I got my first glimpse of Edinburgh as we flew in from the south and descended through the clouds. As it was, I was on the left side of the aircraft, which was the perfect side to be on. We came in to the south and east of the city, and circled around the north end of it to land at the airport, to the north and west. From my window, it appeared at once both small and large. I knew with experience I might have been able to spot my accommodations, the College Wynd flats at Cowgate (pronounced “wind” as in a spool of thread), but for now I had to settle for what major landmarks I could identify. The Port was closest and clearest to me, and behind it the unmistakable hulking scrubland of Holyrood Park and Arthur’s Seat loomed. To its right, a smaller lump somewhat blended into the cityscape told the location of Edinburgh Castle. Further on, disappointingly small and only sometimes visible from my vantage, sat the singular bowed trapezoids of the Forth Railway bridge. It was somewhat sunny, and the low angle of the sun which is a result of Edinburgh’s northerly latitude caused the water to shine in many shades of blue and green, with flakes of golden reflection in among them.
After landing, I collected my bags and got the keys to my flat at the Pollack Halls of Residence at the University. To get there, I took the inexpensive but reliable city shuttle, which takes you door to door for the low cost of £9. The first few minutes of the ride were terrifying for a host of reasons: the narrow width of the streets, the speed at which we shot through these streets, the condition of the shuttle’s manual gearbox (which caused the van to lurch immediately after a horrendous “clunk”), and the fact that we were on the “wrong side” of the road. We bumped and clanked easterly into the city via a busy thoroughfare, which was lined with cars, shops, and pubs. After we passed the Edinburgh zoo, where one can apparently walk with penguins, I was expecting to see the castle and the centre of town directly in front of us, but we inexplicably turned right and thundered down a residential street, only to come out, after several turnings, directly at the base of the castle.
At the Pollack Halls, I received my keys and welcome packet in a small brown envelope, and called for a taxi to take me to the College Wynd. The cab driver, an older Scot with short grey hair, chatted with me about the economy as we drove back into the centre of town.
“We’re struggling,” he said. Edinburgh has virtually no producing industries. The main sources of income for the city are Banking and Tourism. It is not a secret that the Royal Bank of Scotland lost big-time in the wake of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. My driver informed me that only a few days ago the government had been forced to give the RBS a bailout to the tune of six billion pounds sterling. They had no choice: the RBS is the largest Bank in Scotland, almost certainly the largest in the UK, and among largest in the world—“either we did it,” said my driver, “or the country would have no bank.”
I arrived and schlepped my stuff up a flight of stairs to the door of my flat. After setting my stuff down in my room (a feat complicated by the fact that my door unlocks anticlockwise), which is just as bare as a room at Hampshire, and about the same size and draughtiness. I briefly inspected the kitchen, and while inspecting the bathroom, met one of my flatmates, a 20 year-old English first-year named Nick, who hails from the vicinity of Gatwick airport north of London, and is studying Maths.
After a pause to collect myself and will myself on before napping, Nick and I took a walk, and he showed me around the neighbourhood a bit.
“We’re in the perfect location,” Nick said, and it’s true: the College Wynd sits on the Cowgate, one street over from and parallel to The Royal Mile, the high street that connects the Castle with Holyrood Park. Walk five minutes one way and you’re in the castle, walk the other for fifteen and you’re in the park. Nick showed me the centre of campus of the University at George’s square, which surprised me with its late-modernist newness—for a school as old as this, older than any schools in the US, I did not expect the centre of campus to contain so many right-angled concrete façades.
After my tour of the neighbourhood and a brief lunch, I napped from 2:30 until 5:45. I had dinner, tried to top up my SIM card in my phone by phone (it did not work), and slept from 8:00 to 1:30 AM. At 1:30, it sounded like a riot was going on outside—or a large crowd of people were gathering for something. In fact, a slowly moving procession of people was traveling down the Cowgate, presumably returning from a Friday night out on the town to the places from whence they came. After some time, their numbers dwindled to the point where they sounded less like a mass of people than smaller unique groups. I went back to sleep.
On Saturday morning, our remaining flatmates arrived. Darcy, a petite young woman studying English at George Washington University and originally from Long Island occupies room 1. The other new flatmate, Sarah, an art student at Maine’s Colby College from Tennessee, though born in Massachusetts, occupies room 4. All of us were a little surprised at living with each other. I think we’d all envisioned living with people of our own gender—I certainly did, and Nick said that it was quite rare to have mixed flats. We gave them just about the same tour as Nick gave me the previous day, they picked up some extra supplies, and yet again I napped much of the afternoon away. When I awoke it was about 3:30. It was getting dark and drizzling. I bundled myself against the cold and walked the few blocks to Tesco to buy groceries.
