Days 8&9:  The Art of Storytelling–Scottish festival style.

On the road–or tracks–to Edinburgh.  Gary and Ashley have been very gracious in giving us a safe space to be.  So each day has consisted in us rising slowly, hitting the Underground, exploring London and coming back to Ealing, a warm comfortable bed.

But we are striking out this morning. A new path. A new tale.   We set early alarms, but the 4:30 sunrise had us getting out of bed earlier than expected.  Without major hiccups (and avoiding the change at Paddington) we’re sitting outside King’s Cross on a cool Friday morning with an hour to kill before our train heads north.  Outside a food market is setting up, and a few pastry stands are already open, so we decided to break bread for breakfast.  Blueberry and pistachio?  Score.  Feta and red pepper?  Great for pasta, not for muffins.  For a little extra protein, I hit Leon’s for a smoked salmon and avacado pot, which is the aforementioned ingredients with an egg.  As we board the train to Edinburgh, it might be a good point to make some odds and ends observations.

1.  You can get smoked salmon almost anywhere.  Sandwiches, breakfast, pizza, pasta.  I can’t get enough.

2.  People run with backpacks here.  And some of them are fairly big.  Don’t know if they’re all going somewhere or it’s just a trend to add difficulty, but expect to see this trend across the pond soon.

3. Bikes are well-integrated into traffic here.  They have their own lights which let them get ahead, then traffic seems to catch up with them by the next light.  And repeat.  There are lots of riders at rush hour with no apparent problems.

4. Razor scooters are a legitimate form of transportation.  By “legitimate”, I mean adults with apparent jobs and places to go use them.  People lock them to bike racks.  A kid rode one through Westminster  yesterday.  Wait.  That’s not helping my case.  Never mind.  At any rate, they are more than a toy.


Okay, back to the train, which begins the main thrust of our story.  Tourist tip of the day:  buy the seat in advance.  Technically, you can stroll up and buy a day-of, but that does my guarantee you a seat.  Maybe you’ll get one.  Or maybe you’ll be like the schlubs sitting on the floor between cars blocking the refreshment trolley.  

Somewhere near Durham, we started to get the impression that oddity was afoot.  Two girls joined our aisle at a table, displacing two day-of travelers and joining a couple already there.  In the conversation, they revealed they were part of a comedy routine on the way to Edinburgh to do a show.

I know this sounds like untowardly eavesdropping, but you must know two things: one (and I say this with love, not judgment) the two bottles of Prosecco they downed made it easy for us to hear, though Nic had her head phones in loud enough that I could hear, and I was variously engaged in sudoku, writing, and reading; two, they were stamping flyers for their show, and their new found friend–emboldened by the booze, no doubt–gallantly agreed to flier the whole train for them.  “This will be your first one,” they said, “As you’re like to get flier-ed to death when you get there.”

We weren’t sure what that meant, but on our twenty minute walk from the station to the flat, we began to find out.  I swear we didn’t plan it this way; it just happened.  There are actually a handful of festivals this weekend in Edinburgh, but the biggest–by far–is the Fringe, a monthlong festival of comedy, music, dance, spoken word, etc.  with performances in nearly every theater, lecture hall, pub backroom, bookstore, church, and street corner in town.  By the time we hit Pleasance, a street with a major venue, we were getting a new flier for a different show every ten feet.

We put that to the side at least long enough to get settled in our flat.  Chelsea, our host, is awesome.  As a doctoral student in history–whose masters thesis compared the rhetoric of Churchill and Hitler–we geeked out for a bit. 

But the best part was out the window.  Arthur’s seat.  It’s a park.  It’s 30 minutes from our flat.  It’s our Sunday morning climb.  More on that tomorrow.

Sorry, getting side tracked. Where was I?  Oh yes, festivals.  So eventually we made our way out to the streets of Old Edinburgh, which is everything south of Princes street.  Cobble stones streets flanked by high and aged architecture.  Apparently there is a modern Edinburgh on the north side–we saw it from the battlements at the castle today–but we may only briefly get there tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Old Edinburgh is the place–the physical space–where Rowling began writing Harry Potter.  The Elephant House–our first destination–is the space where she started.  Apparently, everyone and their muggle-born brother feels the same way, because there was a picture taking crowd outside, and because they actually run a restaurant there, they charge you one pound to come through the door if you’re just taking pictures.

Nic is really helpful with this as she’s read up on it more than I have.  The grandstands with the flags outside the castle are the Quidditch Pitch.  A black spire near the gardens was the start of Hogwarts.  A dark turn down the street has a plaque that says it was the inspiration of Diagonal Alley, and believably so.  Chelsea tells us that the names Tom Riddle and McGonogall, along with others, can be found at the graveyard underneath the restaurant.  Every fictional story has some grounding in reality; Rowling’s was clearly in the streets of Old Edinburgh.

But the Elephant House is packed, so we move south to the terrace on Grassmarket, a huge pedestrian street lined with pubs, restaurants, and shops.  On a whim, we choose TexMex.  True story–Nic has a jones for chips and salsa that might need a twelve-step program, but she’s been good without.  So we decide to give it a whirl.  I’m taken aback when the girl asks me if I want a glass of ice with my beer.  “Is that how they drink it here?” I ask incredulously.

