This is one of a series of journal posts from a trip I took years ago (as of this writing) and am posting here so as not to lose them.
I have never been very good at sleeping on airplanes.
This is pretty deeply unfortunate if you find yourself in the position of having to sleep on one or potentially go 24 hours without rest. But here we are.
Our flight out was a surprisingly brief seven hours on Brussels Airlines. As very long flights go it was a pleasant trip; everything about the Brussels Airlines planes is simultaneously rather adorably Euro and rather surprisingly twee. Safety videos featuring cheery cartoon birds. Sugar packets that say “Hello, sweetie, here’s some sugar.” Given that their slogan appears to be “We go the extra smile,” perhaps I should not have been surprised.
Despite the surprisingly pleasant service, I completely failed to get even a bit of sleep. Thirty minutes perhaps, no more. The dry, strangely hot plane, the occasional stabbing pains in my hands, and the turbulence that seemed to hit the moment I got comfortable conspired against me, as did the fairly extreme thirst (note to self: buy a damned bottle of water for the flight home.)
Our descent into Brussels prompted Mark to make a quip about how all the people look like meeples from up here, and I can sort of see why – the Belgian countryside is indeed pretty damned reminiscent of an Agricola board or something. It looked green and damp, a silvery gray sky overhead.
The “damp” is real, to be sure; walking off the plane I was promptly smacked in the face by a wall of still, humid air that clung even as we entered the terminal, which is…surprisingly modest, considering that Brussels is the heart of the EU and all. 70s-ish carpet, molded plastic chairs, that vaguely pinkish granite-look tile I remember from department stores of times gone by. I’d expected something a bit more grand. Certainly something with a bit of air conditioning at the very least; I feel I can barely breathe in here.
It’s been nearly impossible to get onto the Internet in the airport, for some reason, but we’ve managed it long enough to learn that during our flight England decided to bail on the EU.
I really can’t think of much to add, sleep-deprived as I am; the vote was close, and I expect at least some of the 30% or so of people who didn’t turn out will be having regrets about that. Scotland won’t be leaving though. Which I suppose means it isn’t really the “UK” any more, is it? …Ugly.
Ah well. In the absence of other entertainments, I suppose I shall go for a bit of a walk before the next flight to Edinburgh.
— Much, much later —
Well. I’ve now been awake for pushing 29 straight hours, so goodness knows if I can stay conscious long enough to finish and send this. But here goes.
By the time we landed in Edinburgh everyone had been awake far, FAR too long, and this manifested in some interesting ways. Karen developed a kind of tunnel vision, focusing so intently on our need to locate a taxi that she kind of ignored our need to get money (or mine for a SIM card; I still haven’t got one as of this writing.) I started to lose the ability to stay conscious if I wasn’t actively doing something. And Mark got horrifically maudlin and Enid-ish at the same time. Absolutely none of this was helped, naturally, by the part where three flights arrived at the same time leaving us with a massive lineup in security to go through…or the part where Brussels was having some kind of labor strike, leaving us all in some doubt as to whether our luggage would in fact be there when we went looking for it.
Fortunately, it seems we were spared that particular indignity, and we were soon free to wander about the country. Our first local was our cabbie – gregarious in ways I don’t often see from his Toronto cousins, and pretty keen to talk about his reaction to the Brexit vote as well, decreeing it a sad day for Scotland. (This sentiment was shared pretty widely among the Scots we met today, but more on this in a minute.)
The next twenty minutes were a little surreal, as we drove through Edinburgh. The buildings here are generally made of stone in various shades of gray and brown, though doors and shopfronts are pretty vibrantly colored. It’s as though someone took the streets of Bath, all Georgian-flavoured, and nestled them into a colorful bed of The Annex.
Our guest house is run by a very helpful woman who is also very much not Scottish; after dropping off our bags, collecting our keys, and changing into fresh underclothes, we set out pretty much immediately to go on an orientation walk. A few minutes’ argument eventually saw us settling in at a cozy little cafe that would not have been out of place in Toronto for some carrot soup and smoked salmon sandwiches…and then the walk continued.
Edinburgh grew up around the central spine of the Royal Mile, a pretty, steeply-slanted street that links Edinburgh Castle at one end with Holyrood Palace at the other. Along it, you can stand at pretty much any point, fling a rock, and hit either a site of historical significance, a touristy spot, or both. In the course of today’s explorations we walked almost from one end to another, including a long side trip to the parallel Princes Street, the city’s major avenue for high-street shopping.
Our initial scouting trip revealed:
- A museum of surgical history.
- A writers’ museum.
- A ghost tour, which came recommended by the travel book I got. We booked a run for tomorrow night.
- Statues of David Hume and Adam Smith, along with a monument to Sir Walter Scott.
- Kids playing in a bouncy castle thing.
- A busker dressed up as a cowboy.
- St. Giles’s cathedral, which was hosting a textile art exhibition of scenes from the Book of Revelation.
- Some lovely views.
…and “Mary King’s Close,” which we explored later in the evening, after obtaining some British pounds at last. This is an odd architectural phenomenon in Edinburgh: from the Royal Mile, tiny, narrow streets run down at a steep angle toward the river, buildings perilously tall and perilously close to one another.
And “close” is indeed how these little streets are known. You can still see scads of them leading away from the Mile.
For reasons I do not yet fully understand, it was decided at one point to park a brand new shiny administrative building right on top of some existing closes, turning them effectively into cliff dwellings of a sort. Here, the poor lived twelve to fourteen to a room in houses with ceilings too low to stand fully upright in; era they kept twenty or more cows to a single shed; here they hurled buckets of raw sewage down to the loch below, where today there is a train station. The presentation was eager and energetic, if a bit tourist trap-y; the girl guiding our tour reminded me of Kate from high school. Something in all that raw, naked enthusiasm.
It reminded me of something one might see in a Dark Souls game, or a D&D city. The poor crushed together in a not-quite-underground.
At one point, just before our tour, we walked past St. Giles’s cathedral to find a protest apparently in progress. Hand-lettered signs read “1 <3 No Borders” and “You are welcome here,” and a series of angry Scots shouted things through bullhorns to an appreciative audience. Both the audience and the speakers were interestingly mixed; at one point a young mother with a kid sitting on her shoulders got up to speak.
Police were on hand, but the last I saw things were going along peacefully; the crowd began its downhill march down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Palace as we ducked down into the closes.
Exhausted, we visited a local pub, the Old Bell Inn, for dinner. A real local spot, this, full of people who were obviously there every Friday and who were settled in apparently for the duration with pints coming plentifully. The food was hearty – Mark had haggis and I had a steak and ale pie – and maybe a bit heavy on the pepper, but satisfying. The live music for the evening was starting up just as we left, but I doubt very much we could have stayed conscious much longer; exhausted, we staggered back to the B&B and fell into bed.
I have some patchy memories from walking back: little snails crawling along a long stone wall, nibbling at (?) the edges of some trailing purple flowers.