13 October 2002
What a month it has been! It began with a visit to my Great Aunty Bessie's house in Glasgow. She's my Dad's Aunt, and to the best of my knowledge the only family I have left in this corner of the world. It was a wonderful afternoon, although it felt a bit strange - to finally discover a member of the family after 27 years of existence was quite daunting. But we got along very well, and Stewart was kind enough to drive me back into the train station in the evening. Stewart used to be a taxi driver, and was able to give me a bit of a tour on the trip, including a visit to the street that Dad was born and raised in.
My exciting month continued with a visit to the Falkirk Wheel. A magnificent peice of engineering, the wheel allows boats to travel from one side of Scotland to the other. There are two bodies of water, the names of which escape me, which connect Scotland west to east, the only downside being that where they meet is around a 100m vertical drop. The wheel overcomes this - you drive boats in at the top and bottom, gates behind the boats close to trap in the water, then the whole thing rotates, leaving the top boat at the bottom and vice-versa. The boats can be different sizes and weights, but the wheel always remains in perfect balance - something to do with the volume of water displaced. I'm sure my brother could probably explain it better.
While it was quite interesting, it wasn't very exciting. I'd gone out there with a chap from work called Ewan, his wife Antonia, and their gorgeous little 18 month old, Astrid. Having seen the wheel, we preceded to a kiddies playground in Linlithgo, where we entertained Astrid on the numerous swings and slippery dips.
The following week Edinburgh was descended upon by three Canadian lovelies. My friends Kristy and Steve from Sydney had met one of them, Rhonda, while travelling through Europe last year. Rhonda was coming to town with two of her friends, and I volunteered to spend the day with them, which gave me the opportunity to do some of the touristy things that the locals aren't really interested in. I spent the day with Rhonda (on the right) and Elaine. Megan, lovely number three, had made what Jill and Silvs refer to as a "special friend", and decided to do her own thing for the day.
I met them around mid-day, after buying a kilt, belt, and sporran (more on that later). We formed a consensus that a tour could not work on an empty stomach, and called by a little cafe in the Grassmarket where we feasted on what can only be described as a phenomenal chicken curry. From there, we jumped on one of the many tour buses that Edinburgh has to offer. We hopped off the bus at Waverly Station, and took a short walk to the Scott Monument, an impressive and very gothic affair which was built as a tribute to the writer, Sir Walter Scott. The monument has a spiral staircase in the northeast corner, giving access to the first platform which features an impressive display detailing Scott's life and works. The northwest corner of the first platform contains a second spiral staircase. There are four platforms in all, and each staircase gets more and more narrow, to such an extent that you have to turn sideways to reach the top platform as the stairs get thinner than shoulder width. I'm surprised they don't have some sort of test at the entry gate, to ensure fat buggers don't get stuck.
We preceded on to the Art Gallery, then walked down Princes Street to a great Celtic cross erected outside one of the many old churches. From there it was back on the bus, to Arthur's seat, the highest point in Edinburgh. The views from the top are quite breathtaking, although the climb up is quite exhausting, especially for the rugged indoor type like myself.
We saw the day out with a visit to Caltan Hill. It was originally used as a navy signalling area - there's a large cylinder-shaped building that once contained a ball, which would be dropped at exactly 1pm each day, allowing boats on the Firth of Forth to set their chronometers before departing to the open sea. These days it is famous for its after dark activities - I was warned early on not to go there once the sun has gone down, unless I was "that way inclined", if you know what I mean.
But back to the kilt. I had been invited to my first Ceilidh (pronounced Kay-Lee) dance. My friend Dean had his mum, Helen, in town from Sydney for a visit, and he was keen to take her out for a bit of traditional Scots dancing. I was keen to join in, and went out to buy all the gear. While there were a few initial hiccups (when I first tried on the kilt, I wore it backwards. I couldn't work out why it was such a funny shape at the front. It makes sense now though - it's designed to hold an arse. Thankfully I found out before the night and not during it...), the night was sensational.
