The Dublin Diaries: Because Alliteration is Fun

I intended to write, or at least to begin to write, this post yesterday, but was obviously distracted by sleep deprivation and a beautiful independent bookstore. I had so many experiences from my return to Edinburgh fresh in my mind that I couldn’t wait to share them, but now I’m rested and ready to share my weekend.

A good friend of mine from Ithaca, Kaylea, is studying in Dublin for the semester and we’ve been wanting to meet up. I had a full week off, and even though she didn’t I decided that would be the opportune time for travel, seeing as I wouldn’t have to worry about course-work, and could sleep for an entire day once I got home.

I considered flying out on Friday, but I love my creative writing class and didn’t want to miss it, and unfortunately it runs from 4 to 6 in the evening. In order to take full advantage of the weekend I booked an 8 AM ticket because whatevs, right? I was up at 5:30, fully packed, cheerful, and with spare cash ready to go. I lucked out with a cab parked right where I needed it, and early morning traffic was negligible. Edinburgh airport was nearly emty; I breezed through check-in and security. Everyone was pleasant, and I arrived at my gate with more than enough time to enjoy my breakfast of a chai latte and an almond croissant.

The flight lasted half an hour, and it was a half hour of absolute misery for me. See, we were with the wind, but it decided to smack us around a bit, just to express that while we may be going the same direction it’s not as if it like us or anything. Combine that with my illustrious history of airsickness, and all together I was given all the misery of a transatlantic on a second-rate airline squashed forcibly into a very brief span of time. Ten minutes of air-time were spent either gaining altitude in violent, stomach-bending sprints, or descending in admittedly reasonable ways. Writing this, days later, still makes me feel a little nauseous at the memory. That breakfast I had enjoyed so thoroughly only an hour or two before began to express great displeasure at it’s current port of call, and our fortune of not having to circle before landing was all that prevented things from coming to blows.

I did spend the rest of the day sick to my stomach, although that hardly stopped myself from eating until I was several steps beyond full multiple times that day. I regret nothing.

Well, I arrived in one piece by mercy of the gods, and went to find the bus stop that would take me near to Kaylea’s apartment. Well, the helpful woman outside informed me I’d need the 16 bus, and upon finding the proper lot I discovered unlike every single other bus stop, this was not a bus stop. If that was confusing to you, good, it was supposed to be. Every other bs had a clear arrival place, and a steady stream of buses. I was in a car park, full of cars, without even room for a bus to enter. But I waited. I had faith in that bus, and it failed me. I got a cab.

Kaylea’s campus is in the suburbs just outside the city, so the drive was quick, and upon arrival the river asked for a not-terrible £15. I stared blankly when he said that, because he did not ask for £15, he asked for €15. Now, before I left I had the foresight to search what currency Southern Ireland used. See, I was even culturally aware enough to know that North and South Ireland were very much in different places emotionally. This did little for me though, apparently, because I still managed to somehow glean from my search that southern Ireland was on the British Pound, despite the fact that Northern Ireland is the one that’s part of the UK.

I feebly lifted a £20 note and explained I had been misled.

The Queen looked very supportive about my mistake
The Queen looked very supportive of my mistake. She understands.

He settled for me paying £15 and told me to get out. He was not amused by my charming foreign confusion, even though my superior currency would actually convert to a 25% tip for him. Some people in this world just want something to get upset about, I guess. It was resolved without me being deported though, so it’s really a victory in the end.

I met up with Kaylea and her roommate, dropped my bags, caught a bus into the center of Dublin. Kaylea kindly lent me bus fare, and a currency-exchange was our first stop. The city with bursting at the seams with people. Pedestrians, fighting for sidewalk-space were regularly knocked into the river, lovers of rival families swallowed poison in intersections, French revolutionaries swarmed through the streets, singing songs of opposition. Oh yes, I had forgotten it was Valentines day. It was also the day of a major rugby game between France and Ireland, so my understanding of the city may have been influenced slightly by these anomalous microcosms. Hyperbole aside, I swear to have seen two men in blue and white faux-dreadlocks, wearing Asterix and Obelix costumes and strutting down the sidewalk.

On the bright side, my speaking of English, even with an accent, already made me significantly less-conspicuous than the French, so I was able to take photos with less fear of judgement.

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The only specific place I knew I wanted to see was a bar my Scottish Lit TA (a German who had studied at Trinity) recommended I check out. It was a small place, on the second level of a hotel I cannot afford to stay at. It was a striking room, nearly empty due to the earliness of the day. Full of stuffed armchairs, old bookshelves, and hunting paintings. It felt like where the men would go to drink and smoke in a Regency novel.

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I tried my first Guinness here on a virtually empty stomach, but hey, I wanted to fully enjoy the ambiance of the place, and we do what we must. It was pretty spiffy, but I dare say we managed to hold our own.

The very models of spiff and class
The very models of spiff and class

Brunch came next, because while we were technically operating in the middling-to-late-lunch period, we were on a roll. We strolled through the city, taking in the sights and dismissing several places as unworthy. I shamelessly took constant photos.

Such as this bridge
Such as this bridge
This leaf-orb thing
This leaf-orb thing
These lovely art nouveau murals
These lovely art nouveau murals
or this awesome demonic deer mural
or this awesome demonic deer

Brunch was delicious. I’m living in campus-housing in Edinburgh because I’m incapable of feeding myself and wanted a meal plan. Honestly, with two provided meals a day I’m still really bad at eating well. Visiting a friend in a new city though was a situation where I could guilt-free buy three meals a day and actually enjoy myself.

