Sunday, August 21, 2016

from Islay to Edinburgh

If you live on Islay, you know where stuff is. The handful of shops, the farmer who sells oysters, the mill that still makes blankets. You know if a new restaurant has opened or if an old one has improved or gone down hill (I've had reports of both this year). You know where to get your good loaf of bread and where to jump off the pier for good swimming.

But you never know what the weather will bring. And this morning is the best example of it: the skies are mixed, and it can go either way, and then come back again to something completely different by noon.


Of course, I shouldn't care. There is nothing for me to do but to eat my breakfast (there is always the pleasant clutter of local reading material on my table)...


... to watch Andrew come around with his offerings of a dram to get you going...


And then to say good bye. It is, by now, like leaving friends.

One big sigh and I'm off through the still quiet streets of Bowmore (yes, the butcher to the left, the Celtic Shop to the right)...


But I do have to pause to fill up on petrol. The Bowmore filling station opens at 8:30. My flight is at 9:50. I pull up just at opening time.

Still closed. I wait. Down the block, a man walks his Scottie, another pauses to chat.


And still I wait. Fifteen minutes later, the guy who works at the station shows up. Slowly he begins the process of opening shop.

I mention that it's a good thing he is there because I have a plane to catch (there are only two flights out of Islay each day; he lives here -- he knows which one I mean).

He looks up from pushing a garbage bin in place -- oh, I'm sorry about that!
I think he is apologizing for being late, but he clarifies: the weather is just looking like it may be a fine day today! Too bad you're leaving.
He continues to open up, eventually filling my tank.

Of course, there is no real hurry. The airport is a six minute drive from here.

As I'm about to turn into the parking lot, I see the sheep. Two have managed to escape the enclosure.

Sheep graze
Sheep gaze
Sheep glance
Wrong side of fence
Sheep, beware!
Airport's there!

I'm getting repetitive. Time to leave.


When poor weather isn't causing delays, the connections between Islay and the rest of the world are insanely easy. Less than half hour in the air, quick bus ride to Glasgow, frequent (every few minutes) and efficient train link to Edinburgh.

Ah, Edinburgh! How I love to dislike you! And it's so unfair, because I nearly always enjoy being here. But, there are these two nagging facts: the buildings will forever be severe...

(Just alighting from Waverly Station, boom! In your face!)


And secondly -- the very center of town is insane.

The New Town's Princes Street is a mash of people and commerce and none of it is attractive. In the Old Town, tourism is so dense (there is more tartan and shortbread to be had along the Royal Mile than possibly in all of the rest of Scotland) that you really recoil.

But of course, if you only move around St Marks Place, you very quickly get to hate Venice for the same reasons. So yes, it's unfair to hold these popular blocks against an otherwise complicated city.

Still, the severity of it all! Not helped by the weather. It's drizzling again.

I walk to my bed and breakfast. I've upped the ante somewhat. I've stayed in about a dozen places in this city and found fault with them all. So I'm spending more and staying a fewer number of days (a compromise I sometimes make that completely befuddles Ed who would never ever do such a devil's arithmetic). Two nights (instead of the originally planned three or four) at the, in fact, very very lovely 6 Brunton Place. (To add insult to my pocket book, I am here during the most expensive set of weeks out of the year: during the Edinburgh International Festival.)

Here's the place. Simple, but beautiful.


Just four rooms. Mine, in the back, is uncomplicated and incredibly comfortable.


The living room (for guests from all four bedrooms) is spacious and a good cup of coffee and freshly baked cakes greet me on arrival.


So I love the place and feel a bit sad, as the current owner has (for difficult personal reasons) just sold the guest house (effective next week) and though she assures us all that nothing will change, you of course cannot tell.

I want to prop up my spirits somewhat and go back to places that have given me some amount of pleasure in the past. Like the shops that sell Snowdrop clothes for the next season!

(Which one?? Time will reveal!)


And as I walk around town, I see that I have completely missed the ball on the Festival. Oh, I contemplated taking in a performance or two and in the end I even purchased a ticket for tomorrow -- for an Alan Cummings show that promises to be great, though it's so late at night, so far away and standing room only, that chances of me actually going are low. But I never really knew about the Fringe: the alternative stuff. The hundreds of shows, of standup comedy, of dances and theater numbers performed around town that are less formal and oftentimes mind blowing.

I see right away that the city is transformed. There are signs of it everywhere.


I listen to one woman sing under a tent on one of the most staid squares in Edinburgh as people sip their gins and parts of the square are filled in with water for effect. It's really all quite remarkable and I know I'm not even scratching the surface.

Tomorrow maybe I'll explore some of this stuff if it's not too late. Tomorrow.

For now, tired out by the craziness of these crowded wet city blocks (and no, somehow the ferris wheel just doesn't cheer the place up)...


I look up at the old town, shake my head -- no, not today...


And I head to my room at the Guest House.

I reemerge for dinner at the Olive Branch.

I think it's incredibly funny that my inn keeper recommended The Olive Branch and the Ox as two eating places (and booked me a table at both for this trip). The bed and breakfast of last year is in a completely different part of town, but the inn keeper there recommended exactly the same places. I passed then on the Olive Branch -- it sounds so unScottish -- but this year, I don't mess around. It's a Saturday night during the Festival and my hosts were able to get a table for me and so I go.

It's a fine place where I eat very good sea bass and nibble on this overly rich dessert (advertised as berries with oat cake, but really covered by a dense layer of chocolate).  I watch the couple at the table just before me -- he's married, though I don't believe it's to her.


I think about whether I could tell, just by looking and listening, which couples are living together and which are not. I mean, can't you recognize the signs? The story telling is different. The level of detail. The explanation given to things that need no explaining if you share living quarters.

The restaurant has a chalk board with posted daily specials and the WiFi password is scribbled there as well, but it doesn't matter to me, because I purchased limited cell service from my cell phone provider back home (you can do that and it's great if you're unsure of what the WiFi will be like where you're going). I take a few minutes to text with people back home.

The waiter, a genial young guy comes up and asks me if I could maybe move to another table to do that because this nice couple has been waiting for my wee table.

Oh, the madness of a city at Festival time! When you eat alone, your meal always finishes in half the time that it does when you eat as a couple. You get served faster, you eat faster. I felt a tad robbed of my post dinner moment, but I get it: it's about making money.

I decline the offer to sit elsewhere and walk home instead -- up this rather cool street where it seems I've been eating nearly all my meals in Edinburgh (Broughton Street). I see the guy with the bagpipes walking up toward the center of town. Could it be the same guy I always see, doing his bagpipe numbers (and collecting not a small amount of cash for it)?


The rains have stopped. I walk home and try to access yet again whether, on balance, I like this city.