My friend Mel had rented a flat in Paris for five weeks, and I was dead keen to get over there, to expand my travel horizons, and to catch up with her. The travel over was a bit of a nightmare - Bill Bryson says it well in one of his books: "...it gradually dawned on me that the sort of person who will talk to you on a train is almost by definition the sort of person you don't want to talk to on a train...". I was on a plane, but managed to get stuck next to a chap on his way back to "Hooston", who decided to tell me his life story. It went downhill from there. Upon meeting Mel, I expressed a certain level of desire for a beer, so after dropping off the suitcase we preceded to one of Paris' many cafes. Not knowing a word of French, I left the ordering to Mel. She's very gifted with languages, although didn't know how to ask for a pint, so asked for a "Grande" beer for me. The waiter came back with possibly the largest beer I have ever seen, served in an authentic German stein from Munich. Initially I was shocked, but not unhappy. Then the bill arrived, stating that the beer I had just consumed was apparently worth 17 Euro, the equivalent of about 13 quid here in the UK, or a whopping 35 bucks back home.
We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, mainly focusing on the touristy areas. Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arch De Triumph... pretty much the only thing we didn't get to was the Eiffel Tower, although given my dislikes for heights I wasn't too disappointed.
That evening we made our way to the train station, to meet Caz, another dear friend who was able to make it over for the weekend. We dropped off her bags, and then went for another 17 Euro beer - Caz was so impressed by the story that she wanted to try one for herself. After the beer we went to an authentic French resteraunt, where we went out on a limb and tried some Escargo. Not bad, surprisingly... although they were so smothered with garlic and herbs that I can't really say what they taste like (perhaps that's the point?).
We retired to Mel's very bohemian quarters. Mel and Caz were sharing the bed (no funny business unfortunetely... my camera can take video and I was living in hope...), while I was on the polished floorboards with a quater inch of foam. Slept like a baby - I woke up crying every twenty minutes.
The following morning I was less than ecstatic to discover that the hot water tank in the apartment held exactly enough hot water for two showers, no more, no less. But with the lovelies that I had as company, a cold shower was probably exactly what I needed.
We went to explore Paris, using a walking guide that Mel had found in her Paris Lonely Planet. Awesome day. Didn't cost a penny, as we were seeing Paris, rather than "the sights" of Paris. One could argue that I was ripped off, but Caz, who has been to Paris before, found this time much more enjoyable, despite the company. Arguably the highlight of the day were the rollerbladers outside Notre Dame. They had set up cups about a metre apart, then took a run up and weaved their way through them. Words can't really do it justice, but we were so impressed that we sat their for about an hour just watching them.
The following day we stopped at a nearby market, arming ourselves with baggettes (I think I could quite happily live on French baggettes), cheese, salami, ham, and the obligatory bottle of very nice French red wine. We then stopped by a bakery, where we purchased a stupid amount of sweet, pastry-based goods. Everything we saw in this shop we wanted, it all looked so enticing. We took our haul to a gorgeous open park, were we proceeded to happily stuff our faces.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and before I knew it I found myself flying back to the UK. Less than 24 hours later I found myself on a train bound for York, where I was due to work a three week stint for a client. Coming back on Friday, I was surprised to find how content I felt to be back in Edinburgh... when I moved to Sydney I didn't think of it as "home" for at least a year and a half. After just three and a half months, I was overjoyed to be back in the presence of the Castle, the cobbled streets, the tenemants, and my wonderful flat.
Today I went to North Berwick, which lies to the east of Edinburgh. I went with John, who I work with, Hamish, a New Zealander who teaches history and has an extraordinary knowledge of it, and Tamara, a lovely Canadian lass who owns a resteraunt. We began the day by climbing "The Law", a mountain not far from the city centre. The distinctive feature of the Law is the whale jaw bone at the summit, used as a marker for ships coming into the Firth of Forth.
After climbing the mountain, we went on to Tantallon Castle. It was my first castle visit, and I was not dissapointed. The castle used to be a very decent stronghold - to the rear there are huge cliffs which end with the sea, and to the front is a wall "curtain", which is up to four metres thick in places. It was built before the discovery of gunpowder, and was a formidable target for any attacking army. Once gunpowder was discovered however, it was a different story. The castle was subjected to repeated batterings, and was eventually left to ruin. The building now is a crumbling shell of what it used to be. Quite an amazing experience.
Well, that's about it for this update. I'll try to do another one soon (ie less than a month between postings...)