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Kaylea and Lauren seemed to enjoy themselves as well.
And the saga of me shamelessly photographing my food continues.
And the saga of me shamelessly photographing my food continues.

The rest of the day was spent walking along the waterfront, enjoying a dinner of fish and chips, and getting lost for a while around St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

They totally just grabbed a fish and dropped it into the fryer.
They totally just grabbed a fish and dropped it into the fryer.

We ended the night with a brief stop at the Bleeding Horse, which, with that name, can only be a pub. It was huge, two-storied, and full of crooked staircases and winding hallways to rooms and balconies. I failed in my attempts to document it, managing only a few confused shots and a sight of the soft red of the lights.

Sunday I wound up sleeping in. I had been up since 5, walked seventeen miles, and consumed my weight in delicious oils, meats, and potato-byproducts, so I barely managed to be up before noon. It was a shame to waste the morning of one of my only two days in the city, but being a functioning person is necessary to enjoying walking around a city.

The highlight of Sunday was Kaylea and my visit to the National Museum of Ireland. It took us a while to find since it wasn’t in the center of the city. We passed signs for other attractions as we went, and joked that we should go see The Leprechaun Museum. Then we both grew grave, shuddered, and whispered “never,” under our breaths. We found it further west along the River Leffey, and its distance from center-city became understandable.

It was somewhat large, you see
It was somewhat large, you see

It had originally been a barracks, and was converted into the Decorative Arts and History section of the National museum in the late 90’s. They actually had several men in costume running drills in the courtyard.

Here we have one such drill
Here we have one such drill
And -oh, it he...
And here he-
and there he goes... I don't want to make a Guinness joke here, but he seems to be having a bit of trouble
and there he goes… I don’t want to make a Guinness joke here, but he seems to be having a bit of trouble
Aww, look'it him, trying to laugh that one off
Aww, look’it him, trying to laugh that one off
I don't think his officer is quite as amused. Perhaps we should go...
I don’t think his officer is quite as amused. Perhaps we should go…

Anyway, I won’t take you on a room by room, but rather just include some of the pieces I most liked. I will also apologize for the reflections of me and my camera in almost every glass case.

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A creepy gold face from the 90’s

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A piece by contemporary woodworker Emmet Kane, who had an entire exhibit.
A piece by contemporary woodworker Emmet Kane, who had an entire exhibit.
Two more of his pieces
Two more of his pieces
Some ladies sticking it to the man
Some ladies sticking it to the man
And this gentleman contemplating the greater implications of this grenade he is lighting
And this gentleman contemplating the greater implications of this grenade he is lighting

The rest of the day was more minor explorations, more tea, and much more walking. We stopped in a cafe, and looking out the window I found this staring back.

We left in a hurry, making sure it didn't follow us further.
We left in a hurry, making sure it didn’t follow us further.

And for the most part, that was my trip to Dublin. We got lost around St. Patrick’s Cathedral again, this time circling it thrice in the gathering darkness, searching for a library that we never found. There wasn’t really time to explore the countryside so I’ll have to explore the coast one day in the uncertain future. Kaylea plans to visit Edinburgh sometimes soon. I’ve already made it very clear that while Dublin is nice, it is nothing compared to here. She doesn’t believe me.

I still have just under a week before classes resume, and as I said, I intend to explore the new town a bit. There are some things, including a mythic statue of Abraham Lincoln that I want to find. I might also take a train into the highlands for a day or two, although I don’t have a destination in mind. Maybe Inverness, I hear it’s lovely.

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A Prologue to Dublin: Only, Confusingly Enough, it is Actually the Epilogue

I’ve only just arrived home from Dublin, and rather than do something like sleep (which I desperately need) I’m going to start writing. Admittedly, that first thing I did since getting back to my room was take a hot shower, but even after only an hour-long plane ride, a hot shower is a given. Before I actually begin with my Dublin experience I want to speak briefly to my return.

As with my departure I bought a ticket for a morning flight to avoid the crowds, letting me saunter through check-ins and security without the hysterics of frantic travels ruining my quiet morning. My quiet morning was instead ruined by a group of five Irish sorority girls who sat next to me on the plane, giggled and shrieked at the slightest provocation (including one of them saying anything, one of them coughing, one of them glancing out the window), read each-others’ horoscopes out loud, and all ordered vodka several hours before noon on a Monday. But it’s done. I’m free of them, and hopefully in a city of half a million I can avoid them for the duration of their stay. Perhaps I should take refuge in the countryside just to make sure.

When we circled the city in preparation for landing I was surprised by a glimpse of an old friend, nestled amongst the city’s suburban sprawl.

There is, teen heart-throb: Craigmillar Castle.
There it is, teen heart-throb Craigmillar Castle. If you missed that one, you can read about my exploration here!

I’ve been listening to Beirut’s album The Rip Tide on near-repeat for the last week. It’s not a Scottish group, but the album is short and beautiful. It reminds me that I’m happy. If any singular album were to be the soundtrack of my travels it would be this. If you’re interested in listening while reading this post, you can find the full album here.

