I read a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson yesterday. The quote is about Edinburgh.
"There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps. When I forget thee, auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!" W
ith this RLS set the tone for many natives and visitors of Edinburgh, including me... I think. This is my first time in Scotland. It's strange visiting somewhere so close to home, so similar to home, yet so wholly unknown. I'm enjoying the foreign - a Scottish bank note, a few words I've never heard before, a wild and snowy landscape lurking behind the city - but also the familiar - my language, my shops, my people.Walking around felt like I was already within the walls of an old castle with cobbles underfoot and rows of chimneys on rooftops. You have to look up to fully appreciate and engage with Edinburgh, at least in the Old Town. The buildings are tall, sturdy and unassuming upon first sight but look closer and higher and you'll see their details and charm; turret walls, gothic church spires and romantic towers fit for Rapunzel. JK Rowling wrote a number of the Harry Potter books whilst living in Edinburgh and it would be hard to think of a better location to keep thoughts of castles and magic at your finger tips.We are staying in an apartment in the centre of the Old Town just off the Royal Mile. It's the tourist part of town and it's taking me a little time to get used to this. It brings things like chain restaurants and high street shops - those things I find it hard to warm to immediately - and I get frustrated seeing other visitors rely on these chains rather than finding local and independent businesses with more soul to enjoy.
We've also noticed a lot of homelessness immediately outside our door. Yesterday as I was getting ready to go out I watched a man wrapped up in a blue sleeping bag with a Costa coffee cup at his feet. In those five minutes I stood and wondered about his story I saw two women - who I assumed to be locals not tourists - separately pop a handful of coins in the cup and some moments later a young man with blond hair approached him and retrieved a pile of sandwiches wrapped in cling film from his backpack, leaving them with the man. I don't like to make comparisons or judgments but let's just say it would take a lot longer than five minutes to witness this in London.I have been mindful to remember that the Edinburgh on my doorstep isn't the real Edinburgh. What has interestingly been a testament to this city is how easy it was to escape this and find the real Edinburgh that is made up of independent businesses. The small alleyways, lanes and streets that lead off the Royal Mile are full of these.Independent shops, cafes and restaurants full of hard-working souls with good ideas and less inclination to have big signs boasting big claims to "wee Scottish tartan/cashmere/whisky". On our first night we ate dinner in a Nepalese restaurant served by smart smiling waiters. We could smile the spices from outside and our bill came to less than £35.00 for a two course meal with drinks that filled us up until the following lunchtime. Yesterday I walked the length of the Mile, stopping in St Giles' Cathedral and spending a few moments wandering off the to admire different angles of the Castle. Once within its sight I didn't feel the need to join the queues and go inside the Castle. I'm still undecided if this means I will miss out. I then criss-crossed the Mile back down the hill, enjoying the calm and regency of Grassmarket, spending an hour in the Writer's Museum in the quaintly named Lady Stairs and then seeking out a cluster of charity shops near South Bridge.
I stopped in a Post Office to buy postcards and stamps near Holyrood. It was small and old-fashioned; a service desk with only two windows, space for only a handful of customers to wait. I realised as I waited my turn that something strange was happening. Everyone was talking to each other. I couldn't determine if they were old friends or just passing the time with the stranger next to them. When I reached the counter the assistant apologised to me in his dancing accent that I could only pay for the stamps by card. I handed over my pound coin for the postcards with a smile.It happened again in the cafe I stopped for lunch in and then in Boots when I bought some shampoo. Chatter, conversation, an exchange of words intended to brighten the day. And when the day is a cold and grey one, accentuated by Edinburgh's grey and black bleak bricks, you can't help but suck up as much of this as you can.
In fact, I'm heading out there today for more...
Frances M. Thompson
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