Writers & Dogs–Exploring the backstreets of Edinburgh

It was one of those places billed as a “must see”.  Steeped in Scottish history and imposing its strength above the city, the Edinburgh Castle commanded a visit.  But something happened on the way to the gates.  We found ourselves floundering in a stream of tourists on a forced march toward the fortress.  Kids were crying, parents were ranting, hipsters were posing with red-cheeked Scots in kilts, ice cream was being dumped on the sidewalk, which explains the screaming children.

This was the overbearing scene as we approached the entrance gateway of the nearly 1000-year-old castle.  It was now or never.  Pay the 16 quid (US$25) and continue the madness of the masses or bolt for freedom.  In this Olympic summer in the UK, Usain from Jamaica would have been proud of us.  We fled the Disney-esque chaos and sprinted down what is called the Royal Mile.  There went the Camera Obscura tourist trap featuring a 19th century device that distorts visual reality.  So too went the Scotch Whiskey Experience, a dram drinker’s den of delight.  The gift shops peddling plastic bagpipes, tartan tams and woolen cardigans were also a blur.  Finally, we took a sharp left down Lady Stairs Close, a narrow alleyway that opened up into a grand, tranquil courtyard.  Finally we could breathe again.  Gone were the kitsch and the flood of tourists.  Catching out collective breaths, I look around.  There it was, the Writers Museum.

Hoping some of the greatness will rub off..

We spent the next hour in a 1622 tower house devoted to three of Scotland’s literary giants.  Sir Walter Scott, best known for his novel Rob Roy, is celebrated on the top floor.  Descending the tower stairs, writer Robert Burns is featured as well as one of his three scull casts, made at the time of his death.  Lastly, at the ground level, is my favorite—Mister Robert Lewis Stevenson.  Author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I discovered that RLS was also a worldkid.  In the 1800s, he and his controversial American wife traveled extensively and eventually voyaged by schooner across the Pacific Ocean.  They went island hopping.  The couple settled on Samoa in 1890 where he spent the rest of his days.

All of a sudden, Edinburgh was working for us.  We visited the Museum on the Mound, which is all about Scottish money and counterfeiting.  We spent nearly a day in the world-class National Museum of Scotland.  On the east end of all of its five floors, Scotland is on display from early geological times to the present day.  The tour ends at a rooftop terrace with grand views of the city and planters full of native Scottish plants.

We also got to stroll through Greyfriars Kirk, a 400-year-old churchyard full of ancient gravestones.  Scull and crossbones were popular with the stone engravers of the day and the imposing, macabre icon is seen through the cemetery.  Outside the gates is a fine pub called Greyfriar Bobby’s Bar.  Legend has it that Bobby, a Skye terrier, maintained a vigil over his master, an Edinburgh policeman buried in Greyfriars Kirk.  Apparently, Bobby was as tenacious as he was loyal.  The dog stood guard from 1858-1872.  Bobby was buried in the cemetery upon his death.  Later, a statue was erected in honor of the loyal K-9 and appropriately placed in front of the Greyfriar Bobby’s Bar.  The Nicholson’s IPA there is to die for.

But for me, unheralded places are often what make traveling exceptional.  We started our National Museum of Scotland day with breakfast in a nondescript café across the way.  The scrambled eggs were perfect and the cappuccino as fine as anywhere south of Loch Ness.  But what I found fascinating was the restaurant’s random collection of posters promoting the August performance festivals for which Edinburgh is famous.  Who knows?  Perhaps the next Donovan, Sean Connery, Shirley Mason or Annie Lennox is promoted on these walls.  Ah, those Scots… they have performed for centuries.

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“This is not England. It’s Cornwall! ” & other cultural oddities while vagabonding through Great Britain.

Southern Exposure  It is dark and I find myself walking alone down a pitch-black country lane at eleven in the evening.  I had just met with the crew of Grayhound, a 108-foot wooden sailing ship that would be launched into the water for the first time the next day.  Suddenly, car lights appeared behind me.  The lane is so small that I have to stop walking and move carefully into the prickly hedgerow in order not to get run over.  The car passes by and then suddenly stops.

“Do you need a ride?”  inquires a woman’s voice.