It’s a clear, sunny day in Edinburgh, contrasting the wind and rain that filled my Sunday in Dublin. The city welcomed me back with a full fanfare, and if there had been any doubt in my choice of places to study, it was dispelled walking back through the narrow, crowded streets.

It appears deceptively overcast in this photo, and I assure you this is timing, not a sign of my lowering standards.
It appears deceptively overcast in this photo, and I assure you this is timing, not a sign of my lowering standards. Note, while it is still sunny and warm out I will admit it has just begun to snow. I politely offer this as proof that Edinburgh is actually just magical.

The parks were full of people, couples and their dogs, parents and their children. I hadn’t eaten all day since I only had one euro left (I have a story to tell about Ireland and the euro, just you wait) so I decided to step for a light lunch. I found a small cafe/bookstore just outside the University’s campus and went in out of curiosity.

There are a lot of factors that shaped my reaction to this place, which I don’t even remember the name of, such as my hunger, my relief at being free from the perils and stresses of international travel, having just reached “East Harlem” in The Rip Tide, and especially my irrepressible optimism, but something about this little cafe was transcendent. It wasn’t large, its three walls of glass filled it with light but denied it any real sense of secretiveness or mystery, and while there were lovely pastel-colored couches they were occupied, leaving my a simple metal table and a chair that scraped loudly on the tile floor. I ordered a square of carrot cake, and while they did not offer chai lattes, the barista made me a pot of Indian Chai and brought a small pitcher of steamed milk.

I have taken a picture of ever meal I've eaten in the last three days. This is how low I've sunk.
I have taken a picture of every meal I’ve eaten in the last three days. This is how low I’ve sunk.

I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a more delicious piece of carrot cake. The icing was perfect. Rich with a balanced sweetness, it was not enough. I also had Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, which I carry with me like a rosary, reading and rereading every story. But the reason why I’ve dedicated four-hundred words to a single cafe is that every book was beautiful. Some I’ve seen before, some were foreign, and many were simple, but together as they were, and perhaps because of all the things I’ve listed before, I had this indescribable feeling of falling in love with each and every book I saw, for every specific reason it deserved, all at once.

The closest I can come to sharing this place
The closest I can come to sharing this place

I bought a book. How could I not? Delirous and possibly drugged as I clearly was, you are likely surprised that I did not attempt to carry armfuls away with tears running down my face. It’s called The Hourglass Factory, by Lucy Ribchester, an Edinburgh local. It’s some sort of suffragette, circus-mystery novel set in the early 20th century, and that’s really all I needed to know.

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It’s autographed, which I am terribly pleased about, despite this being her first novel and that I haven’t even begun to read it. Actually, scratch that, I just read the first page and I am both delighted and riveted. Trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond is bound and in some perilous situation, quietly singing a lively tune to herself. This is a hardcore lady-type I can get behind as a protagonist. The other main character is described as  a “tomboy,” “cub reporter,” and a “chippy upstart,” so she will be, I’m sure, just as delightful I resist the urge to read further solely out of dedication to you, dear reader.

I realize that I’ve reached a length in this post where actually talking about my weekend in Dublin would just be odd and jarring, so I’m not going to try to force it. I could shorten this, or just not even post it yet, but I don’t much like either of those ideas, so I will write up my super-special Dublin experiences today and post them either on Tuesday or Wednesday. While you wait, consider making a cup of tea and falling in love with a book.

Tantallon and the 30,000 Steps

I left the city this morning by train, traveling east along the coast. Edinburgh is built upon the Firth of Forth -firth being the term for a bay in Lowland Scots- and my destination, the town of North Berwick is at the mouth of the firth. The Firth of Forth, by the way, it undoubtedly my favorite name for any place since Ouagadougou, and I would encourage you to say it a few times out loud. Go on, live it up, no one will judge you.

I’d heard about the town in my Visualizing Scotland course, where we had discussed its own Tantallon Castle, which had not only been featured in Sir Walter Scott’s poetry, but also artist Alexander Nasmyth had made no less than 11 paintings of it from various angles over the years.

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Such as this notable example of the picturesque movement. Note the danger, the darkened skies, the romanticized ruination of man’s works. All played a large role in the cultural portrayals of the nation.

The town was only a half hour by train, and having had such a positive experience with Craigmillar Castle I planned my excursion into the country. The day was clear and bright, and the 45 degree Fahrenheit air was more refreshing than harsh.

North Berwick feels like New England to me, like one of the small, coastal towns in Maine and New Hampshire. The streets are narrow and busy, and the buildings a mix between modern shop fronts and the huddled sandstone houses.

Looming beside the town, opposite to the firth, is the massive Berwick Law -a great, conical hill- on which are remnants of an iron-age hillfort as well as from the Napoleon wars and World War II. I didn’t have time to climb it, but even from below I could see a silhouetted arch on its summit. Since 1709, apparently, there has always been a whale’s jawbone mounted on the hill (though the root of the tradition is unclear to me), always replaced upon fracture or collapse. The last one broke in 2005, after over 70 years of standing. A replica was donated anonymously though as a compromise between tradition and compassion for our cetacean brethren.

It wasn’t even noon when I arrived, and though I hadn’t checked the exact distance between the town and the castle to the east, I decided that, as always, haste was ironically a waste of time, and decided instead to follow the coast.

