Beginning and Middle of February

COMPUTER TROUBLES—PORTOBELLO BEACH—NATIONALISM—DINNER—THE SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY

 

I apologize for the recent delays in posts. Now that I have my computer back and my life is relatively normal, you may expect an update on Saturday evening as usual. This post will cover major events of the past few weeks, and a few of the things I’ve been thinking about recently.

 

Late in the evening of Thursday the 5th of February, I turned on my computer to find that its screen did not work. Everything else about the computer seemed to work as usual with the exception of the screen—somewhat a vital part of communicating with the dern thing. Then next morning, I took it into CANCOM, the local Apple “Premier Retailer”, who took it from me and had it sent off to Glasgow to get fixed. Fortunately, because it’s still under its three-year warranty, I didn’t have to pay anything.

Later on Friday, Nick, Darci, and Sarah all left—Nick bound for his brother’s to see his new baby niece, the girls off to home-stays arranged by their exchange program—leaving me with the flat to myself. I had a bath and generally relaxed, enjoying my privacy and preparing for the long walk that I would have ahead of me the next day.

 

For most of the week, I had been planning to walk to Portobello Beach, along the east side of Edinburgh. The city of Edinburgh lies on a bump of land in the Forth Estuary, meaning that it is essentially bordered to both the North and the East by water. Coming from a region of the US that is nearly as landlocked as one can get, visits to the ocean have always held special significance for me. I wanted to see the ocean—particularly given that it was within walking distance.

I set out after lunch with my whole Saturday afternoon unplanned. I knew the route I would be taking, and I also knew that it was six miles there and back without any funny diversions. I was going to be on my feet for a while. Within minutes I was walking through Holyrood Park, heading straight east and enjoying the natural landscape. I passed a pond that was simply crammed with ducks, geese, and swans—I have never seen so many swans in one place. I’m planning to go back there some morning to take some “portraits” of the inhabitants of this lake.

Soon I was walking through the rather monotonous suburbia that characterises much of outer Edinburgh, and after some time, I was able to see the water ahead of me. There was only one thing that separated me from it: the most complicated road construction I have ever seen.

Granted, before that day, I don’t think I had ever seen road construction in a busy roundabout. Concentric circles of cones and signs directed the traffic around the parts of the circle under construction and directed pedestrians through a series of pathways across the circle. I must confess that I was quite confused about when to cross the street and when not to—it’s hard enough remembering to look right and then left—but I made it intact, which is what matters.

The beach was cold and mostly grey. On the other side of the water, snow covered the fields and hills, allowing the gentle geometry of their divisions to be revealed. The water rolled in with a constancy that was strangely unaccompanied by sound—no roar fills my recollection, only a slightly louder-than normal rippling. Perhaps I exaggerate.

On this first Saturday of February, Portobello beach was not particularly beautiful, nor particularly romantic, though I must say I, like others before me, found that the slightly decrepit nature of the beach played on me, precisely because it was decrepit. Romantic notions of the slowly crumbling British Seaside—perpetually fading (though never giving way altogether)—began to fill my mind. I skipped stones in the surf and watched the parade of couples and groups and dogs. With the exception of a lone man with a metal detector, I was the only solitary figure on the beach. For all I know, he may have had a wife somewhere, too embarrassed to be near him.

On my return route, I took a bit of a diversion that plunged me into the heart of suburbia, where I passed house after house with driveway after driveway with small family car after small family car and yard after yard. It is in suburbia that the British obsession with the formal garden continues to have life—I passed house after house with carefully planned front yards—grass, stones, flowers, bushes, hedges in harmony and in miniature replication of the gardens of royalty, lords, dukes and duchesses. I did eventually return to the College Wynd. Totting up my mileage, it turned out I had been eight miles. I had another bath.

