Archive for December, 2008

Seeing the year out

December 31, 2008

I was wakened beore 5 this morning–in a place where dawn doesn’t come until going on 9 in winter–by bangs and small explosions, to say nothing of the laser beams.  All this is in preparation for tonight’s major festivities: Hogmanay. Princes Street is to be closed off and so temporary, but quite sturdy, fences/walls have been set in place just south of Rose street, which is to say jus about right square below our room.  Stages have been built, vans are delivering god knows what, and the beams are apparently being used as survey marks.      

Castle Street when open to traffic, at George Street

Castle Street when open to traffic, at George Street


Hogs Head Pub, next door to us on Castle

Hogs Head Pub, next door to us on Castle




Yesterday morning, Bob and I took a wonderful walk south of Old Town, through the Meadows and along a path bounded what are here called “double dykes,” that is, tall stone walls enclosing the passage space which, in this case, went on about a full mile through Marchmont to Blackford Hill. It was much colder than it has been the rest of this trip and so, en route back to meeting Fred on Princes Street, we stopped for coffee at a styling little Swedish coffee house called Peter’s Yard.  It was the sort of place where simply looking at the cookies and cakes satisfies me, never mind wanting to actually ingest any of them–all very pretty and delicate.

We still had time so visited both the public library, near Freyfriars, and then the National Library of Scotland.  The former organizes its collection by LC, which seems a tad odd, and the latter had three wonderful exhibits, including a Monty Pythonesque take on John Murray, an Edinburgh intellectual who moved to England where he took to publishing folks who weren’t immedaitely attractive to other printers, including Thomas Carlyle and Jane Austen, later taking on Charles Dickens.

All in all, in the words of Wallace and Gromit, it was a grand day out, and that was just the morning! Fred, we think, agrees for wholly different reasons: he got to plead off due to revising for finals and thus avoided an entire day of parental attentions.


A day out in Fife

December 29, 2008

Fred was kind enough to take his old ‘rents to see St Andrews.  I’ll post pictures after returning–and becoming in possession of my camera cable.  But there are some things worth word portraits here.

The first being the rather alarming notice at the Leuchars train depot:  would-be assailants who dare to spit on bus drivers are warned that all staff members carry dna kits and a swab of the spittal will be taken at once and charges filed.         img_0901       So, it would seem, dna is on record here?

We nipped into the public library in St Andrews long enough for me to buy a lovely jute book bag (a veritable steal at a pound).  We promised Fred the briefest of stays there but did take long enough to discover that the books–nicely ordered by genre and author–have no spine labels, but are shelved as though in a very careful home.  The teen collection’s materials do sport small icon labels:  a rather nice cartoon of a pair of teens (yes, real teens, not children) carrying rucksacks.  And the mysteries also are tagged with small icons at their spine bottoms: a pair of cartoon handcuffs on a dark ground.

That St Andrews is called by its students “the bubble” makes total sense.  Unlike Cal, it is a university enclosed by a combination of gentitility and rural life, far from the madding crowd, as Fred described his morning walks to high school in Berkeley, of people yelling at him and trying to sell him things.

And the architecture is excellent!  Pictures to follow, I promise!

And here they are:


Market Street greengrocer

Market Street greengrocer

St Leonard's Gate

St Leonard's Gate


detail from roofline of main lecture hall

detail from roofline of main lecture hall

The National Gallery

December 29, 2008

Bob and I spent some time at the National Gallery on Saturday afternoon and then all three of us were back there yesterday morning and again in the afternoon. It’s a good size, with varied collections and some ironic pieces as reiief to the more studied exhibits.  Raeburn’s skating reverend, which is used as the Gallery’s icon, is explained as a controversy in its actual painter, location of the subject and verity of the year in which it is claimed to represent him.

Another delight, for me, was the small painting of the gallery itself, done less than a decade after its opening, now hung in the same room it depicts.

Bob, who has an extraordinary taste for Italian religious tableaux, found plenty.  And Fred, who has a deep dislike for paintings created after 1889, was safe from running across any as the Gerhard Richter exhibit was one of the few parts of the museum where there was a charge.

