Sunday, December 19, 2010

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Back in Minnesnowtah for a few weeks to play with the pup, eat some homecooked meals, and see if I remember how to drive a car again. Happy holidays and see you in January!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"What are Men Compared to Rocks and Mountains." Jane Austen

When I went to Edinburgh I expected to drink pints at haunted pubs, hear bagpipes on my walk to class, and maybe run into J.K. Rowling when I got a latte, but climbing a defunct volcano in the snow wasn't on my agenda. However last week I found myself climbing Edinburgh's most famous tourist attraction, Arthur's Seat.
Arthur's Seat looms 823 feet above the city of Edinburgh and when you are all the way on top you can barely contextualize your surroundings because the view is so vast. The origins of Arthur's Seat are a little dubious too. The hill itself was formed by a now extinct volcano about 350 million years ago, so the only thing tumbling down it won't be lava, but probably me. The geological origins of the hill may be evident, but the human interaction with it isn't. There are said to be defensive forts around the hill that date all the way back to the 600s and potentially carry a connotation to King Arthur (maybe the inspiration for its name?). An even bigger mystery are the seventeen coffins found in the 19th century that are either ascribed to a pagan ritual or the victims of Edinburgh's infamous bodysnatchers, Burke and Hare. All I know for certain is the vista is awesome in all sense of the word.

With its imposing gaze over the city, Arthur's Seat has been a guilt-trip for me all semester. It was the thing to do during Freshers Week, but between setting up bank accounts and catching a cold I didn't really have the energy to hike up a mountain too. Soon enough the weather got cold and I was convinced I wouldn't know its grandeur until the spring. However after a plan to go sledding (or sledging as they call it in Britain) with friends went awry, I found us walking toward to Holyrood Park and knew my fate was set. It was time to meet the mountain.
So I climbed Arthur's Seat. Although climbing may be the wrong word because the path was so slippery from the recent blizzards that I practically crawled up and had terrifying visions of accidentally downhill skiing if I made one false step (yes, maybe we picked the wrong season for this). I may not have had the right shoes on, but I had the right attitude and somehow found myself at the summit an hour later.
[The treacherous climb. One of the rare moments I wasn't on my butt.]

The view was stunning, but there was still more peril to be faced, the wind! We decided to slide down the other half of the mountain after we could no longer feel our faces at the top. The way down was a lot easier especially knowing we had a cup of hot cocoa in our future.
[At the Summit, wind-tousled hair and all]

With that cup of cocoa in hand I could finally start to feel my fingers again and a sense of satisfaction of having made it up a hill I normally would've strapped on skis for. Arthur's Seat is one of the rare tourist activities that's actually worth it! I look forward to taking a few more hikes in my future, but hopefully when the snow has melted.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Feel It In My Fingers, I Feel It In My Toes...

It's Christmas season! I'm not just saying that because the holiday is 26 days away, but because Edinburgh is forcing the festive cheer upon us! The day after Thanksgiving is usually when I get into the holiday spirit, using a gingerbread latte to help digest all that turkey. I have to admit that the closest I got to a Thanksgiving dinner over here was a bagel sandwich stuffed with brie and cranberry jam. It was pretty pathetic and made me wonder if the upcoming holiday would be lackluster as well. I need not have worried because Europe is where half the Christmas traditions originated from. There are more cookies to eat than usual. I dunno how I'll keep up other than buying a pair of jeans in the next size up haha.
The first of these traditions is the German Christmas Market. Basically they are a more festive version of the State Fair with carnival games, rides, knickknacks for sale, and fattening delicious food. You have to pick your poison: enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma (or in my case, massive sugar high), mulled wine (hot red wine combined with spices), or something savory like a pretzel or a crepe (who am I kidding though? That's not a legitimate meal either.) I went for a waffle drizzled in vanilla sauce and generously covered with black cherries. Not the healthiest lunch I've ever eaten, but utterly scrumptious.
Of course after eating all the food you have to go on a nauseating carnival ride. My friends and I chose the ferris wheel. I cannot decide what is more of an abomination, the ferris wheel or the Sir Walter Scott Monument?

Four pounds later we got on the rickety and rusting wheel hoping it wouldn't plummet us into busy Princes Street or the gardens. But after a few minutes our fear numbed as well as our fingers and we noticed the stunning view.

[The sea!]
[The Castle]
[The Balmoral Hotel and Calton Hill]
[The Divinity School above and the National Gallery below]
Since the Christmas Market is has snowed 14 inches, my German friend made baked apples, and my flatmates and I plan on making mulled wine. It's Christmas after all!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Return of the Mustard Beret

>I'm sorry I haven't updated this blog in nearly a month. In the past few weeks I've lived in the library, barricading myself with books about Joseph Conrad or medieval animals for essay writing. When I'm not trying to point out literary allusions, I'm pointing out famous statues to the many visitors I've had. Two friends from Minnesota visited in the same week around the end of October. It was great to see them and try out every cafe around town, but when my overcaffeinated week ended the essays hit. Now I'm emerging from the essay fueled delirium (I felt almost tipsy after turning one of them in this past Monday) and ready for another round of visitors. My parents! I'm looking forward to seeing them, having a few nice dinners, and introducing them to the sights and gale force winds of Edinburgh.