 

I want to say a word or two on the notions of Scottish independence and Great Britain. Scots are (and always have been) fiercely independent and strongly nationalistic. They are happily a part of the United Kingdon, and would not have it any other way, but most would identify as Scottish rather than British. This can be an important distinction—to many Americans, England, Britain and the UK all mean the same thing, a terrible mistake. Great Britain refers to the Isle of Britain, and comprises England, Scotland, and Wales; the UK stands for the United Kingdoms of Great Britain (as just described) and North Ireland. England is simply the country of England. If you want conversation with a Welshman or Scot to stop quickly, call them English. The extent of Scottish autocracy in government and economics is a topic for later entry (and several thick volumes to boot).

 

Much of the following Friday was spent cooking. Nick and I had decided to put on a bit of a feast together and so, after a brief trip to buy some last-minute ingredients and pick up my (fixed) computer, I spent most of the afternoon preparing for the dinner. On Tuesday night I had started my Pumpernickel Raisin bread, and so I had to do the second half of it and then cook my soup.

Tracking down some of the requisite ingredients for the Bread had been difficult—in fact I had no idea as to where to start looking for rye flour, molasses, or caraway seeds, but after a bit of digging on the internet I found Real Foods, a cute little store just a bit farther away from the Cowgate than Sainsbury’s. Real Foods had a really nice “crunchy” sort of vibe, like how I remember places like Wild Oats and Ideal being in Boulder in the late 90s. The place smelled fantastic and I was able to get everything I needed, and some very muddy vegetables for my soup to boot (see picture). I was also able to get a pint of something I had been wanting to try: Heather Ale. I had first read about it in the “Extreme Beer” article that appeared in the New Yorker in November. I must say that I found it a bit disappointing—not really flowery enough after all the hype.

Just after seven, our two guests arrived. Nick had invited his friend Bri, a student of UCSB spending her whole year at (and possibly transferring to) the University of Edinburgh. I had invited Abby. The four of us and flatmate Sarah sat down to the first course (mine) of Bread and a Parsnip soup of my own creation. When we had finished this course we were quite full—but we still had Nick’s course to go through, so we waited while he prepared it. It was Kaiserschmarnn, an Austrian dish that Nick had become acquainted with whilst on a Skiing holiday in Innsbruck. It was basically a giant messy cut up pancake with raisins, and it tasted every bit as good as its description sounds.

 

I wish to put in a few effusive words for the Scottish National Gallery. This is an astoundingly wonderful museum—just the right size for an hour or two, ten minutes walking from my flat, and absolutely free. The collection ranges over the time from about 1250-1900 and covers Religious art to the Impressionists. The great masters are well represented, with works by Boticelli, Raphael, Titian, Reubens, Vermeer, Velasquez, El Greco, Rembrandt, Ramsay, Raeburn, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Gauguin, and Degas all present in the permanent collection. While there are a great many Scottish artists represented, Allan Ramsay and Sir Henry Raeburn being among them, the collection does not feel too Scotland-biased.

A cornerstone of the collection is a group of five works by Titian, among them three exceptionally fine ones: the large masterpieces Diana and Acteon and Diana and Callisto, and the smaller (though no less masterful) Venus Anadyomene—Venus rising from the sea. The two large Titians are recent additions to the museum, which purchased Diana and Acteon from the Duke of Sutherland towards the end of last year in conjunction with the National Gallery in London. In 2012, the museums will be given the opportunity to purchase Diana and Callisto. The paintings will switch venues every five years, travelling together (they were both commissioned by Philip II of Spain around 1550). It has been my pleasure to go in and stare at these works with the ease and comfort that comes with knowing I will see them again and again and again in my many visits to the museum.

I have been taking full advantage of the many resources made available to the public by the galleries: on Wednesday (the 18th) I went with Nick to see the photography exhibit currently on in the National Gallery “25 Years of Photography”, which celebrates the National Gallery system’s twenty-five-year-old commitment to collecting photographs by Scots and of Scotland. After seeing the show, which was small, but only had one or two weak pictures, I stayed behind to do research in the library for an upcoming paper. Tomorrow (Friday the 20th) morning I have an appointment at 10:00 to continue my research. Two weeks later, on the 6th of March, I have an appointment at the print room of the Gallery of Modern Art (which I visited in a previous instalment) at 10:00 to see a complete series of Kandinsky’s Kleine Welten portfolio, something I am truly excited for.

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