Sunday, June 28, 2015

from island to city

If you don't like departures, I say leave in the morning. Focus on your next destination, don't think about the one you're leaving. That's the theory.

Mixed skies outside. They'll have a fine morning on the island. Who knows what the afternoon will bring.


I go down to breakfast -- a most special breakfast, artfully prepared, this time with a wee dram of a Bowmore festival virgin oak matured whisky. This is a big deal dram, an unusual dram, generously presented, as is everything at the Bowmore Guest House: generosity is Andrew and Alison's way of life.


The brothers are already at breakfast and their Scotsman friend is there as well. They ask where I'm heading next and I admit it's Edinburgh. I am a reluctant visitor to this most popular of all Scottish destinations. I lived there once, for a month, or was it longer? I returned to it with daughters, and too with Ed and I can't say I'm excited about returning yet again to this city that is always crowded with visitors, so that it feels more like a picture post card (it's so much prettier than Glasgow!), rather than a real place with real people in it.

It strikes me that the Scotsman may suggest some outings for me. He is never at a loss for suggestions.
Give me a minute to think.
His brow really does furrow and he comes back with an idea (go to the royal burgh of Linlithgow!), which I will indeed execute, if not this time then next. Here's my wise Scotsman, with the two brothers:


And now the clock is ticking so I am about to raise myself from this room of such warm feelings when Andrew comes back with a dram glass from Bowmore House for me to take home.


An Islay person would not pour a whisky into a big tumbler. Rather, they would use these chubby dram glasses and though I have one (and only one) at home, it does not have the magic words on it -- Bowmore Guest House. I'm thinking I'll be enjoying whisky more this winter. Bourbon casked or sherry casked... with a whiff of peaty smoke and a hint of dark chocolate, crushed black pepper and flowering currants, and maybe raisins.

I linger just a few seconds more. There's a fleeting mention of trips to be taken in the year ahead, a confirmation once again of my visit next summer, a final good bye.

I drive out of this lovely little town...


And in ten minutes I am at the airport. There, I give a nod to the Islay sheep, promising myself that I will henceforth not touch lamb or veal, because really, these young ones deserve to reach adulthood...



And I make my way to the wee plane, with a not so wee anymore suitcase.

A little girl is in line ahead of me. She's crying in her mom's arms and so I set out to distract her from her woes. Especially since I can do it in her home language -- Polish. She is a wonderfully polite little girl and she answers all my questions, and wishes me a good morning, and before the hour is over, I learn that she has spent most of her young five years on Islay: her parents work at a hotel there -- the Port Charlotte Hotel, which the mom praises to high heaven -- such nice owners! so kind! -- but I only smile. I will never switch from my beloved Bowmore Guest House. I do tell her I'll stop by for dinner there next year -- her husband is the cook.

The mom and daughter are traveling to Poland to visit the girls' grandparents for a few weeks. It's so cheap these days! The discount airlines make it so easy -- we're always going back and forth. The most expensive is the flight from Islay to Glasgow. We would have taken the ferry, but there is the strike.

She asks where I live now and when I tell her, she nods, knowingly. My relatives, they're all over -- in Germany, in Canada, in Scotland. It's a different world now. We go to all corners of the world!

I think about how it isn't so different for Americans. They do not need to leave home to find work and leisure travel to Europe is expensive. Flight fares just keep going up. If you insist on traveling anyway, you best be good at curtailing all other spending habits.

I ask the young Polish mom about their winters are on Islay. Is the hotel quiet then?
Oh, but there are visitors! The hunters come up in the fall -- from Greece and Spain. And in January, the Japanese come for the whisky.
I think about how this small little plane transports us all -- in for a few days of something that we cannot find anywhere else on earth, then out again to our routines back home.

Our flight is on time, the bus to the city is ready and waiting, the train to Edinburgh runs every few minutes and I catch one without fuss or bother.

Edinburgh is packed. Not just crowded -- packed. Like our Capitol Square Farmers Market: packed with outsiders, wanting a piece of the pie.


I can understand it. Unlike Glasgow, it's everything to everyone. It's got history, it's got the looks (in a somber sort of way), it's got shops, restaurants, pubs -- where loud drinking brawls seem to be tolerated (men cavorting). It's also got the hen parties (women cavorting). It's got cultural events, fantastic museums and men who wear skirts and play bagpipes.

So there are crowds. It's to be expected. If you go to the Eiffel Tower, you're not going to be alone.

But unexpectedly, I am saved, saved by my wonderful b&b.


It's called Ramsay's, but don't bother looking at their website because it's dated. They're waiting for a photo shoot to put up new photos it since they've redone the interiors. Right now they're looking sleek and modern and terrific. And the prices are great. (But they only have four rooms; last year, I tried booking in January for a June visit and I was too late.)


In addition to being a very nice b&b, it has a location that makes it a lifesaver (or more accurately, an Edinburgh saver) for me. It's down the hill from city center, into the thick of "new town" and there's not much here for tourists to seek out so it feels very neighborhoody and nice.

(across the street from Ramsays)

Around the corner, there is a street with many, many eateries -- of the type that the people in this neighborhood would frequent. Here, it's this set of blocks:


After the roar and din of city center, it's fantastically normal here.

I walk. A lot. I never make it up to the old town, where the castle and the Royal Mile and all those big time attractions tower over the city. Instead, I meander through the "new town..."


...down to funky Stockbridge (where Ed and I hung out last time we passed through). Let's see if you can guess what catches my eye!



... down and up, up and down I walk, giving myself the luxury of doing a bit of shopping for Snowdrop.


(I ask in this store how young are their haircut clients. The clerk -- a lovely, terrifically helpful and friendly sort -- tells me they just cut the hair for a six month old! An unusual little girl, with lots of hair!)

I spend many hours on walking, browsing, browsing, selecting...

(all of the above!)

... and walking some more. And the weather is so very terrific. The clouds do roll in, but they keep their moisture to themselves and I notice that the temperatures (here and on Islay too) are starting to climb into the low sixties. Uff! A heat wave!

In the evening, I just go to the place that is two doors away from where I'm staying (the Riparian Rooms). My hosts like it and it is, in fact, quite nice in a very simple, nouveau pubby sort of way. I order one of their wonderful gin cocktails -- this one with loads of blackberries, so that it is wickedly drinkable! -- and then settle in for some vegetable puree..


... and a pot of west shore mussels.  If there is one meal that I think Ed would have loved, it is this one. the mussels are plump and plentiful and the price is delightfully modest.

This, too, is Edinburgh and I shouldn't forget it. Every city is a compilation of neighborhoods. I am so happy that I seem to have found one that feels good for me. Quiet, but not austere or staid.

It's a good way for me to end my days in Scotland. I may not have to leave the city tomorrow to find my contemplative moments. I may just stick around and walk those city hills some more.