending up at a gin joint rather than a whiskey distillery in Scotland did not escape my attention).
Though not much to look at on the outside, the inside was buzzing with energy and within 5 minutes of saddling up at the bar and ordering a French 79, I found myself fully engaged in conversation with the 2 bartenders. After swapping the typical banalities of where are you from, how long have you lived here, oh but you must come back and spend more time in Edinburgh, the restaurant started to pick up and as they got busier I found myself getting to know the elderly gentleman next to me who lived just around the corner.
He’d been born in Edinburgh but travelled quite a bit in his younger years as a musician on a cruise ship which journeyed as far as New Zealand. We traded stories on places we had been, spoke about how his doctor was upset he still smoked cigarettes since he had recurring chest problems, groaned over how he had disliked his stint living in London, discussed how the Scottish really do eat haggis and in fact he was going to buy some for dinner on his way home, and listened to his disappointment on how I came a week too early to participate in any Burns Night revelry.
Turns out he frequents this bar most days to relax and nurse a glass or two of whiskey. As a whiskey connoisseur myself (and of course being in Scotland) this was a textbook case of ‘When of Rome’. I mean, this was IT. The local opportunity that constitutes my main reason for travelling. I had found my mental gold mine in the true Scotsman and I was about to learn (and obviously try) his favorite local whiskey – arguably the most famously known attribute of Scotland. I could barely contain my excitement as he finally named the label.
But as the words left his mouth, I blankly stared at him in dumbfounded confusion. Choruses of What?….No…..Surely I misheard him? echoed through my befuddled brain because there was absolutely no way on earth he had just uttered, “Jack Daniels.”
Oh but he did. He even had a flask of it tucked away in his coat pocket. Seriously?! American whiskey? In Scotland? Fortunately one of the bartenders heard my distress cry and came to my rescue bearing her favorite triple distilled Scotch Whiskey and all was right in the world again. I offered some to my bar partner but he shook his head along with a warning about mixing labels. “That stuff is dangerous. I’ll stick to my Jack.” (In hindsight, I should have listened to the man).
After a few more drinks and his insistence on sharing a cup of the best coffee in the world made by a man called Jeremy behind the bar, he bid adieu with a “lovely to meet you” and a “stay safe down where you’re staying in Leith – it’s a whole different scene at night”. A sentence which caused me to quizzically answer back,“Wait, where am I now?”. That’s how I found out I was in Stockbridge.
Upon his departure I resumed conversation with the bartender where we discussed how sweet and adorable he was and I closed out my tab while she drew a map on the back of a receipt labelling 3 fun local bars nearby. I said goodbye as she invited me back for lunch the next day, which I regretfully was unable to make as a result of the events that lay ahead.
The End – A Father and a Son
That’s how I wound up at the Queen’s Arms.
The place was jammed wall-to-wall with people which left me feeling slightly overwhelmed (or maybe I was just slightly intoxicated) as I elbowed my way around the establishment trying to scope out a vacant seat to no avail.
Now, I have no problem hanging out by myself while travelling. I can pretty much post up anywhere and feel completely comfortable but let me tell you it is a whole different ball game when you’re alone in a bar and there is nowhere to sit. I tried standing here and casually leaning there, but each spot felt more awkward than the last. Like I was at the junior prom tapping my foot in the corner while eagerly waiting for someone to ask me to dance. There wasn’t even room to stand at the bar and I had a better chance of getting into Harvard than of ordering a beer (a local one my previous bartender had written on her map that for the life of me I can’t remember the name of).
After standing in the back corner for too long feeling like that creepy loner at a kids’ movie, I decided to try my luck at one of the other suggestions scribbled on my crudely drafted map. Fate had other plans though, for as I veered toward the door, I spotted a man vacating his seat and quickly sidled in before anyone else noticed it.
That’s when things changed. One minute I’m ordering another pint and the next I find myself joking around with a Brit trying to squeeze in behind me. It was one of those instances you never really remember how exactly it happened. I made a comment or he made a comment and the next thing you know his son (who lives in Edinburgh) appears with a perplexed what is going on look as I’m being invited to join them at their table.
An hour later catches me still seated with them in a vintage leather arm chair alongside the bookshelf-lined wall (creating a setting more in line with a wealthy man’s private library rather than a pub) laughing through sips of my third pint of beer while discovering the whole it feels like I’ve known you my whole life cliché is actually true. Discussion of the father’s vacation home in Orlando transitioned into talk of his son’s job at a law firm in Edinburgh. I even started learning new words like Glasgosians (the funny sound of the word alone positions Gasglow towards the top of my travel list).
The sarcastic jokes and dry, witty back-and-forth banter didn’t stop all night and I was having trouble remembering the last time I had laughed that much. I only briefly experienced an uncomfortable moment when I put my foot in my mouth and made a dentist joke only to find out the father was in fact a dentist. Luckily he laughed and forgave the comment before confessing that this was the first time him and his son had seen each other in 20 years.
It took my drunken brain a while for that to sink in and when it finally did I started profusely apologizing for monopolizing their time together to which they nonchalantly said “Nonsense. Join us for dinner.” Which is how I wound up in a cab headed towards the trendy and popular, Monteiths in the center of Edinburgh’s Old Town.
More laughter, jokes, sarcasm, and whiskey consumption ensued before a hearty appetizer of haggis (according to Wikipedia, it’s a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck – heart, liver and lungs – minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach) arrived. It was one of the best dishes I had ever had though you may want to take what I say with a grain of salt since I’m pretty sure any and everything resembling food tastes incredible when you’re that drunk.
The night ended in a blissful blur after a delectable salmon entree accompanied by a lovely bottle of red wine that I really want to say was South African in origin. Sadly, I don’t trust much of my memory at that point. We sloppily said our goodbyes (I think we said goodbye at least) and I somehow ended up in a cab with a couple of friendly Scottish women who saw me safely home and shared their street food (apparently I was still hungry).
That’s how I wound up here. In this lovely cafe across the street from my B&B nursing one of hell of a Scottish hangover and wondering how on earth I’m going to survive getting through airport security (which let’s face it – sucks on a good day).
Despite this incredibly horrific punishment (and the fact that I’ve been in bed most the day), I wouldn’t trade my time with the Scottish for anything in the world. After all, travel is about interacting with the culture and the local people and I feel more connected to Edinburgh than I would have if I’d visited every tourist attraction the town boasted.
Although I visited Scotland alone, I never once felt lonely and am truly grateful to have met my ‘adoptive’ friends. Thank you for letting me be a part of it (especially the long awaited father/son reunion – an additional thanks for googling me, finding my website, sending me an email entitled Hangovers, and for keeping in touch. I hope to visit again soon!).
Have you ever spent time with locals while travelling? Have a unique story? Tell me in the comments below!
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