End of February-Beginning of March

ARBROATH—LOSING VENUS—RUGBY—DECONSTRUCTION—COMMUNING WITH KANDINSKY—GOING PROFESSIONAL

 

The start of a train journey always gets me excited. I am still passionate about railways and trains, and I believe that travelling by train is one of the most pleasant ways to see any place, familiar or not. Just being near trains gets me excited for the possibility of journeys. By Sunday the 22nd of February, I had passed through Edinburgh’s Waverly station at least twenty times without once boarding a train. The anticipation of actually venturing into Scotland outside of Edinburgh was great.

I don’t really know why I chose to go to Arbroath. Perhaps the name interested me. I didn’t want to go to a big town such as Glasgow or Aberdeen or Dundee, and I didn’t want to go as far away as Inverness. I wanted to be by the shore, particularly the east coast. I thought about going to Carnoustie, on but trains there were expensive and infrequent. Arbroath, just a few miles up the coast from Carnoustie, was more accessible. It enticed me.

Even more exciting, I would get to go over the Forth Railway Bridge, one of the most unique and recognisable feats of Scottish engineering, and the longest steel bridge of its time. The cantilevers of the bridge appear on Scottish and British banknotes, coins, and stamps alike, and I viewed it as some sort of symbol of my existence in Scotland. I had to cross it.

I must confess that when I got off the train an hour and a half after leaving Edinburgh Waverly, I didn’t really have a clue about what there was to do in Arbroath. I had almost eight hours to explore the place before my return journey, and almost no conception of what I would do to fill that time. I walked out of the station to find the town very quiet. I should have guessed it: everyone was just getting out of church. No stores or restaurants were open. It was with some consternation then that I set out to find lunch. Eventually, I just went to a supermarket and got some fruits and a sandwich. Then it was off to the cliffs.

The most striking man-made element to be seen in Arbroath is the ruined Abbey, which was consecrated in 1233 and has been decaying ever since its ‘heyday’ in 1320. A series of invasions and fires have left the once large and grand Abbey church looking considerably the worse for wear, though undoubtedly more picturesque. It sits atop a small hill, anchoring the town all around it, a role it has performed for more than eight centuries.

Aside from looking at the Abbey (you can go into a visitor’s centre and visit less-decayed parts of the structure, but I did not), the other thing for the tourist to do in Arbroath is to walk along the Seaton Cliffs, something that I managed to do for close to three hours. In this time, I covered less than the first mile of the cliffs, but what a first mile!

Much of the cliffs run down steeply into the water, but not so steeply as to make it impossible to walk down them to the water. Climbing over the rocks and scrub is good fun, and every once in a while, you find something really special—for me, it was a small beach in an inlet shut off by the cliffs from the sea and paved with thousands of colourful and perfectly smooth rocks.

I had first approached it from the north side, circling down a cliff to look at the sea and an arch of stone. Finding the cove with the beach more enticing, I did further scrambling to get close to it, though not close enough. From the north and seaward side of the cove, it was inaccessible. Five feet beneath me was a foot of water and rocks. I couldn’t go down, much as I would have liked to. Looking off to the other side, I saw that I could get closer and lower, but there was still too much water to make it down without getting wet. I decided to climb around a bit more on some other cliffs and wait. The tide would either help me or make it utterly impossible. I had nothing to lose.

As it happened, the tide was going out, and so when I returned about an hour later to the beach of the ten thousand perfect rocks, this time from the south and west, I was able to get down with relative ease. The beach was littered with stones from the size of pebbles to the size of small boulders, most of which were perfectly smooth, and in all different colours: blues, reds, purples, greens, oranges, yellows, blacks, browns and greys were all present. It was with great happiness and some mild guilt that I colleted thirteen rocks from the beach. I have given a few away, and may give away a few more, but for the most part they will travel back to Colorado with me. They are too perfect to leave behind. Sometimes I think of how long the rocks must have stayed on that beach, being worn down to their current satin smoothness, and I feel that wave of guilt all over again.

There wasn’t much to do in Arbroath once it got dark. I went into Ogston’s Bar and Grill and had some refreshment and dinner. Soon enough it was time to go back to the station and back to Edinburgh.

 

The next day, I suffered perhaps my greatest disappointment since my arrival in Scotland. Visiting the National Gallery with Abby, I turned to look at my beloved Venus Anadyomene, only to find it replaced by a panel portrait of an archer by an unknown artist. Perhaps I am a bit dramatic, but I felt quite honestly betrayed—as though something dear to me had been taken from me by a presumed friend—I tried to laugh it off and make light of it, but it haunted me for much of the rest of the week. It’s gone to the MFA Boston to be in a show on Titian and Tintoretto. If you are in the states from roughly next week until the middle of August and find yourself in Boston, go see her and say “hello” for me.