That brings me to the topic of this post, heat is a myth here! When I first saw the scarf around the famous Greyfriar's Bobby statue a few weeks back (it was only on for a few hours sadly), I chuckled, snapped a picture, but still opted for an extra cardigan instead of turning the heat on in my flat. I thought, "Well I'm a Minnesotan. Until the governor cancels school due to windchill, it's not cold out!" I would check the forecast each morning and see the 40F high and think winter won't be so bad here, except for the darkness that descends at 3:30pm, I can handle this. Little did I know, that gale force winds (I'm not hyperbolizing for once) aren't typically written in the forecast. But when I found myself walking to a pub night with friends DIAGONALLY to avoid getting blown over, I knew I was mistaken. The wind doesn't just displace me, but also hundreds of seagulls who get blown into the Meadows (the park right by my flat), miles away from the beach. As if walking to a class where you essay could be returned any day now wasn't ominous enough, now I feel like the protagonist of "The Birds."

It was time to turn on the heat. So I pressed the button and eagerly awaited a blast of warmth that was so small it wouldn't even warm up a chipmunk. Apparently I'm not the only one of friends who has this problem. So just like the entire city smells like hops after it rains, no one gets heat when they actually need it. Funny how much conversation revolves around the weather here just like back home. Therefore I've concluded that heated flats are a myth, just like the Loch Ness Monster. Actually Nessie probably exists rather than a radiator that works.

[Yes, I dressed up as mustard the condiment for Halloween again.]

Now, I push the heating button when I want a laugh and rely on my trusty mustard yellow beret to keep me warm. Yes, the famous beret lives on and yesterday some guy shouted that he liked my hat from a moving car...trying to see that as a compliment, not creepy. For once I'm wearing the beret as a legitimate way to make sure my ears don't fall off, not as a fashion accessory. Yup, I'm definitely in Scotland.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Paintings, Bagpipes, & Tourists. Oh My!

Last Saturday I found myself elbowing my way through crowds just to catch a glimpse of a painting I probably could've appreciated more on Google. But isn't that the point of being a tourist-being jostled through an art museum so much that they almost end up with Van Gogh's paint on your nose? Wait a minute, did I just use the word "tourist?" Didn't I move to a foreign country for a year so I would have time NOT to be a tourist?

[Thank you to this toddler for looking appropriately alarmed when I snapped this photo]

This is the point of living in a city for the year. You have time to scope out cute cafes, not go to one of the 400 places J.K. Rowling supposedly wrote Harry Potter in, but is now known for coffee tasting like jet fuel. You can go to museums after class on a weekday, not a weekend when all of the tourists looking for their clan's tartan invade. Unless you're the idiot who thought the Impressionist Gardens exhibition at the Scottish National Galleries lasted for another month, only to find out it ended that very weekend. Yes, weekend. You would have to push (or punch) your way through the crowds just to see the corner of a Klimt painting. Yes, that idiot was me last weekend.
I knew it would hell and bagpipes to pay to go on a Saturday, but Mom and Dad you've instilled a love of impressionism in me, so I had to go. I must admit the exhibition was impressive (five rooms of international impressionists and not just the work they left in their coat closet, but famous paintings) and gave me faith in the National Gallery to fulfill my aesthetic needs in Edinburgh when I'm not behind on my reading (clearly I won't be going that often ;). But the crowd was the claustrophobia-inducing type that couldn't move on to the next painting without demonstrating their knowledge of the artist. I couldn't handle more than 45 minutes in that environment, who knew gardens could be so stressful?

So I left the museum where I could breathe air not choked with perfume and see the subtle color change, oh and more tourists. Now I know why I avoid the Royal Mile (more like Royal headache of tartan and shortbread shops that sell the same Walkers Shortbread you could get in the US) and Princes Street (the shopping street, not so bad on a normal day. It has Topshopafter all) on a weekend. I should've known better, but in DC at least the tourists are confined to the National Mall for the most part and why would I ever go there on a weekend? [To the left is the Sir Walter Scott monument and the Balmoral Hotel is on the right. Yes, that's a hotel. The very one where J.K. Rowling finished the seventh Harry Potter book to be exact.]