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It’s not an incredibly unique coastline here, but it’s the sort of simple I love. Cold stretches of beach with old jetties and jagged rocks out in the water remind me of home in a strange way. Strange because I’ve never lived along the coast, so I guess this is a sort of spiritual longing I’m experiencing.

It was the beach where I really noticed the wind. Being on the coast there was a bound to be a lot of wind, but this seemed…unnatural. I don’t know, it never stopped. Not for a moment, it didn’t even let up, just grew stronger. Aside from the Law, the entire landscape is flat for miles, and unless you’re crouched among the mismatched avenues of downtown there is absolutely nothing to break the wind.

Basically the entire countryside, in my opinion.
Basically the entire countryside, in my opinion.

I thought the people who grew up there must have done so crookedly, hunched against the wind, all speaking slightly louder than normal in order to hear over the gusts. Sure, I could have just caught it on a bad day, but I find it far more likely the whole town was cursed centuries ago.

The walk was lovely, but fairly uneventful, and aside from getting lost in a gold course briefly I eventually made it to the road out of town that stretched the miles of coast between me and the castle.

Tantallon was different than I had expected, which isn’t to say it wasn’t impressive and interesting, but it was a strong counterpoint to Craigmillar. This is it, from before I had navagated the winding path with the sharp ditches and slopes established for defense.

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It looms. From literal miles away I could see that wall, and despite the crumbled towers at either corner, that curtain wall is still five stories tall. It does not demand respect, because it already knows it is worthy of it. The walls are of sandstone, and the fore tower was built of a softer stone to help absorb the impact of cannon-fire. In 1528 the regent of Scotland’s King James V fled here when charged with treason, and the crown’s three week siege failed to inflict any significant damage. James V had had to give up, allowing his ex-regent to pack his bags and successfully flee the country. Any additional praise you gave this castle would have been heard a hundred times before. Tantallon is beyond all that.

But drawing nearer, you realize that despite the scale and enormity of this curtain wall, for believe me, it’s one hell of a wall…

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For all the brass and threat of it’s face, you realize there’s little more to it than that. The wall is very obviously thick, and once held a good number of rooms, but aside from a gutted central keep Tantallon seems more a ruin than most ruins. It carries a similar aged-machismo people find so charming in Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Those fallen towers, those crumbling walls, that still boyish smile (not featured)
Those fallen towers, those crumbling walls, that still boyish smile (not featured).

But as with Arnold, who at nearly 70 is probably in significantly better shape than I, I’m giving Tantallon a hard time. It’s over 600 years old and for better or worse has survived war, siege, and weather far better than I have any right to hold it to. Sure, most of the back fell off, but the front was the important bit, and honestly, what’s left does not dissapoint.

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But yeah, the back totally fell off.
But yeah, the back totally fell off.

I can’t in any fairness compare this to Craigmillar, because the two are so vastly different. Craigmillar was more an estate than anything. The walls were short and, as far as I know, all they ever did was keep out the poor. It’s preserved so well because 300 years of owners had nothing better to do than add more kitchens. Tantallon though, is a fortress. It’s additions were all reinforcements, repairs, and strategic sacrifice of staircases, because the Scots know that superfluous stairs lose wars.

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It makes up for stairs with four stories of chimneys and the knowledge that it can take a punch better than you.

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But Tantallon hasn’t won every every fight, even though I’ve given that impression. During the 3rd English Civil War in 1650, Oliver Cromwell had his armies marching all over Scotland to deal with those nasty royalists. You are, by the way, expected to loudly hiss whenever you read Cromwell’s name. Make it clear to his ghost he is not welcome in your house, otherwise he’ll just float around in your bathrobe all day and fill up your cable-box recording Pawn Stars reruns.

Anyway, 30 rebels horsemen led raiding parties from Tantallon, bringing fire and steel to Cromwell’s supply lines, and according to Cromwellian reports they did killed more men and caused more destruction than the entirety of the combined Scottish army and assorted garrisons. Cromwell, who apparently was not merely content with cancelling Christmas, sent out Scotland’s Governor, General George Monck, to kindly request they stop that.

I wholeheartedly believe this man was sneering the moment he was born
I wholeheartedly believe this man was sneering the moment he was born

Monck sidled up to Tantallon with a neighborly fruit basket and 3,000 men. In contrast the castle at this point had only a 91 man garrison under the leadership of Viscount Alexander Seton, who, notably, had a cooler name than Monck.

He was also clearly far to busy not being evil to get quite as many smarmy portraits done.
He was also clearly far to busy not being evil to get quite as many smarmy portraits done.

12 days of siege finally breached the walls and destroyed the north tower. I don’t know how many of the men survived but Seton apparently went on to get married four times and  become the first dignitary Charles II conferred, though what that technically entails I have utterly failed to discover.

This was really the last time the castle saw action, though. The monarchy was reinstated in 1660, and aside from minor repairs in later centuries Tantallon was left to quiet retirement, still with the scars left by Monck’s bombardment.

Not like we're bitter or anything, though
“Not like we’re bitter or anything, though. Forgive and forget, right?”

And well, that’s mostly it. I’ve taken up far too much of your time with a history lesson. I walked back to town, this time face first into the wind and my bangs wound up swooped like Hokusai’s The Wave. According to my phone I took 30,000 steps throughout the day, so there’s the title fully explained. You believe in yourself, you stuck it out, and now you finally understand.

