As much as a born-and-bred Canadian can, I felt a vague and wimpy connection to my theoretical ancestral homeland. Scotland was the country of my grandfather’s fathers, the land of Braveheart, and the container of haggis and other items that seem like they must be culinary pranks pulled on the rest of the world. I had never been before, and it wasn’t a huge pull, anymore than the other places I wanted to visit, just because of the lineage thing. I’m Canadian, really; if there’s any Scottish in my blood, I’m surprised it hasn’t been completely driven out of me by the maple syrup.
That said, I was still excited to go, because: well, yay Edinburgh. There’s a castle, and an enormous Fringe festival guaranteeing free-to-cheap entertainments in the streets, and there’s a lot of alcohol. It was also the first city I’d really be doing the hostel thing, and I dove into that with both feet.
I’d never stayed in a hostel before setting down in Edinburgh, and I assumed it would be a parade of annoyances. Loud roommates, weird bathroom shenanigans, horrifying booking fuck-ups, near-constant sexual intercourse in the neighbouring bunks. While all of these things happened, they were nowhere near the frequency or the severity I feared.
One way to inoculate yourself against the ills of the youth hostel is to turn into the most obnoxious yourself: you can’t be woken up by someone getting in very late if you’re the latest one getting in! I can swear up and down that I had no intention to be that guy in the room more than a few times through the trip, but through circumstance or low willpower, often I would just stumble in incredibly late.
In St. Christopher’s in Edinburgh, they mangled our booking, and I was placed with three Chinese people I came to assume were a family (the older couple slept together on the single mattress and utilized the space of their other bunk for toiletry storage). I sometimes wonder what they thought of me, as we never really saw each other face-to-face: I would tank around in my stupor at the end of a long night while they dozed probably fitfully with me around, they would rouse early and whisper in susurrus Mandarin. To them, was I some obnoxious American (they’ll assume American) boor who stank of the cheap Portuguese beer offered two-for-one at the in-house bar?
At the first hostel, I quickly learned what would become my pattern: rise earlier than I really had to (usually to the tones of my horrific travel alarm, which played the William Tell Overture in a screeching, metallic wail–another thing that probably did not endear me to my roommates); squeeze whatever freebies could be squeezed in terms of breakfast; post-mortem night before with Zack and Donny, and maybe my notebook, making plans for the current day; return as needed to bathe, pick up cheap liquor, and finally collapse into bed, a smelly, drunken, redolent heap.
But I also became quite good at meeting people in hostels–because, like everything else on the trip, this eventually happens to everyone. I’ll save my treatise on the bizarreness of the immediate intimacy one can generate with near-strangers, and instead simply say: I became good at breaking the ice, and at getting more and more people sucked into our gravity well of sociability.
It is at this point I should probably say a word of introduction about Rose. In Dublin, Zack and I stayed in a hotel in an hilariously sketchy area called Ballymun, north of the town by a bit. We rode the bus that first night, fat and happy with our travels, and decided to sit on the upper part of the double decker, because it felt more delightfully European. A bunch of people were up there, some of them travellers, and we made polite, casual conversation. At one point, an Amazonishly-tall blonde German girl moved closer and talked with us a bit. She asked us our next destination, and mentioned cheerily that she was also headed to Edinburgh next, indeed at the same hostel. Wouldn’t it be funny if we ran into each other again? We did, and we did again and again throughout the Eurotrail, because you always tend to do that. A good thing, too, as that Rose proved one of the more indelible and kindly people we met in the entirety of the trip. For some reason, she also enjoyed our company.
Our main companion for Edinburgh, though, was Gary from Newfoundland. We met him in the hostel bar, all of us hammered as one would expect, and he approached us by saying things untoward about Celine Dion. We met some actual Scots the same night, a lovely couple named Kelly and Greig who invited us out for breakfast the following morning (as they were similarly drunk, they did not think we would call their bluff and actually show, however so fresh were we to Europe we were not turning down any hospitality even half-offered).
The following morning, we lost Donny as we dropped Rose off at the train station, but marched on for breakfast. We had sausage on a bun, which was exactly as expected, and then also followed Kelly and Greig’s lead and ordered black pudding on a bun. For the uninitiated: congealed pig’s blood. At first, the flavour resembled that of the sausage: vaguely piggy, and sort of like it was intestinal in some way. And then the texture rapidly altered like M&M candies, going from a congealed solid to a dissolving liquid. It felt bacchanalian, a sudden burst of animal blood rushing past the tongue and filling my mouth with gore. It was also absolutely fucking disgusting. Gary didn’t even attempt the thing, Zack politely ate his whole, I took the middle ground: eating half, then discretely shoving the rest back in the bag and concealing my nausea.
I realize I have spent nearly 1000 words of this entry waxing on about hostels, but, well: Eurotrip. Here’s what Edinburgh actually contains: a whole lot of amazing old buildings, many in the same sort of area, and then a whole bunch of far less interesting new buildings (including the Parliament building, one side of which challenges the ROM Crystal for the unnecessary new-agey eyesore architecture championship).
We were in town just before both the Fringe festival and the Tattoo, and we got to see and hear the gear-up for both. For the former: dozens of buskers ran the streets, putting on performances ranging from the stultifyingly boring to the legitimately entertaining. Interestingly, all of them had incredibly similar patter (all featured the hat joke: busker has hat for donations, summons adorable child to help in stunt, asks if child has lice, puts hat on kid’s head, reports that child certainly has lice now), and all had inflated expectations for the donation hat. I will evaluate in Euros the quality of your street show on my own, thank you.
We walked with Gary up and down the Royal Mile, exploring the sights, including the castle, that café where Rowling wrote most of the Harry Potter books, and a number of museums. The favourite for the day was Calton Hill: a high park in the central area of the city, it was full of monuments we didn’t really read about, mostly preferring to marvel at them for being pretty. We arrived on the hill just as it began to rain: one of the rapid, violent storms that lets out a downpour and maybe one crack of thunder while sunlight pours out around the darker clouds.
The other major facet for discussion of Edinburgh: Arthur’s Seat. When we arrived, I looked at a map and discovered the description. While at Calton Hill, we peered out and saw it: it was vaguely mountainous! And within walking distance! We would redeem ourselves from Howth by planning a day and packing some proper supplies.
The beginning of our attempt seemed to spell doom: the path we decided on taking ended up being the steeper one, as we assumed a quick and severe climb would bring us to natural beauty faster. We were winded within ten minutes, and had to settle ourselves in the grass. Not this shit again, I worried. No matter how gung-ho we were, I don’t think we would have survived another Howthian hike.
Of course, five minutes after that, the trail levelled out almost completely to a gentle incline, only occasionally requiring a bit of hopping and finagling through some jagged rock-faces (which is to say: this was a major relief). We had originally planned to climb just to the main cliff pictured above, but as we got closer, we saw greater peaks to climb and sought them out.
Self-satisfied with achievement and the glory of nature’s splendours and what-not, we settled down on a hillside for the picnic lunch we had brought. Not only were we exhilarated by the world and accomplishment and togetherness and shit, we were fed and watered.
The thing about Arthur’s Seat is that, once you climb to the top of one part of the mountain, you see another scenic hill to ascend, and then another loch sort of in between, and yet more land formations. We spent almost the whole day up there. Hike after glorious hike, none of it through bogs, and we were none of us dying from exhaustion. Well done, Scotland.