World Cup Dispatch: Part Five (Tales Of A Haggis Virgin)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Contributor Andrew Post is traveling in the U.K and Ireland for the next two weeks covering the World Cup and his trip for This week he’s in North East England before heading to Dublin, then on to Scotland. Minus any hooligan-related incidents, Andrew will be checking in with dispatches along the way. God help him.

By Andrew Post

Roaming the globe is always a learning experience. Even Captain Cook would tell you that there’s always something new a traveler can discover. He might also tell you (as he rubbed the back of his head) that every interaction between a foreigner and a local is an opportunity for a fatal faux pas.

In my wanderings, I have made every attempt to read up on the customs, traditions, and history of a locale before I so much as set foot in it. I am meticulous in my conduct, assiduous in my behavior, polite in word and deed, so that I may never offend or alienate the inhabitants of the places I visit. I am the pinnacle of etiquette and an example of anti-ethnocentrism to the world.

If you believed the above paragraph, I have a bridge to sell you.

I goof up all the time, everywhere I go. There are some standards of politeness I can’t even get right in my own country, let alone abroad in this big, wonderful world. There were two particularly noteworthy “whoops” moments which occurred during my three-day sojourn in Edinburgh, Scotland, both of which I intend to warn you against.

To Scotland By Rail

The train ride to Edinburgh from Newcastle, Northern England, was absolutely stunning. The tracks came down right beside the cliffs overhanging the stormy, grey North Sea. Breakers tossed and rolled over black rocks. Miles of open country flew by, quintessential in their Britishness: forests which Robin Hood wouldn’t have felt like an idiot hiding out in; hedgerows and fields that would’ve had Tom Hanks thinking, “It’s World War II documentary time.” Sheep pastures, herds of Black Angus, and a few Clydesdale horses completed the agrarian scene. Once in Scottish territory, the terrain became hillier, and the seas became wilder and rougher, even though the skies were clearing. Sail-surfers swooped through the breakers, bushes and trees grew wilder in the pastures. We were in Celtic territory: William Wallace, steam power, whisky distilling, shipbuilding, philosophy, broadswords, tartan, and deep-fried Mars Bars.

Upon emerging from Waverley Station in central Edinburgh, we were immediately gobsmacked by the sight of this beautiful city. I was weirdly reminded of Eastern Europe — there were so many minarets, spires, monuments, castles, clock towers, and other antiquarian edifices that my eye didn’t know where to leap to next. Jeff, my Canadian travel partner, and I began to wander down Princes Street toward our hostel, gazing around in wonderment. Statues to people we’d never heard of loomed over the sidewalk. Fields of green grass and towering trees sprouted from the floor of the Princes Street Gardens, a beautiful city park.

People of every size, shape, color and description crowded around us: Scots, English, Irish, Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Africans, Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, and more. Girls of jaw-dropping beauty dressed to the nines sauntered along the rows of shops. Families of five, chattering excitedly, buzzed to and fro like bees. And everywhere the sound of bagpipes filled the air.No sooner would the last piper fade out of range than another on the next block would take up the slack.

The sun shone warm above us, and the breeze blew cool from the Firth of Forth, the enormous bay upon whose southern shore Edinburgh sits. As we neared the West End, a terrific explosion cleaved the air, and the ground shook as though hit with a titan fist. We looked up and to the left, past the flourishing canopies of the enormous trees of the park, to the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, and saw smoke issuing from the squat barrel of a gun. They’d fired the one o’clock cannon. Jeff and I looked at each other, grinning. We’d arrived at a special place.

After some creative finagling of the map and a slight quarrel about cardinal directions, Jeff and I found ourselves in the lobby of our hostel on Belford Street, in the quiet and green West End of Edinburgh. The hostel itself was a converted church, a palatial building of dark stone, its huge windows glaring over the street like watchful eyes, its steeple warring for prominence with the rest of Edinburgh’s skyline. We’d been warned what to expect; the reality of it took our breath away. The rooms had no ceilings. We had four simple walls, a carpeted floor, and a bunk each; above our heads the vault of the church’s vast ceiling spread itself in glory, sunlight streaming in through the enormous west window, falling on our faces like a benediction from God.