“Sure.  I’m just heading back to Millbrook.  I’m staying at the Devon & Cornwall (a local pub/inn).

In the car I tell Jill, the driver, how much I am enjoying this beautiful part of England when I am suddenly interrupted.  “But this is not England.  This is Cornwall!”  I am momentarily confused.  The last time I checked my internal GPS I was in England.  “Once you cross the river by Plymouth, you are in Cornwall,” explains Jill.  “We are a country onto ourselves.”

I understood.  At least a little.  I have been to maritime places before that brimmed with myopic, fanatical, turf pride.  The Florida Keys have their own beloved, breakaway Conch Republic.

Living room window in Millbrook, Cornwall.

And then there is the MRE (the Maritime Republic of Eastport) the enlightened Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland. Apparently Cornwall is from the same mold.  Bordered by the River Tamar to the east, the English Channel to the south and concluding with Lands End to the west, this independent southwest English county listens to its own chimes.

I quickly learned that Cornwall is indeed in England, but only in Rand-McNally’s world.  Here on the ground, the mentality of its people and the terrain are distinctively different.  Rolling hills dotted with black & white cows tumble down to the sea.  Wet-suited surfers oblivious to the cold water ride breaking waves with California moxie. The Millbrook estuary tolerates a flotilla of sailboats on its muddy bottom.  The tide will rise 15 feet in a few hours, releasing the vessels from the muck.  Quaint is the word for the villages here with no visually apparent economic motor. Although shipwright Chis Rees later tells me that boat building is major employer around here.

Ten minutes later Jill drops me off in front of the Devon & Cornwall.  “Hope to see you at the launching ceremony tomorrow.  There will be pirates there,” she warns.  I am not surprised.  The Cornwall flag is a black field with a white cross. It conjures up monochrome visions of a Jolly Rogers.  Arrrg.

 

The Devon coast along the English Channel

Riding The Rails  We end up in what is billed as The Quiet Carriage, First-Great Western’s line from Plymouth to London’s Paddington Station.  Our plan is to travel by train in one day from the extreme south of Great Britain to north of Edinburgh, Scotland.  I discovered this is a journey that few Brits would attempt in one day.  It is, in their opinion,  just too bloody long.  I found it enlightening to see the landscape’s character change. while traveling most of the length of this large island in a Sunday.  On the way to London we pass through Totnes, Newton Abbot, Exeter/Saint Davids, Tireton Parkway, Taunton, Castle Cary, Westbury, Pewsy and Reading before reaching London.  Much of the landscape is rolling hills filled with huge rolls of harvested hay that appear to pause before rolling down the slope.  They remind me of enormous Shredded Wheat made for a giant.

Sitting across the aisle from us for most of the trip is a middle-aged Englishman and his Chinese/English daughter, Rose.  The young girl has behaved well but as we approach the outskirts of London, she begins to get irritated by the length of the journey.  Squirming in her seat, the daughter reaches for her dad’s long cooled-off paper cup of tea.  “You can’t drink that, Rose,” commands the father in a very British tone.  “It is a cold and horrible thing.”  “But I like cold and horrible things,” retorts Rose.  The entire train cracks up.

 

City of London

Communication  It started upon the landing of our British Airways 747 from Miami to London Heathrow.  The male flight attendant bid farewell to me by saying, “Cheerio, mate.”   Of course, I had heard of cheerio before, but even my British friends thought that was strange as the word has faded away from the modern vernacular.  No matter.  Other common phrases peppered my trip.  I was told to “mind the gap upon alighting the carriage” repeatedly as I rode London’s underground trains.  Translation?  Watch out for the space between the train and the platform when you exit the car.  But the best by far was told by my friend, Rhian as she avoided a pedestrian while driving through a Scottish village.  “I always have to look out for the coffin dodgers,” commented Rhi.  “Coffin dodgers?” I asked.  “Yes, old people.

