October 10, 2013
Edinburgh is not a name that sounds like it looks. Contrary to logic and popular American belief, it sounds sort of like “Edin-burrah.” But if you just emphasize the “Ed” and mumble the rest, and you’ll get along okay here. This city’s name is not its only nonsensical feature; in Edinburgh you will find streets that change names as many as five times, a wallet made from the skin of a 19th century murderer, and people wearing all sorts of costumes at any time of day. I’ve learned not to question Edinburgh’s quirks, but to accept each as one more thing to marvel at. After nearly two months here, marveling is still one of my primary pastimes.
For example, the other day I decided to go for a walk and find out what the giant obelisk dominating the skyline on the other side of the city was all about. I followed the landmark to a cemetery perched atop a hill, where I also found a monument to the famous Edinburgher and philosopher David Hume, and, a bit randomly, a statue of Abraham Lincoln (luckily there were no homeless men, unlike the last cemetery I wandered through). Having satisfied my curiosity regarding the obelisk, I decided to explore what looked like the front of the Acropolis, sitting on top of the next hill over. Calton Hill turned out to be a public park, offering views of the sea, the neat grids of New Town, the haphazard stone building of Old Town and the jagged face of Arthur’s Seat. Most visitors rely on the city’s main peak or the Castle—did I mention we have a castle?—for the best views of Edinburgh. By chance though, I’d managed to find a quiet spot that overlooked the whole city and allowed me to see both of these majestic landmarks. I still don’t know what the Acropolis-like structure is for, but it made an impressive foreground for a beautiful sunset.
In the midst of the historical and natural wonder, it’s easy to forget about school. The normal course load at the University of Edinburgh is three classes per semester, so I’m taking Introduction to Gaelic Language and Culture, Music in Social Contexts and a philosophy class called Mind, Matter and Language. Of the three, Gaelic (pronounced gal-lick, not gay-lick) is by far the most intense. The class meets four times a week, with three days devoted to language lessons and one day for lectures on culture, plus a tutorial every other week to discuss the lectures. It also requires more assessment than my both of my other classes combined. On the plus side, I now know how to ask people how old they are, where they live and whether or not they’re married (dè an aois a tha thu, càite bheil thu a’ fuireach and a bheil thu pòsta respectively). Unfortunately, Gaelic speakers only account for about one percent of Scotland’s population, so my chances to practice in real life are rather limited.
However, that’s not to say that there is a shortage of linguistic diversity here in Edinburgh. The university is amazingly international. My five-person flat represents four different countries: two from the U.S., one from Scotland, one from China and one from Poland. And I’ve made friends with people from Spain, Lithuania and the Czech Republic. Some are exchange students like me, but many are doing their full course here. I can’t imagine how they manage the language barrier, considering the trouble I have understanding Scottish people sometimes. “Smile and nod,” at least, is universal, but it’s amazing what I’ve found that I have in common with people from all over the world. I’ve spent hours discussing music, movies, literature and politics with my international friends. And of course, there’s so much to discover from one another; I’ve introduced my Polish and Scottish roommates to spoken word poetry, followed my English friend to a Balkan jazz concert and been lectured on the rich history of Spanish literature.
I haven’t been neglecting Scottish culture, either. So far I’ve gone on three different day trips around Scotland. The first was a bus tour that stopped at Loch Lomond and various other sites around the Lowlands. On this trip I met Hamish the Hairy Coo, a red-Headed highland cow, as well as a couple of his offspring, and also toured Doune Castle, where several scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail were filmed. The second trip took me to the Highland Games in Pitlochry, where I watched burly men in kilts toss telephone-pole sized logs and compete in tug-of-war tournaments. My third and favorite trip was a bus tour to the Scottish Borders (where the border with England was historically located), organized by my study abroad program. This trip included stops at Abbotsford (home of Sir Walter Scott), the ruins of Melrose Abbey and Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by The Da Vinci Code). The weather during this trip was miraculously perfect, and endowed the gardens and wild scenery at each site with an almost magical air. I have not made it up to the Highlands yet, but plans to track down the Loch Ness monster are absolutely in the works.
I’ll conclude with a few fun facts about Scotland:
1. Scotland is the only place in the world where Coca-Cola is outsold by another soft drink. The most popular soda in Scotland is called Irn-Bru, which has a bright orange color and a somewhat bubblegum-y taste.
2. Scotland is currently considering a movement to gain independence from the United Kingdom. A vote on the referendum will take place in 2014.
3. The idea of different tartan patterns belonging to different clans was a fabrication (see what I did there?) of the 19th century Highland cultural revival, and not, as most people thing, a tradition dating back to the time of clan rule.
While Edinburgh doesn’t feel quite as much like home as Hamilton does, it gets a wee bit closer every day.