Edinburgh has set to with a vengeance in its preparations for New Year’s.  About half the streets now seem to be closed for revellers’ ease of pedestrian access, with trafic diversions at every turn. (As a pedestrian, I am in heaven).  And yet another street fair’s worth of carnival rides has been stuffed into a lane up the north slope of the Mound, creating now three layers of joy rides. We were out until past 10 on Princes Street last evening and the sky was split with blue, red and green lights from competing booster rides, the giant ferris wheel alongside the Scott Monument and even a kiddies’ merry-go-round all going at full fling.

Nova Scotia can’t claim its Sunday sobriety on its Scottish roots.

Fanciful eateries

December 27, 2008

We took the bus first to Portobello and later to Musselburgh.  It’s the first fully sunny day we’ve had but much colder–a couple of degrees above zero–and so walking along Portobello’s promenade left us gasping for soemthing hot.  That was when we tumbled into the Blue Bean Coffee Shop.  Its basic layout seemed plain enough but rarely have I read such an obscure menu!  Among the offerings:

tortillas with brie and cole slaw, or with tandoori special (unspecified special), or with greek salad

jacket potato with chorizo and mozarella

a panini chicken masala

nachos with bacon

or the far more traditional black pudding on a roll      img_0895

Instead of consuming much there, we pushed on to Musselburgh and had a delightful, although chilly, walk around half the town–that is, around the outskirts of half the town, which seems to be home to an inordiante number of primary schools, including the private Loretto and the public St Peter Pinkie (the latter hardby Pinkie Fieild, which has a football pitch and a 17th century dovecot). We ate lunch at the aptly named Caprice Restaurant.  The menu was expensive, inexpensive and heavily Italinate.  The toilets even more Italinate:  silver or aluminum sparkles embedded in lucite, for the toilet seats, set off to strange effect by a revolving red light. An experience not to be missed, accompanied as it was by a trip up a staircase lined on one side with photos of Italian opera and pop music stars and on the other by historic–largely turn of the 20th century–shots of Musselburgh.  The food was fine but I would have paid six pounds seventy-five just for the visuals.



Where the swans went

December 27, 2008

We walked along the Water of Leith yesterday afternoon, from Stockbrudge to the port of Leith, and although we left the city centre right after lunch and the walk took only an hour and a few minutes, dusk was falling by the time we got there.  The river is shallow, swift and clear brown, reminiscent of the loch waters on Islay that are turned to whisky. The path was no muddier–and no dryer–than that along the Salisbury Crags the day before and we saw nearly as many other walkers along this route, although more small children and even a couple of prams.

In Leith, new and old and reconstructed buildings all stand cheek by jowl.  We passed what had been in the old wine vaults (pre-1587 according to a plaque on its stone face).  Out on the river, we had passed ruins of mills and an inexplicably high smoke stack–squared as only one might be built after the Industrial Revolution brought such perfecting tools, that rose many feet from mud to sky but was attached to nothing else and had no opening.

We walked back to town along Leith Walk, which is very much a city street, with rows first of Chinese take aways and cheap furiture shops and then, for a pace, Polish delis and (at least in the dark) scary-dark closed old buildings that haven’t eyt been repurposed.

Leith Walk seemed to have nothing to do with the water and didn’t seem particularly shorter as a route.  But perhaps it was the fact that it was, by 4, full on dark.  And we no longer had the swans who had kept us company along the water.

Boxing Day at dawn

December 26, 2008

Well before light breaks on this winter day, the streets are full of militarily precise shoppers. They pull into all the parking spaces, march along with shiney new carrier bags, lag only a moment–in suprised disgust–at the yet unopened Pink, or, two doors down, the equally unprepared Cruise.  They work in groups of two (mother an daughter) or three (two women, one mna, all in uniform trench coats), sliding along the pavement as swiftly on foot as in the slow moving cars that seek an open curb space at which to discharge the passengers.

Unlike Black Friday in the US, there is no hysteria:  these people have already eyeballed exactly what they will be purchasing and have simply agreed to the store’ designated time for the best price.

My shopaholic friends in Nova Scotia would eat their hearts out, as Boxing Day there is a statutory holiday and stores won’t be open.