To The North  Our new train is Edinburgh bound and departs London’s Kings Cross station exactly on time.  The land north of the city broadens into flat, wide fields, sometimes flanked by rivers.  It makes for rich farm land and is super green on this gentle, partly cloudy day.  The towns pass by—Peterborough. Grantham, Doncaster, York, Darlington, and Durham.  We finally reach Newcastle, the biggest city along the line.  The center is choked with old stone building and towers.  I see a young woman speeding down a side street on her bicycle, obviously enjoying the sunny weather.  She is wearing a white T-shirt with bold, black, capital letters that shout, LOVE IS A DRUG.  The train presses on.  Scottish adventures ahead.

My Olympics–Part Two

It was finally time to actually see the Games.  Getting tickets wasn’t easy but we scored with swimming and fencing.  We headed to the Olympic Village on the first day for heats in the Women’s 200-meter butterfly and Men’s freestyle relays at the Aquatic Center, a state-of-the-art facility built especially for the Games.

For years, I had been a pool rat swimming 4-5 times a week so I really looked forward to these events.  Watching the swimmers casually doing warm-up laps, I humbly realized that I would have been unable to keep up with them in pre-race even in my prime.  The athletes were simply swimming machines.

The Women’s “Fly”

One thing that surprised me was the massive support staff that surrounds the events.  A dozen people bring plastic boxes in and out full of gear for the next set of swimmers while a heat is in progress.  There appeared to be several judges per lane ensuring that swimmers touched the side when turning.  And 15 cameras from every angle possible recorded the event.  I was amazed at the organization, most of which goes unseen when watching these events on TV.

After the heats, we walked around the Olympic Village.  There is such a positive vibe there.  People are happy.  Smiles from countries around the world.  I finally got to experience the Olympic fever that can only be had by being there.  It is nice to see that the world can get along.  It is possible.

Beer Here!

A friendly attendant does her best Usain Bolt (the Jamaican sprinter) impression.

The next day we went to the Excel Center to watch two kinds of fencing.  First was the men’s Épée.  The Épée is a heavy thrusting weapon that targets the entire body and all hits must be with the tip and not the sides of the blade. Touches hit by the side of the blade do not halt the action. Unlike foil and sabre, Épée does not use “right of way”, and allows simultaneous hits by both fencers. This makes for a lot of drama.

“Judges, begin the fighting!” barks the announcer.  There are six matches going on simultaneously.  Not knowing anything about the sport, I sit in awe.  It is all very high tech with electronic sensors registering the hits.  When a hit occurs, the winner’s mask blinks red lights.  Then the fencers stop momentarily before beginning again.

We had Row Two seats but were placed at the end of a section in front of the media pit.  I wasn’t very happy with the arrangement.  I was actually considering leaving when an attendant told us we could move as far to the center as we wished and take unused seats.  The only condition was if those seat holders arrived; we would have to abandon our seats.   What a windfall.  We moved down an entire section along Row Two to the center of the action and had the seats there the whole day.  Not only could I see the fencing well, but the athletes would exit the stage right in front of us.  Some would be elated from their success, smiling and sometimes yelling with joy.  Others showed the agony of defeat having just been eliminated from competition.  The highs and lows of the day were overwhelming for me.  I was also amazing how exhausted the men were when exiting after a match (three, 3-minute session or the first one to score 15 points).  They would remove their masks and sweat streamed in buckets off their heads.

In the afternoon, the Women’s Sabre events began.  The Sabre is a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands. Hits with the edges of the blade as well as the tip are valid.  When a scoring touch is landed, the referee determines which fencer receives the point for the action, again through the use of “right of way”.  Points seemed to be scored quite fast in contrast to the Épée, and because of this, I found Sabre to lack the elegant flow of the Épée.

Olga Kharlan (left) lunges for a point.

But I was impressed early on by the skills of Olga Kharlan, a diminutive fencer from the Ukraine.  I chose to root for her throughout the afternoon as she eliminated the competition in match after match.  Later that evening Olga defeated Mariel Zangunis from the USA to clinch the Bronze.

That ended our days at the Games.  By the time closing ceremonies kicked off, we found ourselves in the tiny Scottish village of Crieff watching the BBC from a laptop on the kitchen table of our dear friend, Rhian.   I’m not much for these events, but we were vested in the London Olympics.   Then Ray Davies came on the screen to sing the melancholy Kinks song, Waterloo Sunset.  The song is one from my youth and tears welled up in my eyes as I saw Ray croon the very British lyrics,

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station

Every Friday night.