It was blustery out. Winds drove the drizzle into a pseudo-rain, which skidded along the sidewalks making them slick and bright. Tesco was busy, and the interior was unappealing, but the food and in particular the produce looked rather good, and the prices (6 tomatoes for £2, a bottle of Olive Oil for about the same) made me feel as though I was getting a good deal.
Later that night, Nick was in the midst of cooking a Tarteflette, which consisted of sliced potatoes layered with bacon, onions cheese and cream in a casserole. It took a long time to prepare, but turned out looking good. I cooked pasta with vegetables.
Sunday was orientation day. I got oriented from eleven in the morning until about four in the afternoon. When I returned, Nick was waiting for me, having just returned from an excursion to an exceptionally windy and cold Roslyn Chapel. We walked out to the Aspen bar and restaurant just down the street, to watch Nick’s Chelsea take on Manchester United.
Soccer is much more interesting to watch when surrounded by fans of the game. From the other side of a pint and a crowd of people audibly following the game, each failed possession and great save took on a new magnitude.
We found ourselves sitting across from a pair of American girls, who were studying to teach English in foreign countries. They were in a four-week program in Edinburgh, though not through the University, after which they would travel, and then pick a place to go and teach. Both originally from Northern CA, one was a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, while another was a graduate of Colorado State University. Friends since before college, Kristin and Christine are for the moment going the same direction into the unknown. When we asked them where they thought they might teach, they replied that for now, they were thinking of Thailand. Manchester won, 3-0. We went home.
Monday morning I awoke at eight o’clock to pre-dawn greys and blues. I walked into the centre of campus to check my email and begin to get my schedule of classes pinned down. After doing this and registering myself as a student of the University, I fancied a walk, and began to go north, hoping to go beyond the high street.
After ten minutes walk through streets, I followed a slightly muddy and certainly small path up into the bushes on the side of a hill. The path led, as paths tend to do, to another path, broader, and steeper ascending quite directly up what the sign designated as Calton Hill. In a few minutes, I arrived panting and blinded by sunlight near the top of the hill, from which I could see the lay of much of Edinburgh around me. I did not go up entirely to the summit. Rather, I wandered along a path that encircled the final sixth of the hill. I figured I might just save the very top for another day.
Calton Hill is neither as impressively tall nor as rugged as the crags of Arthur’s Seat in Hollyrood Park, but it does have a certain nobility to it. There are various national and supranational monuments placed around it and it has signs to tell the non-initiated what they are looking at. What I was looking at was, as I have said before, much of Edinburgh, stretched out before me. Looking north, I could see far off the hills on the other side of the Firth of Forth, then the forth itself, which extended to the west as far as the Forth Railway Bridge, of which one cantilevered span could be seen, and to the east out to where the forth opens up to the North Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Still closer, I knew that the neighbourhood and town of Leith sat gleaming by the port, though indistinguishable to my eyes from the rest of the city. Stretched out almost directly below me were the various New Town developments, Georgian-era housing projects that imposed a rigorous rectilinear geometry on the city after Princes Street. Blocks of houses and squares in geometrical harmony set this part of the city apart from the rest. I wondered if the geometric regularity and wide avenues would cause the New Town to have an utterly different character from the Closes and Wynds and many levels of the older city to the west and south. Looking west and south, the city was much tighter and more intricately eccentric, set off by a background of moors, scrubland, and rocky hills, and dominated above by a huge set of clouds already beginning to shadow the city and perhaps threatening to rain later on.
After I returned, I sat my first class, Architecture 2B: The Industrial City-Glasgow. It is not a class I intend to keep, not because I dislike it or its teacher, but because there are other classes that fit my Division II better. Although I did not intend to stay for the remaining classes, I was nonetheless able to learn quite a bit about Scotland’s second city, and it piqued my interest and appetite for future visits.
That night, all four of us in the flat went out to the Stand, a comedy club in the basement of a New Town building which has live comedy seven nights a week. Monday nights are the bargain nights, with ordinary tickets costing £2, and student fares for one quid. There were about ten acts, most of them pretty good: one could pay a whole lot more money to see worse than the cheapo night at the Stand.