Postcards from Scotland

edinburgh

Earlier this year, I visited Scotland right after a trip to Berlin. I’m always nervous visiting a place that’s been touted as breathtaking because… what if it doesn’t deliver? After devouring haggis (more please!), interacting with the architecture of Edinburgh, and being humbled by the absolute beauty of the Highlands, I can safely say that this land lives up to the hype. Here are the postcards I meant to send.

edinburgh 2

My first impression of Edinburgh

I noticed a beautiful convergence of ancient and modern architecture as soon as I arrived. There was an Escher-like double level portion of the city and stunning vistas that looked infinite, yet seemed to lay within arm’s reach of the city’s buildings.

As usual, I preferred wandering through the city with few preconceptions instead of following a mapped-out itinerary. My biggest goal for the trip was to finally taste their infamous national dish: haggis. The rest, I trusted, would flow naturally.

haggis

My first plate of haggis

Sheep’s intestines! That’s all I ever heard, generally with a note of disgust, about this notorious Scottish dish. The thought made me think it’d be a squeaky, chewy plastic-like sausage full of mush. Well, it is a sausage of sorts, but I was wrong on all the other counts. I sat down in a proper pub and asked for their traditional haggis plate proudly, as if they would pat me on the head for being a good tourist.

“D’ya want neeps an’ tatties wi’ tha’, miss?” the bright-eyed waitress asked. Yes, I nodded. Yes to all of it, I wanted to taste Scotland! I didn’t even ask what neeps and tatties were. They sounded like provocative parts of the sheep, honestly, but I was there for the full experience.

Soon enough, my platter of food came out, steaming and fragrant. It was delicious! Haggis is sausage with the casing removed after cooking, so there were no actual intestines to chew through. It was spiced lamb (yes, the offal, get over it people) mixed with oatmeal, yielding an incredibly satisfying texture, sort of like al dente pasta with earthy ground meat that I could roll around on my tongue.

You can’t get the real thing in the States, so get it if you go to Scotland. It’s absolutely worth it!

st giles cathedral

Visiting St. Giles’ Cathedral

From afar, I spied the open cupola of St. Giles’ Cathedral and loved it. It was light and airy and so intricately carved that it resembled garlands of flowers that had suddenly turned to stone. It became my true North for the entirety of my stay: I sought out a glimpse of it wherever I was in the city.

One day, when my friend and I finally ventured into the cathedral, the atmospheric sounds of a choir surrounded us. The singers’ voices were so pure and open that the air around me felt lighter, as if I might start floating without its weight to hold me down.

Bright clear sunlight poured in through stained glass windows, spilling vibrant colors everywhere, as if I’d entered a painting at the moment of its creation. Enveloped in this aural and visual enchantment, I wandered into all the tiny alcoves along the perimeter and drank in the carved wood walls and ceilings of the Thistle Chapel within.

scott monument

Climbing the Black Tower

Large, forboding, and ominously black against the bright blue sky, the Scott Monument (but forever known as the Black Tower in my mind) looked like the skeletal remains of some ancient architectural dinosaur. I climbed up steps that curved around and around inside the narrow tower, gasping at the view (and at the steep climb) before realizing there were three more levels to ascend.

Each section was increasingly claustrophobic in the rapidly narrowing staircase and each viewing balcony progressively smaller. The result, at the top, where there was barely room to scrape one’s body between the curved stone wall of the tower and the railing, was a bottleneck of tourists trapped at the top with no way to descend while people kept filing up those tiny, steep steps.

The (literally) breathtaking view of Edinburgh was worth it though, and in the end, my New Yorker attitude saved the day. I yelled down the tiny stone staircase that everyone had to start backing down to a lower level to allow us our escape, and luckily, they complied.

highlands

Exploring the Highlands

Speaking of escapes, my friends and I decided to drive up into the Highlands for a day to dazzle our city dweller minds with natural wonders. We sampled roadside beef patties, squealed at baby lambs (all tiny balls of white wool teetering on impossibly thin black legs along bright green fields with constantly surprised expressions on their little faces), and gasped as our car climbed higher and higher on the road around a mountain range, each turn revealing new unimaginable vistas.