I guess I'm starting to feel part of this city if the tourists are now annoying me. At heart, I still feel like a tourist (just a subtler one ;).
[The Grecian building is the National Gallery and behind it, that prestigious looking building with the spires? Well, that's where I go to class 4x a week.]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Scotland: More than Just Stereotypes of Shortbread

I hate to break it to everyone, but Scotland and England are not the same country. Yes, technically they are both part of the United Kingdom, but the unity stops there. As I've learned in past few weeks Gerard Butler's accent is only scratching the surface of the loch (lake) when it comes to distinguishing the two countries.

Here's a basic cultural breakdown:

The British are: Scots, English, and Welsh. In an international sense, you can call a Scottish person British. If you are already in the UK its best to refer to people as Scottish or English respectively. And even though Northern Ireland is part of the UK, they are not referred to as Brits.

What this means when you are actually in Scotland is a few significant cultural distinctions:

-The Scots have their own money, although it's still the sterling pound and can be used all over the UK, its specifically issued from the Royal Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank, or Bank of Scotland (which I can confidently proclaim is the most annoying bank in the world, I may be a bit biased considering it took a month for my American money to transfer to my bank account there.)

-The Christian Protestant denomination in Scotland is Presbyterian. However only 12% of the population here practices it.

-Fun fact: the quintessential British name Alistair is spelled differently depending on which country you're in. In England its Alistair. In Scotland its Alasdair (like one of their most famous postmodernist authors, Alasdair Gray).

-Or as my Scottish flatmate put it, Scotland and England have different football (soccer) teams. This is probably the most important cultural distinction to the Scots themselves haha.

If this entire post has been a revelation to you, don't worry you're not alone. My Scottish flatmate explained that when a Scot becomes famous (whether it be an actor or athlete) they are suddenly called "English" by the international media. Take the tennis player Andy Murray for example. Murray was born in Glasgow, but if you were to ask anyone not from Scotland where he was from they'd respond England. However if an athlete or an actor loses their good reputation they are demoted from honorary "English" to "Scottish" again.

Turns out learning what haggis consists of is not the only important thing to know about Scotland. Now that you can tell the difference between England and Scotland, here's a way to show your Scottish pride other than eating shortbread (although I highly recommend that too.)

Scottish Films: "Braveheart," "Trainspotting" (I still have yet to see this despite how its set near Edinburgh), "Local Hero" (a favorite in the Malone household)

Scottish Actors: James McAvoy, Ewan McGregor, Gerard Butler, Sean Connery, Isla Fisher, or David Tennant (famous for cult classic "Dr. Who," if you want to understand conversation here, don't worry about the accent, worry about what time period the Doctor is in this week's episode.)

[James McAvoy]

Scottish Authors: I'm sure you've already heard of Robert Burns (they have a whole day dedicated to him here where his poem about haggis is recited and then ridiculous amounts of haggis and alcohol are consumed), Sir Walter Scott (his monument is one of the largest in the city), Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However there are more Scottish authors lurking on your bookshelf: Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan), and Irvine Welsh (who wrote the book that "Trainspotting" the film is based off of among others) just to name a few. J.K. Rowling may be English, but she's adopted Edinburgh. Cafes throughout Edinburgh have signs that say "J.K. Rowling wrote here" and people spot her around town sometimes.
[Irvine Welsh]

Scottish Bands: Music tastes are variant to say the least, but here are some of my favorite Scottish bands (click on the link of their name and you'll hear my favorite songs by each band). Belle & Sebastian, one of the most famous indie bands from Glasgow. Glasvegas, fittingly also from Glasgow the lead singer is a real crooner. Franz Ferdinand, their love for new wave and tight pants is echoed all over Scotland. Camera Obscura, very girly and relaxing. Paolo Nutini, a singer songwriter whose song "New Shoes" is popular in the US.
[Belle & Sebastian]

Of course the list above isn't definitive and I'm sure I'll add to it throughout the year.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Stereotyping the Scots

I've been in Edinburgh for over two weeks now, so I think I can safely affirm some stereotypes for you:

1. In the UK the umbrella becomes a third arm. The daily weather forecast is indecisive at best, schizophrenic at worst. It may start out sunny, then rain, then the gale force winds will pick up, then it will be sunny again. So it is best to always have your trench coat on you at all times. The one time I didn't, the twenty minute walk to class made me look like a drowned rat.
[Yes, I'm aware not all of my photos correlate to the text, but at least they're pretty!]

2. To cope with being perpetually damp, the Scots seek comfort in tea and toast. While the Gaelic for whisky means “water of life,” I’m pretty sure tea translates to the same thing over here. Like most quintessentially British things, it isn’t actually British, but I’ll get to that later. And regardless of what the weather or politics (the Pope was causing havoc here two weeks ago) might throw at you, toast is determinedly consistent. My toast literally smacks some sense into me, since it shoots out of our toaster and lands nearby, ready for the day even if I'm not.

