The train to Edinburgh leaves from Kings Cross station. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s a very nice station. Clean, modern, safe. Ne’er a prostitute in sight.
The 3 hours to Edinburgh – our first train journey as a couple, my wife reminds me – roll by without a hitch. We drink tea, my anglo-positive wife and I, and admire the scenery. Outside, the world is cold, clean, and sunny. We see pheasants and magpies. We drink more tea and look at the scenery. Finally, we get bored of the endless brown-green-brown-green blur as England surprisingly quickly melts by into Scotland. The countryside is really too much of a good thing.
Waverley Station, I inform my wife, is lovely. It might be my favorite station in the whole of the UK, I pronounce confidently. I am not a man who learns a lesson about the accuracy of my local knowledge the first time.
Waverley Station, in the centre of Edinburgh, has been “modernized” – which seems to mean “adding lots of shops and hiding some lifts in out-of-the-way-corners.” It’s bright, shiny, busy. It’s not my Waverley Station.
At least the city has the decency to be cold and rainy. That’s the Edinburgh I know and love.
I remember once showing a group of Americans around Edinburgh and they were obviously less than impressed. The Scottish Crown Jewels were disappointing (too small), the weather was oppressive (too wet), the locals unintelligible (too…Scottish). I tried my best as we walked the dark, wet lunchtime streets. I talked about its history, its culture…other things. I really gave it my all. And then a homeless man came and stopped behind me to throw up into the gutter.
And yet, I really do love Edinburgh.
The first person we talk to on arrival is selling The Big Issue outside the station. I buy one, ask him where the taxis are, and he walks us to the line. In the taxi, I get to explain The Big Issue while my traveling companion and I are taken on a roundabout route to our next lodgings.
(At this point, neither my wife nor I realized that she was not in possession of the large red handbag she carried everywhere…this is what happens when you have too many bags to remember. It was, as it turns out, left on the train, found, and handed in to lost property. When we retrieved it the next day, we were surprised that the whole contents of the bag were intact. We were also impressed with the friendliness of the station staff – up to the point where they seemed embarrassed to have to ask for payment before they could hand the bag back…)
Once more, we fall back on the kindness of my wife’s extremely welcoming family. During our stay in the Scottish capital, Cousin #2 and his partner provide us with endless hospitality, the world’s hottest hot water bottle but, best of all, an expert guide to parts of Edinburgh I had no idea existed.
Highlights included the Edinburgh Student Union building – a suitably historic, purple edifice full of books, alcohol, and students of a rugged demeanor. We got to look around, appreciate the decor, and feel, if only for 30 minutes, what it might be like to be students again. I miss being a student.
Over the regretfully few days we spent there, we learned to navigate between town and our temporary home via the pubic triangle – a small corner of strip clubs and dubious bars. In the day time, they looked a little beaten; at night, I’m sure they were something to behold.
Even the familiar parts of a city become new and interesting with an expert guide and good timing, and so it proved as we wandered the Royal Mile, the Castle, and down toward Princes Street, where a winter festival was in full swing. The darkness was illuminated with festive lights and a huge Ferris wheel, the air smelling of cinnamon, chocolate and Christmas.
The next morning, armed with Google Maps, my wife and I (to zero surprise) managed to get lost in a straight line from the house to a coffee shop. It took a long conversation between us and our host before we were able to navigate ourselves successfully to the dark warm welcome of old wooden furniture and cinnamon-flavored lattes, our seats overlooked by decorative Charles and Di wedding plates and those old dolls that stare into your soul.
We had the rest of the day to ourselves, so we bravely decided we could navigate ourselves to the Royal Mile…and we did. It was a rainy winter day in Edinburgh, so we dashed from shop to shop, quickly settling in to another coffee shop to drip gently and write postcards.
Behind us, a group of people were having a conversation in Spanish with thick Scottish accents and my brain couldn’t handle how bizarre it sounded…
Being so far removed from the holiday season, the tourist spots belonged to us and a small group of Japanese tourists with selfie-sticks. We walked around the city almost heedless of the rain and the millions of steep steps we took downhill, knowing that the uphill route would be much harder on our exercise-averse feet and calves.
As the skies cleared, we wandered to the Scottish Gallery, which allows visitors to take photos of the artwork. I couldn’t make myself do it, though; years of visiting galleries and museums where this was strictly forbidden have burned their influence deep into my brain.
We stopped for lunch at a small Italian pizzeria as they had gluten-free pizza options for my wife. The waiter was unfailingly polite, but addressed all questions and comments to me, one man to another. If he thought he was talking to the leader of our small group, he was profoundly mistaken.
My wife, as a thank you to our hosts, wanted to cook dinner. But where to find genuine Tex-Mex ingredients in the middle of Edinburgh? Just around the corner from the apartment, as it happened. The man who runs Lupe Pintos probably spends months without meeting someone who knows as much as he does about his ingredients. It took only a short time to shop, but then much longer for my wife and the shop owner to compare notes and reminisce about…I don’t know. Beans and spices, maybe?
When we go back, if his shop still exists, we really need to find out his story. Why does a Scot run an unreasonably good Tex-Mex store in an Edinburgh suburb?
That night, dinner was spicy and impressive – a taste of back home, which represented a major shift in perception for an Englishman sitting at a table in Scotland eating a meal from Texas.
Next lay the beginning of our journey down the country again. First stopping off at my home – the sunny North East of England.