But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander

I stay at home at night.

But I don’t feel afraid.

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset

I am in paradise.

I had had enough.  My Olympic experience was complete.  I happily went to bed that night soon after Ray sang.  Lying in the darkened room under a Scottish sky full of stars, I, too, was in paradise.

Post script…  I heard later that NBC cut out of Ray Davies to air a sit-com.  Hail to the BBC.

My Olympics-Part One

Descending into Heathrow, there was a buzz in the air.  It was opening ceremonies day and the city of London was alive.  I always knew that sometime I would eventually attend an Olympics.  The seed  was planted early on.  I remember my cousin Sean talking about his experiences at Lake Placid in 1980.  When the Summer Games rolled around to LA in 1984, I had a chance to get a temp job as cameraman, but had to turn it down for that summer our son was born.  Now 28 years later, that same boy is living in East London, a mere stroll to Olympic Village.  Yeah, the time was now.  We seized it.

That night we went to a city park where wide screen TVs were set up for Londoners who had no tickets to watch the opening ceremonies.  By the time we arrived, the gates were closed.  The park was maxed out.  The months of skepticism leading up to the Games had apparently dissipated.  London Town was now hungry for the Olympic experience.

The next day we had better luck.  We went to Victoria Park, an enormous urban green space, near the Olympic Village. There were four widescreens set up to view events plus food/drink stands, gift shops and a stage where musicians played throughout the day.  The weather was brilliant—sunny, about 75 degrees.  We watched a bit of women’s judo and then strolled to Screen Two.  In progress was the men’s road cycling event, a grueling, 150-mile race that wound its way through the outskirts of Boxhill and ended at the gates of Buckingham Palace.  Now into its sixth hour, the heavy favorites were leading the peloton, a grouping of riders that stay together to take advantage of drag from the mass and thus save energy.  It is a bit like birds flying in formation, but at some point, riders will break away from the peloton and try to win the race alone.

It was a bit early for the leaders to break away from the pack on this fine afternoon when the unexpected happened. Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland crashed into a barricade, causing a massive collision that took out a bunch of riders.  In an instant the peloton was destroyed. Alexandr Vinokurov from Kazakhstan and Rigoberto Uran Uran from Columbia, two quick thinking cyclists, surged ahead.  By the time the rest of the riders regrouped into a new peloton, the duo had a substantial lead.  The BBC announcers commented that the two leaders had too much of a race left ahead of them to overcome the newly formed peloton.  But Vinokurov and Uran Uran smartly realized the only way for them to survive the surge was to work together.  They drafted behind each other, switching places every few minutes to share the burden of leading.  At times riders behind would close the gap, but the breakaways always took it up another gear and kept their distance.

It was soon apparent that the peloton would not catch the leaders.  Then it became a chess match between the Colombian and the Kazakhstani—who would be the first to break away and sprint to the finish.  With about 100 meters left, Vinokurov veered sharply right while Uran Uran in the lead turned left to see where his opponent was.  The race was over. Vinokurov flew to the finish for the gold in 5 hours, 45 minutes and 57 seconds.  Uran Uran was right behind to snatch the silver.  The Norwegian who won bronze arrived a full minute later.  The crowd in Victoria Park roared.

My next Olympic experience happened quite unexpectedly.  We were following my son through the hip East London area of Brick Lane when we came upon three young people who obviously had no clue where they were going.  Sebastian went forward to help them.  His knowledge of London and its transportation systems is impressive.  The three people we ended up meeting were athletes from the United States Virgin Islands.  Their heats were days away allowing them time to cruise the city.  I spoke with Allison Peter from St, Croix who specializes in the 100 and 200 meter sprints.  I told her how much I liked her lovely island when I visited there 6 years ago. Sprinter Laverne Jones-Ferrette was also there and a guy who would be running the 400 meter hurdles.  Laverne made the semifinals in both the 100 and 200 meter and just missed advancing in each, coming in at 4th place.  Allison also made it to a semifinal round.  It was a real pleasure getting to talk to the athletes.

To be continued…