3. When they are not drinking tea, they are drinking pints. I thought the martini lunch was something left in the "Mad Men" era, but you can walk by any pub or cafe at lunch and find someone downing a pint with their sandwich. If you aren't getting "pissed" (drunk) in the middle of the day, don't worry there's plenty of time for you to at night. Every student society here is basically an excuse for drinking. If your society does not start or end at a pub, then you're in the wrong one. Although I joined the wine society, which is obviously meant for drinking, you wouldn't expect the literature society to be just as fervent. However our first official meeting was a pub crawl, with some extra dorkiness thrown in (everyone wore nametags with either an author or character on them and we had to try and match up throughout the night. To really confuse people I picked Tess of the Dubervilles. Unfortunately I never found Thomas Hardy, but I did get a lot of double takes when I introduced myself. "My name is Tess. No, it really is.") Equally dorky, my inability to order drinks. I've never been able to order what I wanted before, but now that I'm legal I find one of the most stressful parts of the pub nights is finding a cheap drink I'll actually like. So far I've been sticking to cider, but I'm still looking so if you have any good cocktail suggestions, let me know in the comments section!

4. We may all speak the same language, but translation is still needed. Living with an Australian, a Scottish Highlander, and a Brit from Manchester means I frequently need to consult the dictionary. Here's a glossary to make it easier for you:

US: countertop
UK: worktable
Australia: bench (the most confusing by far)

US/Australia: stove
UK: Hob (well, it does sound rather quaint)

US: pregame
UK/Australia: predrinks (this is more logical actually)

US: Bathroom (whatever you say, never say "bathroom," its as American as wearing a fanny pack abroad)
UK: Loo (toilet paper is "looroll")
Australia: Toilets

US: French Fries
UK: Chips
Australia: Fries are like frites, Chips are like Belgian fries and/or potato chips (potato chips in the UK are called crisps and come in disconcerting flavors like steak and onion)

US: Redhead
UK: Ginger (there are so many natural "gingers" here that it's like I have my own Weasley family wherever I go)
Australia: Ranger (perhaps the least PC of the terms, it is a shortening of the word orangutan)

US/Australia: Soccer
UK: Football
(However in Australia football is similar to American football without padding, which is comparable to a Scottish sport called shinty)

And yes, they really do say "bloody hell!"

Confused? So am I, but what makes it even harder for me is deciding how much American slang to keep (after all, I will never be British or Scottish. I still can't figure out which direction traffic is coming from so why bother throwing around local slang.) and how much just makes me sound like a "prat" (idiot).
[FYI: There are some diehard Scots who wear kilts sincerely, but mostly guys wear them to pick up foreign chicks.]

Still looking forward to stalking (sorry, I mean "running into") J.K. Rowling and meeting my namesake, the Loch Ness monster.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cheers from Edinburgh

When I walked through Edinburgh for the first time, I was inevitably serenaded with bagpipes. But these weren't bagpipes played by any old man in a kilt (although there are plenty of those too), but by a rock band. As if this wasn't paradoxical enough, I found myself bobbing along to the music like I would at any other show. How did one of the world's most cringe worthy instruments turn into something not only publicly acceptable, but cool?
Because I'm in Scotland of course, the birthplace of the bagpipe. When a cultural staple is put in its own environment it goes from garish to glorious and ceases to be just a quirky piece of culture, but a symbol. Edinburgh, like the bagpipe, may not be pretty in the traditional sense, but once you see past its off kilter nature or come to love it, you realize a hidden beauty. If you're on the right streets or hearing the right notes, what once seemed worn down, now looks well worn, like a city that's broken in for you already.

However I'm having no problem falling in love with this city. Edinburgh has been through a lot: black plagues, monarchy shifts, Sean Connery. Basically it’s a city covered in history, literally since some of the dirt is still on the buildings (during the Industrial Revolution, Edinburgh earned the nickname “Auld Reekie” or old smoky). This is a place that has been lived in, even though today the castle makes a nice backdrop for the weekend farmer's market and not a fortress against invasion. That's the awesome (in all true sense of the word) thing about Scotland, you cannot even go to the pub without getting some story, sinister or sensational, with your stout. Sometimes the pub itself is the story, like the Last Drop Pub where they used to execute people back in the day, but today makes for a low key place to enjoy your cider on a Saturday night like I did.

And if everyone stone you step on doesn't have a story then someone will write one about it. This city is wallpapered in words figuratively speaking. With monuments to poets, not presidents you can see who Edinburgh really values. Whether its reading up on Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, or Robert Louis Stevenson at the charming little Writer's Museum or stopping in one of the many secondhand bookshops, this is the ideal place to get lost in a fictional world. Finally a city and a university that not only appreciates my English literature degree, but raves about it.
Of course there's plenty of pubs to drink at, museums to wander through, societies to join, people to meet, and stores to avoid if I don't want to go broke still. However after only a week, I can tell I am meant to be in this city and that study abroad will be one of the highlights of my twenties.