I’m going to Dublin this weekend, to visit a school friend who’s studying there for the semester, so we’ll see what stories I have to tell upon my return. Until then.

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The Monsters of Craigmillar Castle

I had intended to write this next post about a series of small, independent events over the past week; my attending a ceilidh on Burns night and learning folk dances, searching out the best live-music pubs with a friend, or the familiar, yet unique trials of dorm living. But we have a way of tripping over the best stories, and that is how we’ve come to the story of Craigmillar Castle.

My parents mailed me a package last week, nothing terribly important, just an odd collection of things I did not think to bring over myself. It arrived in the city a couple of days ago but was not actually delivered to me, and is apparently being held at the depot to await payment, though the reason for this was never explained to us.

After several days of fruitlessly awaiting a ransom note I Googled the nearest mail depot and set off into the early afternoon gloom to storm their fortified walls in search of answers. The building was only about a mile’s walk south (living on the southern tip of the city this lead me into suburbs and, ultimately, a stretch of countryside) and all I had to do was follow the same street the whole way. The Royal Mail was ready for me though, because a mile passed, and though I was definitely on the correct street, I had neither seen nor passed it. OK, I thought, I probably just misjudged the distance; I’ll just follow the street until I reach it. I walked another half mile before I was certain I had missed it, but just as I prepared to turn around, I noticed an opening in the stone wall that bordered the sidewalk.

Image that moment when Edmund pushed through the old coats in the back of the wardrobe into Narnia, or better yet, when Mary in The Secret Garden squeezed through the unassuming doorway into the aforementioned garden. Stepping through that open gate, I felt a fragment of that. Ok, a really small fragment. I don’t want to get your hopes up about these woods being anything extraordinary.

It was much more mysterious where I first came in, I promise. I just forgot to get a picture...
It was much more mysterious where I first came in, I promise. I just forgot to get a picture…

It was a park, probably with an ancient tomb or something hidden away in the trees, but I was so excited about trekking back along a busy road on a dreary, windy,  45 degree afternoon in the growing drizzle I decided to save it for another day.

Yeah, I didn’t buy that for a moment either.

Anyway, there was a map-pedestal-lectern-thing that you get in such places -the thing I can’t be bothered to look up the proper name of- and there, in prominent bold letters were the words ; Craigmillar Castle. Somewhere, very nearby, were the ruins of a castle. Sure I had class in (I checked my phone) two hours, but that gave me loads of time, and at that point, was there ever any other way it could have gone?

The conveniently placed map informed me that taking the first right, then the next left would take me directly to the castle. Ten paces later I realized that the map had been made with good intentions, but had been based off an idyllic worldview of order and simplicity that the forest was either not privy to, or operated in unwavering protest of. Perhaps there was a falling out between the two, and one or the other altered itself in a passive-aggressive commentary on the other’s emotional inaccessibility (I’m not sure, and I didn’t want to get involved). For every turn and branching path represented by the map, there were three in the world. So I shrugged, reminded myself that I don’t believe in getting lost, and started choosing paths that looked fun.

As is often the case, my complete disregard for euclidean space ultimately took me where I needed to go. I found the edge of the woods; a barren hill, its peak curved in such a way as to suggest it to be concealing a great secret or sight.

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My plan was to then take a photo of the sweeping landscape revealed, but the forest had made me forget I’m still technically in the city, simply in a sort of inlet of country. Instead of finding myself transported into the heart of Sir Walter Scott’s highlands I just found a hospital and a view of some exceptionally dull suburbs. There is no photo, it would just make us all sad. The hill had not steered me wrong though, I had simply misdirected my gaze, for winding up along the edge of the trees to the left was a path, and this one, I was sure, was the real deal. And lo, at its summit.

In the words of Patrick Rothfuss, “Click to embiggen”

Ok, I may be flattering my intuition a bit too much; castles tend to be built on elevated areas with a good view of the surrounding area, but this is my blog so I’m sticking with the Holmesian brilliance narrative.

A better, more dramatic shot of the castle's far more photogenic southern face.
A better, more dramatic shot of the castle’s strikingly photogenic southern face.

I had initially thought these to be ruins, which while technically accurate seemed nothing less than an insult now that I had seen it. I took several more photos while skirting the walls, finding the blasted oaks scattered around the old fortress to be great additions to the moody, dramatic atmosphere.

Game of Thrones, eat your heart out.
Game of Thrones, eat your heart out.

I found the visitor’s center, bought a cheap ticket, and quietly stormed the gates. Two hikers were just leaving when I arrived, and for the next hour of exploration I was alone in the castle. Well, I thought I was alone. We’ll get to that.

20150127_155148So here’s the layout of the castle which was, apparently, under near-constant construction over the course of roughly 250 years. Initially, by the Preston family and later by Sir John Gilmour in the mid 16th century. Mary Queen of Scotts (that poor, incredibly unlucky woman) stayed here quite a few times actually, as it was only a league from the city and the location was perfect for hunting and hawking, both of which she was fond of. It is also where, unbeknownst to her, a group of her advisers signed the Craigmillar Bond, vowing to murder her second husband, Henry Stuart.

It looks rather small in these two pictures, right?  Nearly 300 years of expansion led to a an interior like an ant hill.
It looks rather small in these two pictures, but nearly 300 years of expansion led to a an interior like an ant hill.

