I had set my alarm for 8am. I didn’t get up until 9. When it went off, I rolled over, stiff and blurry-eyed and promptly hit the snooze button, questioning my own judgment at setting an 8 o’clock alarm. Call me optimistic. But when the time came for me to be woken by the funky jams of Foster the People, I remembered I had spent the whole day yesterday traveling to a foreign country and told myself I was allowed to sleep in a bit.
When the time came, Mom and I begrudgingly peeled ourselves up off the bed and started getting ready for the day. We were leaving for Inverness that afternoon and we had things to get done before then. At least, mom did. A friend of ours was visiting us in the city a bit later in our trip and our schedule had to be adjusted accordingly. Mom wanted to make sure she had enough time to do her research before her time would be dedicated to exploring with Peter and me. So what time we had on our first day in Edinburgh was to be spent doing as much research as possible.
Before I left mom to her work at the archives, before we did anything besides have breakfast, we went across the square to an electronics store Rebecca and Dave had told us we could get SIM cards at. I had been hoping to make it to a Vodafone store. It’s the same provider we had used when we were in New Zealand and it worked great. But the nearest Vodafone store was a 20-minute walk from the flat and we were going to need a map to find our way there, which as you might have guessed we didn’t have without our phones.
What did we get instead of Vodafone? Lebara. Fucking Lebara.
Let me start from the beginning. We finished our breakfast of a bagel with banana, trotted back down all those cement steps and crossed about three streets to get across the square. The gentleman inside the store was very helpful and got us our SIM cards without problem. Unfortunately, their top up machine wasn’t working so they couldn’t actually give us the code and such to activate our service. Instead, we had to walk down the street a ways to this shop where they could give us an activation number.
When we were sure we had everything we needed, we went back to the flat to put the SIM cards in our phones and get everything up and running. Once our phones were stripped of their cases, we hit a bit of a snag. We didn’t have anything to get the SIM card slot ejected. We poked around trying to find a paper clip before I had a stroke of genius and pulled out one of my earring studs. It worked like a charm.
Okay, so we got the SIM cards in, had the voucher code for minutes and all that jazz. Now we just had to call it in and we’re good to go! Right? Wrong! Fucking Lebara.
The damn help line kept hanging up on us! I think it was something like 7th time was the charm; it was ridiculous. We finally got it to work only to find we couldn’t split the minutes between our two phones like we’d hoped. We had to go get another voucher! I’ll spare you the rest of the gory details but also know that more than half of the time the 3G didn’t even work. And that’s all we really wanted!
Alright, okay, I’m calm. Let’s move on.
We set out to navigate the streets of Edinburgh somewhat blindly. Preparing for possible 3G failure, we had checked out the map to the Archives before we left the flat. So we at least had a general idea of where we were going. Something Google maps isn’t that great at showing you, however, are upper and lower levels of the city. The National Archives are located right at the end of the North Bridge (don’t ask me which end. There were no mountains in Scotland so I had no idea which direction was which). We found ourselves underneath the North Bridge, quite below where we needed to be.
When I think back now, I’m sure we could’ve reached the Archives from the lower level somehow, but we didn’t know that at the time and decided to play it safe. So we retraced our steps a bit and climbed back up to the bridge via a sort of dingy alley. Once we were on the same level, it was a lot easier to spot the Archives building. Like I said, it’s right at the end of the bridge so as long as you’re going in the right direction you can’t miss it. It’s also just a massive slab of a building with a man on a rearing horse smack dab in front of it. Not exactly inconspicuous.
Up a couple flights of stone steps, through the wooden doors and we had arrived. The man at the front desk was helping someone when we walked in so we amused ourselves for a few minutes looking a tables filled with books (my favorite!) and other things inside the lobby. At last he was free to help us. Mom went over and told him what she was there for. He informed us that it was 15 pounds to use the research room per person but that I was welcome to at least walk in and see where mom would be sitting so I could find her later.
We were led towards the back of the building. From the front lobby we entered a large circular room with a high domed ceiling. I suddenly felt like I was in the library from Beauty and the Beast. Bookshelves lined every wall and rose up and up until the walls began to curve into the dome. Light flooded in from the many windows, radiated off the white walls and made the lettering on the spines glisten. It was one of the most beautiful things I had seen and I desperately wanted a library just like it.
I gawked for an acceptable amount of time before continuing into the next room where mom would be doing her research. The lady here was in the middle of helping some one, too, so instead of waiting I said my goodbye to mom and left the archives.
Now I’m a grown person and I’ve walked in big cities alone before. But I always get a little anxious when I do. Especially when it’s only my first real day there. But I walked like I knew what I was doing and knew where I was going (which I did, luckily). I was headed back to the flat to 1) try and get the phone situation figured out, and 2) get our things packed and book a cab to take me and all our luggage to the train station. I stuck to the big roads I knew: Prince Street down to Lothian and then straight to the flat. It was a long walk and my feet were pretty sore by the end of it but it was much cooler inside the flat and I had plenty of time to sit down and rest.
