I want to know the soul of a city, and that requires time for conversations with people who live and work there. In order to thrive beyond the surface of a place, it is necessary to stay put for a while.
Joining the local scene is fairly easy to accomplish when there is no language barrier. In Scotland, it’s tempting to feel like you’ve passed as a local when the café staff apologizes for having run out of haggis, before you’ve placed your order. Now at an older age, and limited to two weeks in Edinburgh, the goal becomes more of a wish to connect with like-minds. To leave with memories, but also, to be remembered.
Here are a few of the things that helped me to connect with the locale. I recommend most (but not all) of them.
I’d visited Edinburgh during festival season six years ago, and decided that a good walkabout would refresh my memory, while creating a new frame of reference that might help to explain everything else. I walked, and dined, and confirmed several upcoming appointments that I’d made with complete strangers.
Joining a Coffee Clatch
The promise of interesting personalities (and pastries) led to a destination that I would have otherwise overlooked: The Scottish Portrait Gallery.
Images in the grand entry represent the entire history of Scotland, beginning with the Iron Age.
The ladies of the coffee club included two who were easy to engage in lively conversation about Brexit, but they ended each of my questions with, “What about Trump!?”
I’ve rarely encountered a British woman who was not also an ambitious traveler. This gathering was full of them. But it was the quiet woman sitting in the corner who was the most interesting of all. An adventurous English expat, she had recently returned from a lifetime in Australia. Her account of sailing with her husband, from New Zealand to Australia, while pregnant with their first child, had led to this wisdom:
“There is a point in every journey
when you realize
you’ve either been very brave
or very foolish.”
Finding Good Music
Good traditional music can be found nightly at Sandy Bell’s, on Forrest Street. This pub was within steps of my lodging, and I had tolerated the late-night crowd the night before, so I decided to become a part of it.
Not feeling local-enough to visit a rowdy pub by myself, I enlisted a fun-loving Spanish expat that I’d met on a hike two days prior. The session band, led by fiddler Kathryn Nicol, was excellent.
The following night, more new friends invited me to supper and a concert. We took the bus. Their level of fitness was impressive, including his stories of Scandinavian cycling trips and her cross-country ski treks carrying full camping gear.
I almost felt local when, during the concert intermission, we gathered with other friends who shared stories of travel in Norway, and photos they’d taken of the aurora borealis. We chatted about the music, and no one asked where I was from. In this informal setting, I forgot, for a moment, that I was miles from home.
One day I wandered into a musical instrument museum at the University of Edinburgh, chatted with those working there, and ended up with an invitation to a graduate project presentation. This unique instrument from their collection was played by the museum curator, and a 3-D printed replica was displayed by the students who had crafted it.
Discovering a Vista
A walking group welcomed me on a hike to Arthur’s Seat. They didn’t show much interest California, but they were pleased that I was in Scotland. Definitely well-educated and well-traveled, their interests and concerns seemed to lie mostly within Europe, Africa, and Asia.
I adored them, but they out-paced me. Before separating, the leaders offered hugs and invited me to join them in the future. They continued on to a higher summit, and I stopped to enjoy the view.
“. . . a hill for magnitude,
a mountain in virtue of its bold design.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson
The day before our hike there had been a bit of light snow, so this single sunny day (although not terribly warm) was reason enough to line up for ice cream.
Finding Healthy Food
Eden’s Kitchen was the destination of another dinner invitation, where the conversation included puzzling over why Gaelic would now be added to Edinburgh street signs, when it was originally the language of the Highlands.
Eden’s is a bistro in the Broughton neighborhood that serves only natural and organic foods.
European grocery stores are filled with plastic-wrapped vegetables, but small, zero-waste shops are popping up in Edinburgh. They mostly carry dry goods, including paper-wrapped paper products. No meat, and limited produce. Both stores have enjoyed strong success since opening a few months ago.
The Eco Larder • Morrison Street
Weigh To Go • Crighton Place
Taking the Bus
No need for a car—I took the bus everywhere that couldn’t be walked. Studying the bus routes leads to a good knowledge of the city grid. Single trips are less, but £4.00 bought a day pass. So, for less than the cost of a cappuccino, this ticket covered a 15-mile roundtrip to Rosslyn Chapel (south of the city) and the two buses used within city limits that same afternoon. All buses are double-decker, and the views from the upper deck are worthwhile. This saved me from “driving on the wrong side of the road.”
This is where I’ll withdraw my recommendations. Try to steer clear of this one. Toward the end of my visit (following two days of freezing rain) I succumbed to what everyone else seemed to have. Then, I got to experience the local pharmacy and a local alternative medicine center, all of this by recommendation of a friend who visited from the Borders. The Scottish National Health Service will provide one free medical visit and initial prescriptions to anyone, but it seems wise to reserve that for dire need. The medical herbalists could get me in same-day, and I returned home with excellent immune support.
Kitchen window view from my second Edinburgh apartment.
All photographs by Cynthia Albers unless otherwise noted.
© Cynthia Albers, 2019, All rights Reserved