Perhaps my favorite part of the castle was actually directly inside the gate to the inner courtyard. Two massive, twisted yew trees flank the entrance where they hunker down against the near-constant wind. They are approximately 400 years old. Because of their size I struggled to get a picture that was not just a square foot of trunk, so the next few are from various points in the castle and my tour.

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The inner courtyard contained three buildings, all of which had been modified over the centuries, with old kitchens being converted to bedchambers and replaced by increasingly-large kitchens at a different part of the castle. Pathways changed direction sharply, remnants of obsolete staircases led to blank walls, staircases led into cellars, which led into separate staircases which led into landings where walls had obviously once been knocked out to allow entrance to new wings where larger bedchambers (and kitchens) awaited.

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I was following one such winding path along the southern wall, when, from the dark recesses of an ancient guard room came a sound. Words fail me as I try to describe just what it was that I heard, and I will acknowledge that the hours since have only served to color my memories as far more horrific that they must have been at the time. But it was instantaneous, and, turning my head with alarm at what I can only describe as a frantic scraping, the shrill cries of an alley-cat, and the anguished howls of Satan himself, I saw the rapid movement of something from the shadows and recoiled in desperate panic.

It was a pair of pigeons. A pair of incredibly smug pigeons.

It's blurry because I was  running away. They asked, but I refused to email them the pictures later.
It’s blurry because I was running away.

I eventually marshaled my bravery but pigeons continued to pop out at me throughout my tour, even while exploring the wine cellar. Horrible subterranean demon birds.

It was cold, and the tall, hollow buildings only served to funnel the wind all the more effectively into me. I made my way through the empty (save for that horde of hooligan pigeons) castle. The great hall was beautiful in a simple, yet austere way. It also had windows and a latched door, offering me a short respite from the wind.

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The buttery also gave me an opportunity to sneak up on this jerk. Unfortunately its rump is inexplicably photogenic. Its feathers arranged like a fish’s scales. Pigeons: 2 Taylor: 0

After an hour of picking my way through all of the rooms, I finally made it to the roof, where I had a view of the surrounding miles. My hands were freezing, I only had a thin shirt beneath my jacket, and the fact that my lecture had begun ten minutes prior spoke for itself. But the the clouds parted, letting the sun, which had begun to sink low in the sky, shine through,  and despite the cold I stood there on the battlements for a time, grinning like an idiot.

20150127_152830This castle was mine, for however short a time it might have been, and despite the city sprawl and modern buildings off in the distance, I was separate from it all. The Taylor who had spent most of his life fantasizing about adventures and quests (spiritually manifested as a giddy eight-year-old for those who are curious)  saw past the broken walls and gutted buildings, and found magic in it. I can’t say I’m surprised that all I ever wanted was a crumbling castle to explore.

I found the post office eventually, after asking for directions twice along the same stretch of road, but discovered that they closed at noon, long before I had even left to go find it. Apparently, the owners of the houses it is behind don’t want all the traffic of people going in there and, I don’t know, accomplishing importance business or something equally rash, and refuse to allow a sign for it to be put up. Despite my new blood-feud with those homeowners, I was relieved I hadn’t done anything rash like asking directions when I first missed it, because I never would have found the castle. It would have just been a fruitless errand; a wasted hour on an empty stomach.

The lecture I missed, by the way, was Visualizing Scotland, where we study and analyze the representations of the country in photos and art. I don’t like missing classes, but I don’t think my absence could have been more in the spirit of things. Let’s call it perspective, or a practical education. We all need those.

The City, and My Search for Avalon

This is something of a two-part post. A “double feature,” if you will. Sure, the song doesn’t really apply, but if you’re not the sort of person to embrace any opportunity to listen to it your time might be better spent looking for the nearest convent.

This post is also on the longer side, but the best parts are scattered throughout so you’ll be forced to read it all or else miss them. Seriously, when that person you’re trying to impress at that upcoming dinner party brings up that part (you know, that  part), and you realize you skimmed over it you’re going to feel very silly

*

I’ve been in Edinburgh for only four days now, and most of that time has been dedicated to matriculation and general academic orientation. I’m living in university housing; in a small island of dorms separated from campus by a channel of pubs, residencies, and hair salons. It’s a two mile walk between the two, so I’ll be in peak shape. Soon, the very model of a modern rambling scholar. I went for a play on words with that one, but I think it was both too pointlessly confusing and too clumsy to have been worth it…

Anyway, while I may be an unpleasant distance from campus, especially when making the journey in rain, snow, excessive winds, and any combination thereof, some things manage to make it worth it. For example, I get to look at a veritable castle outside my window:

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Or perhaps the fact that this is literally my backyard:

Arthur's Seat, a somewhat famous amalgamation of rocks.
Arthur’s Seat, an amalgamation of rocks that is kind of important around here. My dorm is that modern white building below the knobbly bit.

I’ve yet to climb it, both because my sneakers are in my still-missing luggage, and because that it’s been very windy and if my current luck holds true then I’d probably be blown off the top by some errant gust.

Speaking of absent luggage, I was finally forced to give up hope of a quick reunion with my clothes and began searching the city for some sort of foreign version of The Gap. I’m living in the far south of the city where most of the historical attractions are, and so the clothing stores seem to sell exclusively novelty sweatshirts or fancy kilts. Unable to afford even a small wardrobe of Scottish finery I pressed on into the north of the city.