After yesterday’s quiet, the street’s blooming three storeys down (they are each 15-foot storeys, so the distance is dramatic) is compelling. Catsle street is blocked for several yards up from Princes Street, so it’s a turn around point, usually for taxis and delivery vans, but today for all these shoppers. The Vauxhalls and fiats spin like little black and green bugs at the granite stanchions demarking the access end-pont, but the drivers, too, seem to ahve been in training for this day.  Every parking space is full, but no one need wait long:  get in, get out, haul in the back.

Christmas climb

December 25, 2008

One of my gifts from family today was a no-complaint climb up Salisbury Crags to Arthur’s Seat. It was a warm morning (for December) and the ground was muddy–all clay–underfoot.  There were a few goat-children who insisted upon going completley off path and cros country, their shouts echoing through the space between rock-faced slopes.

From any side, you could see not only geological layers but architectural ones as well:  the hyper modern Scottish Parliament building up next to Holyrood Palace, old University blocks against modern apartment ones.

We ate lunch at Forsythe Tea Room, a literal hole-in-the-close-wall that has got us safe from hunger bitching every time we’ve been here since 2001.  The waitress is burn scarred and can’t read, but she waits table holding a small pad on which no signs are ever made.  It is the holding of it that seems to give her the right of office.

Town is no quieter–and no busier–than Halifax on this day, but that’s much more sedate and sedated than Berkeley. And dusk is now long fallen–it being past 4 pm.

Almost Dickensian

December 24, 2008

Both the German Christmas Market and the Edingburgh Christmas Market were hoping this am–all sorts of meat delicacies, frie sweets, wooden toys and ice skating on watery-topped ice unfolding to the raucous beats of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reigndeer” and the sedate and sentimental strains of carols played by a trumpet trio.

We walked through Dean Village and Stockbridge.  Along Comely Bank Street, a butcher shop was doing real land office business, the line stretching back around the block.  Hours later, we went back that way and though the line was shorter, it then included dogs waiting with their masters for th Christmas goose. (Carole, there will be pictures but I left my camera cable at home, dammit).

It feels wonderful to have no chores and so much walking space, especailly lanes with no car traffic.  We went through the botanical gardents late this afternoon, but the arboretum really doesn’t hold a candle to Boston’s.  The walk along the path by the Leith, on the other hand, seems to be several centuries before Dickens himself, although it’s not, given that it flows through  New Town.


December 23, 2008

It seems that a near-hurricane blew into Nova Scotia shortly after we flew out.  Here, on the other hand, we are gloveless, hatless, barely with need of jackets.

While Fred slept to what he terms a decent hour, Bob and I took a brief walk along some back streets of Glasgow’s West End this morning.  We wound up getting to the basement level of Kelvin Stevens Church, on one road, before finding its main door a storey–and a road–up (rather like Chicago’s layered streets).  All three of us–but not Bob’s relatively new hat–were on the half ten train to Edinburgh, where we got checked into our room before noon.

The city is as crowded as midtown Manhattan:  wall to wall people churning at intersections and automobile traffic at a creep. Since our trips here before this one have been during the summer months, I hadn’t ever walked along Princes street in full on dark until this afternoon.  That, the Christmas hysteria, and the increased number of small children made passage rather dicey: I was never sure if my next step would cut off someone short or  be cut off by someone who didn’t see well in the dark.

We seem to be virtually alone in our lodging.  Even the owner is away, ahving gone, we were told, to the States.  But no sooner had we arrived than we’d been signed up for Christmas dinner. Let no grass grow underfoot….

The shortest day at its longest point

December 22, 2008

Dawn happens after 8:30 in the morning and dusk falls at 3:30, with full-on dark by 4 in the afternoon.  We’re in Glasgow, which isn’t, of course, as far north as one can get, but far enough that the brevity of daylight is dramatic even by my newly Canadian standards.

In the night, we had a fierce wind; the television news at the breakfast table saidgusts were above 70 mph.  Which gets us on to measurements again.  Britain’s been given dispensation by the EU to keep the English system of measures.  But temps are reported only in Celsius, a version of the schizophrenia that enthralls Canada, where temp and distance are reported metrically, weight in pounnds AND kilos simultaneously, and volume only in English.  That leads to a 2-metre tall man walking a kilometre down the road carrying a ten-pound, 4 kilo turkey, to ceelbrate Christmas in the 2000 square foot house.


Glasgow University

Glasgow University