I didn’t waste too much time getting packed and making all the arrangements that needed to be done, though. On our walk to the archives we had passed a couple bookstores I wanted to get back to and check out. With taxi booked and bags packed (no, I didn’t fix the phone situation. Stupid Lebara), I left the flat and retraced my steps from this morning to Edinburgh Books. Mom and I had stopped in for a bit when we first passed it that morning but I didn’t want to waste her research time when I’d have most of the day to browse on my own.
I feel a little bad thinking about it now, but I didn’t really see most of the store. The shop front was a vibrant TARDIS-blue with the name Edinburgh Books in white lettering across the top of the frame. Two large windows, each filled with books on display, flanked the door. The room I was most interested in was directly across from the front door once you walked in. This was the Scottish room. I work in a bookstore back home, and while we have lots of lovely books by lots of lovely people, we don’t have a Scottish room, and I wanted me some Scottish culture!
Almost all the books in the Scottish room were old battered hardbacks with cloth or leather covers, all in solid colors. There were a few modern authors whose names I recognized, some of whom I didn’t even know were Scottish. The room, the whole store infact, was fragrant with old dusty book smell. And there were all different kinds of genres accounted for in the Scottish room: fiction, science, poetry, plays, history. I could’ve looked for hours. Not long after I started browsing, however, I came across the perfect book for me.
Alba, The Last Wolf by David Stephen, who’s a Scottish nature writer. It was a wonderful fit for a wolf-lover like me. And it fit the Scottish author criteria. There was no question, I was leaving the store with this book. After I paid for my awesome new book, I walked back towards Lothian Street. On our walk down from the tram station, we passed by this gorgeous cemetery and it seemed like the perfect place to go and do a bit of reading.
The cemetery was below the street level. It was located right in the middle of the city, but the height difference was great enough and the cemetery large enough that you could get a way from most of the noise from the street above and enjoy some peace and quiet. I didn’t get straight to reading, of course. I had a cemetery to explore! There is no cemetery back home comparable to St. John’s. We don’t have that kind of history.
The cemetery spread out from the giant church located at its center. Rows of headstones stretched in every direction, some with their inscriptions still readable and others that were cracked or faded into obscurity. Nearly every stone was worn and weathered by time and nature. Moss had grown up on the bases of some markers; others had fallen clean off their dais and lay face down in the dirt. There was a large, pillared mausoleum that housed who knows how many bodies. In some places massive headstones created towering walls from one end of the cemetery to the other, dividing the place into sections. When I had wandered enough, I found a bench away from any entrances and the few people I had come across.
The graveyard was right in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, high up on its rocky crag overlooking the city, and I had a perfect view of it between the tress. I sat for a moment, looking over the green lawn strewn with brown and yellow leaves and all the headstones of various shape and size. The atmosphere was serene; I almost forgot I was in the middle of a bustling city. I flipped open the front cover of my new book and began reading the foreword, learning about the history of the wolf in Scotland and its eventual eradication from the area. It was sad, but nothing I wasn’t already aware of or used to hearing.
I spent a little over an hour in St. John’s cemetery before I stood, brushed myself off and returned home to meet the taxi. I had been ruminating on the best way to get all of our stuff down the stairs and onto the street since mom would be meeting me at the train station and I was the only one in the flat. It really wasn’t much but it was just enough to making getting down those blasted stairs a bit tricky. I ended up making two trips, the first with our biggest suitcase and then down with my backpack and the carry on (luckily mom had her backpack with her). I did one last idiot check and made sure everything was cleaned and put away before I left the key on the table and climbed down the cement stairs for the last time.
After that, it was just an uncomfortable wait on the street corner, watching taxi after taxi go by, wondering when my own was going to show up. It was probably only 10 minutes or so that I waited, but in situations like those it always feels longer. The cab pulled up just outside the door and the driver came to help me load everything in the car. Scottish taxis are a bit different than those in the States. There was no trunk. Instead there was just a large back seat area with your typical back seat bench and chairs attached to the the wall dividing the driver from the passengers that folded down if you needed them. Everything fit just fine; it was just a different arrangement than I was used to. And like that I was swept off into my first drive around Edinburgh.
The last time I was in the British Isles I was a little freaked out about city driving and this time was no different. Had I not already made my decision never to drive in Edinburgh on the walk to our flat, I would have decided so after that ride. It all felt so chaotic and like half of the rules were made up. The car jerked back and forth, applied the breaks in odd rhythms, but to the driver’s credit we made it in one piece.
We were leaving from Waverly Station, the main station in Edinburgh. Mom and I didn’t learn until we were there that Waverly has two entrances, one on Prince Street and the other on Main Street. I was at one, she was at the other. So we met in the middle. I squeezed myself and our suitcases into the elevator and descended to the platform level. The place was packed, or so it felt to me, and it wasn’t the easiest to navigate with two suitcases dragging behind you. I spotted mom at the other end of the station, her phone to her ear trying to track me down. With no free hand for a phone I just had to hope she would spot me making a beeline for her. She noticed me a second later and we stepped to the side of traffic and discussed what to do next.