There is no way to capture the vast beauty of the Highlands. There was just the humbling realization that we would be an invisible speck, possibly mistaken for the shadow of the leaf of a tree, to anyone gazing down on this land from up high.

It was so large that my mind could not contain it, and when I accepted this fact and stopped straining to remember it all, the wide blue of the sky and the infinite shades of green and rust red of the earth filled my skull, projected upon the interior like the most wondrous film.

Berlin

Germans! I salute you.

Every time I travel, there is one defining moment that drives the point home for me: I am somewhere I’ve never been before, somewhere that is unlike any other place in time. In some cases, it’s immediate, like landing in Iceland and seeing the alien moonscape of the land beneath an eerie neon deep blue sky. At other times, it takes a few days, like when I stepped out of a Tube station in London and looked straight up at Big Ben (which was renamed the Elizabeth Tower during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, btw… but good luck getting us Americans to call it that!).

Earlier this month, I flew to Berlin and then Edinburgh. Although I had a short list of must-haves for each city, my true goals would have appalled a type-A traveler. I was really there to relax, take enough pictures to make cool albums on Facebook, try new foods, and soak up precious face-time with good friends who are usually far, far away.

Doorway between Berlins.

My defining moment for Berlin came about 36 hours after I arrived at my friend M’s apartment. I’d spent most of my first full day there sleeping off an incredible wine-filled dinner at Katz Orange, followed by countless smoky scotches at a bar with an entire wall of seating that looked like high school bleachers. Sometime between scotch numbers 3 and 4, I was happily climbing all over those bleachers, hanging upside down on them, and squealing in pure delight.

When I woke up at about 4pm the next day, I crawled from M’s bedroom (I had weaseled my way in by saying I had to tell her pillow something important when M got up at a normal human hour in the morning) into the living room where she and E (my travel buddy for the Berlin portion of the trip) were curled up in blankets on the couch watching an entire season’s worth of Awkward and munching from three platters and one paper sack filled with croissants, rolls, German cold cuts, cheeses, sliced fruits, and bottles of wine and juice.

Breakfast in Bed.

“It’s the Breakfast in Bed,” M said.

“She ordered it while you were sleeping,” E added.

Good god, I loved them both so much! I’ll spare you full details of how I ate (“very much” and “with my hands and face” are probably descriptive enough). My defining moment for Berlin was seeing that spread, so European, and knowing it was delivered to M’s door. It felt familiar and yet foreign because of little touches like the neat packets of Nutella included with the condiments, as a staple instead of a special request, or the slices of headcheese, wonderfully translucent and studded with multi-colored specks of meat like some savory version of fruitcake, arranged on a platter with the other cold cuts like it was no big deal. And it wasn’t a big deal. Because I was in Berlin!

Warrior pose.

Lest you think I’m a depraved individual who spent the whole trip either drunk or hungover (not that I can disprove that statement), E and I did kick into tourist mode with trips to the Bauhaus Museum (incredible), an underground tunnel (where I fell in love with an interactive light installation) to see the Victory Column up close, Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate, Panoramapunkt, the East Side Gallery, Museum Island (where we chased off whiny gypsies with our New Yorker ‘tude), Berliner Dom, and the interactive DDR Museum (insane shit show, but fun enough that it was worth it).

We learned how to speak German, or rather, the Germans learned how to speak us. E and I would tack “platz” onto the end of most words and repeat what we were saying aggressively until the locals gave in. Success-platz!! Along the way, we ate currywurst, kebabs from Mustafa’s (worth the wait, especially after I realized I could openly drink a bottle of Malbec while on line), proper English fry-ups at East London, and really great sausage pizza at the Fab Berlin office.

Pop that Berliner Dom Perignon.

Pop that Berliner Dom Perignon.

Our last night together, the three of us indulged in an eight-course tasting menu at Horvath with the requisite too-many bottles of wine. I’d love to describe the two restaurant meals more fully, but for now, I’m still digesting everything we experienced. It’s safe to say that I enjoyed Berlin very much, and may just be persuaded by M to return in the summer when there’s hillside karaoke and a city full of strangers to embarrass myself in front of.

For now, I’ll say auf wiedersehen (platz!) and save the tale of Edinburgh (with two more amazing friends) for another day.