What could have been. What, one day, may still be. Believe.
What could have been. What, one day, may still be. Believe in that future.

I’m not even going to try to make clothes shopping sound like an action-packed, interesting experience and to be honest, after a total of 16 miles walked that day the most exciting moment way my discovery of a local comic store.

I did have a chance to explore the city a bit more, earlier in the week. The day after I arrived  I took advantage of my free schedule to get lost in the city, at least for a bit, so I started walking north, accidentally found the university’s campus, and even stumbled into the front gates of Edinburgh castle.

It is exactly as hard as it looks to "stumble" into this castle. It's not exactly discreet.
It is exactly as hard as it looks to “stumble” into this castle. It’s not really all that discreet.

In my defense it was raining rather a lot, and with heavy wind added to it I wasn’t casting my eyes to the horizons. I would also take a moment to address the common claim that it is always raining here, which is absolutely ridiculous. All the worms would have drowned ages ago, and then where would we be? Instead, it is simply that, at any given moment, there is a likelihood that it will be raining. So, instead of walking through a single rainstorm over the course of the day, one simply walks through several smaller showers of random intensity.

My exploration was admittedly not one of those days though; it began raining almost immediately after I left my dorm and only got worse. Any reasonable person would have called it quits, or at least bought an umbrella, but I have never claimed to be a reasonable person, and no one should really be surprised that I carried on with a spring in my step and a song in my heart as the faux-fur collar of my bomber jacket slowly became sodden and wilted like a drowned ferret.

Finally, I took shelter from the storm, ducking into a side alley to see if the rain would at least lighten in the next couple of minutes. It was here I encountered a courtyard, surrounded by tall buildings -the jewel of which was an old stone mansion, fitted with multiple chimneys and a domed tower into which the front door led. A small, hanging sign revealed it as the Writer’s Museum, which is exactly my sort of thing, but it was getting cold and dark (sundown = 4PM), and my soaking-wet pants had somewhat lessened my enthusiasm. So I vowed to return another day, with dry pants and my camera.

*

Today was that fated day. The only problem being I didn’t actually remember where this museum or its courtyard were. I was worried that, as with Avalon, having left that courtyard once I could never again return. But rather than do something reasonable like look at any one of the helpful maps I own, I decided finding it on my own would be more in the spirit of things. I had found it by accident initially, so wandering seemed the only fitting way to return.

Twenty minutes of walking was a satisfying amount of progress and, having missed breakfast, I endeavored to find something hot and doughy for lunch. I settled on “Mum’s Great Comfort Food,” one of the several not-pubs tucked away in Edinbugh, and ordered a cup of green tea and a venison pie. While I waited on my pie I sipped my drink and  contemplated the poster directly across from me.

At first

Contemplate that image for a moment. Take in its initial innocence, its normality, then see the strangeness of it. Where are they looking? If this is supposed to be the man’s mother, why is she almost certainly younger than him? Is that a pair of sausages on his plate, or just one that has been buried in a shallow grave of scrambled eggs, its corpse revealed after the first rain?

The only rational explanation I could conceive was they were spies. The man is undercover, sharing a meal with a  known enemy of state. The villain (off-screen) is aware of the hero’s duplicity, and has just confidently dropped a hint of his knowledge. Our hero, unarmed , forces jovial confusion in an attempt to stall for time. The waitress (codename: Mum), seeing disaster but moments away intercepts the hero’s order in the kitchen, delivers it with a smile, and, leaning in, whispers that there is a gun hidden beneath the eggs.

Having come to this satisfying analytic conclusion, my own meal arrived:

The angle makes it hard to tell, but you're going to have to take my word for it that this pie was roughly the size of a dictionary.
The angle makes it hard to tell, but you’re going to have to take my word for it that this pie was roughly the size of a dictionary.

Noting my bafflement on how I might go about eating this, my waitress told me, “just stab it in the middle and ignore the screams.” It was delicious. Warm, fluffy, full of meat. It’s shrieks will haunt me for all my days.

Before I left she also let me know that not only was the Writer’s Museum easy to get it, it was just around the corner and on my right.

So yeah, actually pretty easy to find.
So yeah, actually pretty easy to find.

And this is all of it you will ever see, because it turns out photography isn’t allowed inside. The building was divided up into three parts, one for each of the greatest authorial Scotts: Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Burns, and Sir Walter Scott. All were brilliant and totally rad, and in what I’m beginning to understand as the “Scottish way,” all died tragically (Scott, at the very least, made it to his 60’s).

And so, the museum that had been initially presented as the highlight of this post became something of a footnote. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour,” and moreover, as he once probably wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to stop to eat along the way.” And so, to honor a great man’s wisdom, we shall end with a meal:

A blizzard had begun while I toured the museum, and soon after leaving it I decided hiking the four miles back to my room in the company of the storm was not something I felt like doing. I ducked into a cafe along The Royal Mile (the road that climbs the hill to Edinburgh Castle). This was The Elephant Room, famous for being the place where J.K. Rowling sketched the beginnings of Harry Potter. It held true to its name, being full of statuettes and paintings of Elephants. I really have no idea why.

I settled into a corner of the back room with my newly purchased copy of Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and a pot of Lapsang Suchong tea. Through the windows I watched the billows of snow and, beyond, the silhouette of the castle braced against the wind.