She shrugs.  “I don’t know.  I’m from Ireland.  Some people do.”  Thinking this is some kind of Scottish thing, I figure “Why not?”  The beer is okay, but predictably it gets watered-down, which is a good description of the food itself: a watered down facsimile of the real thing.  

But we are sustained and move on.  At the end of the street, we see the first street performance of the evening: a martial-arts comedy act.  He mixes acrobatic strength with razor-sharp wit.  He tells one last story imploring the crowd to give after they’ve enjoyed the show, which ends when he walks over a man, two stools, another man, and then through a six year old’s legs–all on his hands.  The crowd goes wild.

Further south, we look for a venue where we have tickets.  More fliers.  It’s easier and easier to say no.  The rain starts.  There’s a saying here:  if you don’t like the weather, give it a half hour and it’ll change.  It does.  It starts raining harder.  We’re not allowed to queue up for the show, but we find a bar in the basement and hang out until the storm breaks and we can get in line.

Perhaps I should mention that the bar is in the basement of an academic building on the U of E campus.  There are five lecture halls in this general area, and each one is about to be a comedy show in the next fifteen minutes, and this is just one of the many major venues in the city–along with several minor venues–all day long, for the next month.

Our show this evening is called “24 Hours with Mary Lynn”.  The star?  Mary Lynn RaJskub, for you fans of 24, was Chloe O’Brien, the tech nerd.  You know-the one who looks like she always has cramps or has gas or something.  Her show, preview of her month-long stand at the fest, was based on the story of her life based on the “What happened to Chloe after 24?” question.  We were on the front row, close enough that when she started ripping on her husband never listening to her and doing what he wants anyway, Nic began nodding her head and Mary Lynn got her with the “Right?  She knows what I’m talking about.”

Her stories are all about eliciting laughs.  Stories about adjusting to life as a comic again, about how she typed complete nonsense as Chloe, about the daily struggles of marriage, family, yoga in Peoria, and career anxiety.  Our story resumes as she ends on a joke about Amazon Prime, and we head out into the night.  We pass under a tunnel and find a take away Indian reastaurant; order samosas, naan, and mango lassi; and head home to crash.

Our story continues continues the next morning as we make the castle or destination.   We cruise up the royal mile, which is already teeming with tourists and fliers. They have to become more inventive to stand out.  They dress as clouds and birds, they stand statue still as clowns, they stage a fake anti-GMO protest.  Statues of Adam Smith and David Hume watch over the chaos and revelry as musicians, both traditions Scot and modern fill the air.

We pass through the gates of the castle, flanked by Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, immortalized in Braveheart.  We cruise the entrance; again, buy the ticket online, not in line, if you want to save time.  We decide to skip the official tour and weave through the swarm of tourists. From the battlements, all of New Town opens up, all the way to the sea; in this town of rolling hills and many, many steps, it is easy to see why this spot was chosen for the castle.  Up a winding walk, we enter the banquet hall.  When Cromwell promised to “make Brittain great again”, he captured this beautiful hall and turned it into a three floor barracks of stench and filth, but it has since been restored and now holds both the symbols of war and merriment.  North accross the court is the war memorial.  I marvel at the monuments of scots who fought all over the world, oscillating between reverence and hearing these immortal words uttered by John Cleese in The Meaning of Life.

Back on the streets, we travel over the hills and grab some lunch and Greenmarket.  Tip:  buy your fish and chips at a pub, not a Palestinian lunch counter.  Nic was disappointed, but we washed it away at Mary’s Milk Bar, a semi-famous ice cream shop run by a Jersey girl: Nic got the salted Carmel and I got a double scoop of Goaty Gooseberry and Drunken Prunes (soaked in amaretto).  Now, to the theater.

Nic had booked a play for us months ago.  I remember her saying it was storytelling and folk music, which sounded interesting.  A one-woman show in which the author plays several instruments from traditional to the digital, Karine Polwart is a fairly well-decorated artist in Brittain.  But the truth is, I had no idea what we were in for.  Wind Resistance weaves meditations of growing up on the moors with impressions of birds flight, medieval medicine, childbirth, and football.  Think of a multi-layered, slow-burning Wendell Berry essay on nature but with Scottish folk music and multi-media platform.  Nic and I both agreed it was like nothing we’d ever seen.  It was daring and thoughtful.  Not edge-of-your-seat exciting, but more a slow moving meditation through life in nature. We ended up talking about it for most of our walk back the high street and the Royal Mile.

Polwart’s story telling, like Rowling and even Mary Lynn to some extent, weaves together many disparate elements into a cohesive whole, choosing which details matter and which ones don’t, choosing how to show the relation between the seemingly unrelated.  I wish I could say this post has done the same.  But time has been helter-skelter since we arrived in Edinburgh, and this feels like a train hurtling forward, stopping here and there along the ride. But I’m going to try to pull it into the station.  Nic and I walked the clogged Royal mile where street performances–music, comedy, magic, dance–lined every corner and took every inch of street space.  Nic did some shopping and I pulled into the Robbie Burns pub so my first real Scottish whiskey was a literary one.  Out front waiting on Nic, I began talking to Alex from Aberdeen via Latvia. He was fascinated by America.  He found out my wife was from Texas.  “I hear everybody’s crazy in Texas.  But, a good crazy.”  We share stories about our travel and ourselves until Nic arrives.  I finish my drink and bid him good day. We walk back to the flat.  Here, our Scottish saga takes a pause while Nic naps, and we rest up for the night.


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