Our train didn’t leave for about an hour so we decided to grab a very late lunch before our options were limited to what the train had to offer. Our options in the train station food court probably weren’t much better, but luckily there was a Subway at least. I parked it at a mostly clean table with all our stuff and mom went off to order. The travel part of the day had begun and it was already wearing me out. I sat watching families, teenagers and older folks milling around the food court, finishing up less than satisfying fast food meals, waiting for trains to leave. Mom returned with our own less than satisfying subs that we ate with only mild grumbling. When we finished, we went to pick up our tickets then waited for our platform to be announced. The platforms were laid out in a sort of T formation, so for the most part they were all pretty close together. But it was getting down to the wire and they had yet to declare our train’s platform. We were getting nervous.
Squinting from our seats on the other side of the ticketing area, I kept my eyes trained on the schedule board. My legs were bouncing up and down with anxious jitters. When at last a platform number appeared next to the train to Inverness, I jumped up and announced to mom that we were platform 15. We walked briskly through the station dodging and maneuvering through our fellow travelers. Platform 15 was a straight shot across from where we had been sitting so we made it in no time. The doors hadn’t even opened by the time we got there. More passengers began to arrive. When the doors finally opened with a hiss, everyone moved forward at once.
I was stuck handling the bigger suitcase. I hoisted it inside hoping to find a luggage rack nearby. Sadly, it was already full, so I began to waddle down the aisle thinking I might find another at the opposite end of the car. No such luck. So I stood, unsure of what to do, in the middle of the car until mom asked an attendant what the best thing to do was. He was very helpful and stowed our bag right inside one of the doors. We lifted our smaller bag and two backpacks into the overhead rack and took our seats. Steadily, everyone else got settled into their seats and stowed their things and the doors hissed shut again.
A voice came on over the intercom system and announced the imminent departure. I sat back in my seat and leaned against the window. I was looking forward to the ride, long though it might be. Since the train trip we took in New Zealand, I’ve decided I quite like trains. The ride is usually smoother than a bus and not as much of pain in the ass and a plane. And you get to see a decent amount of the country even if you don’t get to explore it at all.
We pulled out of Waverly Station and stopped at several stations before we left the city behind. Busy city blocks were soon replaced with small neighborhoods. The train gave the perfect vantage point to take in the back gardens, all similar in size but each bursting with its own personality and style. I loved the seeming simplicity of it all. The houses were small, quaint, and I could very happily imagine myself occupying a place just like them. Eventually we left even the houses and low stone walls behind to be replaced with expansive countryside.
The color palette consisted of mostly browns and greens with patches of trees splattered here and there with no real pattern. I found myself thinking of New Zealand again. So much time there we were on a bus with little to amuse us but the scenery, but I was never bored with looking out the window. We continued to make stops, people got on and off the train, but mom and I never moved. The day slipped away.
The further north we went, the more clouds appeared in sky, causing the rays of the sun to fight there way down to the earth. The sun had been transformed into a shinning, milky glass orb hanging in the haze of the clouds, but was still as radiant as always. As it sunk lower and lower towards the horizon it changed in color from a pale yellow to a fiery gas giant once more, lighting up the edge of the earth with rich shades of orange and red.
Deeper into the Highlands we went. Fog began to appear, some sections of it so thick you could barely see beyond the train windows. Old, overgrown shacks would appear like ghosts through the mist, surely abandoned for many years. The last of the sun’s light finally disappeared and all I could see through the window now was my own reflection. There was at least an hour or more left to Inverness and I passed this time in the dark reading or staring into the blackness of night.
Streetlights were the first and only indicator that we had returned to civilization. I sat forward and stretched, having grown rather stiff slumped over in the corner formed by my seat and the train wall. The train began to slow and the passengers to stir, collecting their things and coming out of drowsy stupors like myself. When we came to a complete stop, mom and I waited for everyone else to leave the train before we stood and grabbed our own belongings.
The platform was empty but for the small crowd of people from the train moving towards the exit. Our hosts had planned to meet us here so they could walk us to their house. I only had a tiny picture from AirB&B for reference but I guessed there would only be so many people waiting on the platform at nine o’clock at night. My eyes found the only two people not moving immediately for the exit. Bill and Jean were both probably in their sixties. Both were around mom’s height (so short to me) and they were bundled up against the chilly night air.
We shook hands and officially introduced ourselves before we left the station. Their house wasn’t far away, and before heading there we made a detour to the bus station. We would be taking a bus to Drumnadrochit the following day and they wanted us to be prepared for tomorrow, which we certainly appreciated. From there we learned just how close their place was to the bus station. It was just down the street and through an underpass (or subway if you’re in Scotland. I know, it’s a bit confusing). This would turn out to be very convenient for us than we knew in the near future.
Bill and Jean’s house was small but very charming. Each room was brightly colored and had a very cozy feel. We dumped our luggage in our room before going back downstairs to enjoy a cup of tea and some conversation with our hosts. They’re a lovely couple. We discussed everything from the referendum and Loch Ness to what Bill had done for work and their extensive renovations on the house. Once our tea was finished we began to feel the fatigue from the day in earnest. The conversation drew to a close, mom and I thanked them again for their hospitality and we all made our leave for bed.