 

We’re in the midst of the Six Nations over here. It’s a rugby tournament between Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, England and Italy. This year, Wales, France and Ireland are competing for top honours, with England in the middle and Scotland and Italy competing not to be last. And so it was that on the last day of February I found myself walking to Murrayfield Stadium accompanied by Nick, Darci, and a non-flatemate Sarah. While it might have been the first Rugby match I had seen in person, it was not the first I had ever seen. Nick and I had been following the action to some extent and so I already had watched Scotland lose to Wales, Scotland lose to France, England lose to Wales, and in a very exciting game, Wales lose to France.

It was 2:00 in the afternoon and a bit chilly when we joined the general flow westward to Murrayfield stadium. Others of our group (eight of us attended all together) had chosen to take the bus there, but Nick insisted that walking was more fun, and I can only conclude that he must be right. We joined crowds of Scots and Italians alike pressing on towards the stadium. Progress was slow but steady, and we were there in about forty minutes. People were decked out in all sorts of regalia: hats with loch ness monsters on them, flags, jerseys, and, of course, kilts.

After a bit of people watching, we made our way to our seats, which were brilliantly chosen by Nick to be close to midfield but a bit up from the front. The teams were introduced (Scotland accompanied by pyrotechnics), and the Italian national anthem played, then the National Anthem of Scotland was sung: Oh flower of Scotland, when will we see your like again? Who fought and died for, your wee bit native hill and glen? And stood against him, proud Edward’s army, and sent him homeward, tae think again. Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain, but we still rise now, and be the nation again! Who stood against him, proud Edward’s army, and sent him homeward, tae think again. Halfway through the anthem the fifty or so bagpipers on the field stopped playing and the audience sang a capella, a stroke of incredible beauty that sent shivers down my spine.

The game went Scotland’s way, with some brilliant boots and tries. The final score was Scotland 26, Italy 6. It was the largest Scottish victory margin in the Six Nations for quite a few years.

Rugby itself is not as brutal a game as uninitiated Americans perceive it to be. When played well, it has a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow to it that approaches the fluidity of soccer. Yes, there are hard knocks, and little padding, and massive men running into each other, and there is almost always blood (and frequently worse), but it isn’t brutal, strangely.

 

Everywhere I go in Edinburgh, I’m faced head-to-head by construction. The city is in a total state of deconstruction: streets are ripped up with seeming nonchalance, routes are blocked, paths diverted. Often, while standing at one location of deconstruction, another can be seen, not far off. Buildings are not safe either. I can name at least four buildings on the University campus around George Square that are currently undergoing renovation.

In the last few weeks, the most extensive of all the construction projects has commenced: a several year-long campaign to add European-style trams to Princes’ street and surrounding areas. This is a major commitment, not only because of the current unfavourable economic climate, but because of the tremendous diversion in traffic involved in closing one of Edinburgh’s busiest streets in both directions. The continual parade of Buses, formerly seen lining the sides of Princes’ Street, now clogs other streets. I’m happy I don’t have to drive here.

 

 On Friday the 6th of March, I returned to the Gallery of Modern Art to see the complete Kleine Welten (Small Worlds) portfolio by artist Wassily Kandinsky. I had a prearranged appointment in the Print Room, and at 10:15, was met by Daniel Herrmann, a tall man of German extraction with Philip Johnson glasses. He showed me into his office in the print room, and there on a set of tables and easels were the twelve prints—four lithographs, four engravings, and four woodcuts. The Kleine Welten series is amazing to see in its entirety. I don’t think I can even begin to describe all the things I saw in the work, but I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend close to two hours on a very personal level with these images.

 

That night, I sat in at a Friday night gig at the Jazz Bar. I have been regularly attending open Jam Sessions on Tuesday nights, but recently, Bill Kyle, drummer, impresario, and owner of the Jazz Bar, had been suggesting that I could come around and sit in on other nights. He suggested Friday night, and I sat in. I went back on Saturday night as well, this time not sitting in, but as a paid member of the band. I have now been (for one night at least, and hopefully for one or two more before I leave) a professional jazz musician. 

Shameless Plug: If you don’t know about my recent online “album” of experimental improvised music, it’s available for free here (part one) and here (part two).

 

I’ll have some pictures from Arbroath up soon, probably Monday or Tuesday.

If you want another perspective of Edinburgh, I’d like to send you on to Liz Looker’s web journal. She’s another hampshire student who is recording her experiences, and is taking some very fine pictures. It may be found here.

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.

Computer is Back!

I have my computer back, so an update will follow soon. In the meantime here are a few pictures:

Delays

I will probably not be posting this weekend as planned because of an unexpected hardware problem that has left me without a computer for a week or so. I want to keep writing, and I hope to do so, but I can’t garantee that I can make it on time. So expect an update sometime soon. As a teaser, I’ll say that included in this next post will be a visit to the National Gallery, which is an absolute gem of a museum, and an epic walk to Portobello Beach.