The first cup of tea I poured early. Steeped lightly; curls of smoke in its flavor. The second cup was perfect, strong with a not-unpleasant kick. I drank it slowly, the last sips were cold. The final cup was the bitter dregs. It had darkened from a light amber to a swirling mahogany, and each swallow felt like it charred the back of my throat.

The snow ended after an hour, but the wind stayed.

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Bury My Heart on Flight 602

Today’s post is about travel. My first flight was from Philly by way of Air Canada, which was fine and uneventful. Things got weird after that. I nearly got lost in the Toronto airport. Then, after transferring to Iceland Air my entire plane got lost in the Reykjavik airport.

Seriously, we left the plane, took a series of stair and hallways, following signs and without having seen any other routes. Then we hit a dead end. We had come up a flight of stairs and into a section of the upper hallway that was walled in glass like a rectangular fish tank, with only a locked door in front of us. Other travelers stared in bemusement as the rest of our plane tried to cram into the small space after us. I was convinced we had either been chosen as subjects for the new airport zoo, or that they were about to start piping in neurotoxin.

At this point in time four separate planes people were scheduled to be on were in the process of boarding. Somehow, no one died in a stampede. Two backtracks later we found the exit. I suspect it had originally been hidden behind a false wall, but I can’t prove anything.

I would still like to make a shout-out to Iceland Air however, on which I had a lovely eight hours. I was flying economy, which I thought just gave me extra footroom, but oh how wrong I was.

A short list of the things they gave me:

-A pillow (not to keep, but it had an Icelandic lullaby printed on it)

-Two blankets. (Also not to keep)

-Headphones

-Socks

-A magazine including photos of dramatic Icelandic ponies

-Full, free access to the food and drink menu.

-love

In case you didn't believe me about the Icelandic ponies. Here, it a still presumably from an upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.
In case you didn’t believe me about the Icelandic ponies. Here is a still, presumably from an upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet.

I got to try an Icelandic liquer made from birch trees, which had a sprig of birch in the bottle itself. It was thick, with a sharp, almost spiced flavor. I did also see the Aurora Borealis, but it was having an off night and just looked like a vaguely minty cloud.

Jumping back in the chronology briefly, we passed over the southern tip of Greenland before dawn, so I couldn’t get a photo, but you’re not missing much. It’s an infinite expanse of tundra, with only a few small, somber lights along the coastline over which we flew. With the coast behind us there was only featureless white. I’ll give Greenland some credit though, because it wins style points with me for its severity and commitment to soul-crushing bleakness. At the same time, that really only confirms it as a place I never want to visit. My heart goes out to everyone, past and present, who had to live even on the not-entirely frozen parts of that place. From what I can tell, 95% of it is frozen.

An artistic impression of Greenland from above, made on my seat’s TV art program.
An artistic impression of Greenland from above, made on my seat’s TV art program.

We came in over the Hebrides around 8, and I had the first looks at the iconic geography of Scotland, such as:

Moutainy things
Moutainy things
lochs
Lakes. Or lochs. Or stalagmites. I’m never entirely sure.
Countryside
Countryside
...and clouds. So many clouds. Everywhere, always. Eternal.
…and clouds. So many clouds. Everywhere, always. Eternal.

Then, upon successful arrival, I discovered my 50lb checked suitcase was lost…somewhere. Hopefully not dumped for weight reasons while passing over Greenland, but they still haven’t contacted me about it, so the possibility can’t be ruled out.

My journey ended with a bus into Glasgow, a train to Edinburgh, and a taxi to my dorm. I’ll save details on my first forays into the city for the next post though, and instead leave you with the awful revelation that neither Pandora nor my Netflix will operate here.

Forward

I’m kind of terrible at naming things. Like, really bad. We’ll get back to this.

I’m Taylor, you might have heard of me. I’m a junior English and writing major at Ithaca college and  I’m going to be spending my spring semester  at the University of Edinburgh. Being me, I will inevitably have dozens of fascinating, meaningful, and hilarious stories to tell over the course of the next few months, leading to a clamoring by publishers for the books rights. A biopic will be produced, then a second, then Christopher Nolan will get his hands on the rights for a gritty reboot and you’ll all get to say you read it here first. You’ll also get to pretentiously explain at dinner parties that this blog was mostly about me being frequently confused, being excited about tea, and me teaching the Scots how to play dungeons and dragons. I’m sure the biographies got that all wrong.

Now, to naming. This will be, in theory, some sort of travel, humor, tea blog, and in trying to think of a witty, acoustically-pleasing web address I came up with absolutely nothing. Not even a single bad pun. So my friend Michaela stepped up to the plate and suggested such gems as “milkmilk.blogspot.com,” “mycatleftme.blogspot.com,” and “canadianscandance.blogspot.com.” It was close, but I decided on her suggestion of “shame of the device,” because it’s catchy, vaguely pretentious in a way I can’t quite nail down, and absolute gibberish: a winning combination. If you’re looking for meaning in that, do so in a post modern “the center is you,” sort of way, because look, I just work here. I can’t be giving you all the answers.

I leave on the 5th of January, flying to somewhere in Canada, to Reykjavik, and finally into Glasgow before finally entering Edinburgh in style on the back of a commandeered specimen of the local wildlife. Some sort of northern alpaca, maybe, or a unicorn. We’ll figure it out.

Until then, there’s probably paperwork I’ve forgotten to file.