Storming The Castle

Our first stop was Edinburgh Castle. After a dizzying walk up the hill and a couple of crooked staircases, we were standing at the entrance to a fortress captured only once in its centuries-long history, and then only by stealth. Conquering it in the modern day is a matter of money and not might: it cost us each £14 to get in. We got a lot for the price of admission, however. We first entered the Scottish Military Museum, where the praises of some of the country’s doughtiest heroes are sung. Enormous paintings festooned the walls, commemorating the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, and the fierce fighting at the Château d’Hougoumont during the Battle of Waterloo. Outside, there was fencing practice in the west courtyard, where a local school was exhibiting the Scots’ prowess with a broadsword. The fencing master was a fit 30-something man with stubble on his chin and a broad brogue, who narrated even as he parried and dodged.

“Light cut to the shoulder, nothin’ too serious.”

“Another light cut. He’ll be havin’ words w’ his tailor.”

The fencing match ended with a thrilling display of close-quarters grappling and wrestling, culminating with the master standing over his star pupil, sword raised to strike.

“And the match finishes with close play, which was nothing out of the ordinary in the kind of combat ye’d have back then.”

We applauded and walked on. Further up the sloping castle road was the Scottish War Memorial, inscribed with the names of every Scottish soldier to have perished in World War I, as well as the tomb of its unknown dead. This sacred place is not to be missed. Its walls are adorned with heartrending inscriptions hallowing the deeds and legacies of the nation’s most valiant.

Nearby, in their own separate display area, lay the Honours of the Kingdom, the Scottish Crown Jewels. The sword, scepter, and crown of the Scottish monarchs had been locked away from the public eyes in 1707 when the British dissolved the Scottish Parliament, and were only rediscovered a century later. They were as bright and preserved as though they had been made yesterday, the purple velvet of the crown vibrant, the scepter’s stone centerpiece refracting and reflecting the fluorescent light, the sword looking as though it might’ve inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The view from the castle itself — as well as the guns and ramparts which line its walls — was nothing short of breathtaking. The whole of the city, as well as the Firth of Forth, was visible, including Kirkcaldy to the northeast, the mountains to the north, and Arthur’s Seat to the southeast, an ancient sentinel’s post atop a skeletal volcano.

The Consumption Of Haggis, And The Digestion Of Scottish History

Famished by our climb, Jeff and I strolled down the Royal Mile and on to Rose Street, the shopping district of Edinburgh, to seek one of Scotland’s most notorious culinary creations. At a charming pub called Dirty Dick’s, we ordered up a plate of haggis, neeps ‘n’ tatties (haggis with potatoes and turnips, all dunked in a whisky cream sauce). It was utterly delectable, not at all like I expected. Haggis, made of mostly visceral meats like intestines, stomachs, and brains, should have been revolting. Instead, the taste reminded me of liverwurst, but saltier and less pungent. It was a heavy but satisfying meal.

Dirty Dick’s was also a whisky bar, so I took it upon myself to sample some of the best of Scottish distilling. I had the 10-year-old Ardbeg, a Scotch brewed in the Islay region, extraordinarily smoky and peaty in flavor; quite strong, but not at all unpleasant.

* * *

The next morning, Jeff and I made the climb up Calton Hill to view the Scottish National Monument, commonly called “Scotland’s Shame.” Edinburgh, it seems, was once known as “The Athens of the North” for its notable literary, philosophical and architectural achievements. In the early 1800’s, high on this reputation, the city council attempted to build a copy of the Parthenon on Calton Hill on the eastern edge of the city center — except the money ran out, and half a Parthenon now stands there. It nonetheless afforded us a panoramic view of the city and a shady place to rest ourselves.

Down Calton Hill and across the supposedly cursed North Bridge, and we were back in the High Street District. After a quick stop for lunch at Pizza Express (a somewhat high-toned boutique which serves fine wines and gourmet Italian pies), we penetrated the imposing façade of the Scottish National Museum. Despite the confusing floor plan (stairs to the six different floors split off in all directions, with hallways and exhibition rooms sprawled across the gallery in no particular order), we learned about everything from Scottish prehistory to industrial development in the latter twentieth century. Scotland has gone from being a volcanic wilderness to a nuclear and manufacturing powerhouse in just 400 million years.

It’s Celtic, Not Gaelic

It was in the souvenir shop, while purchasing gifts for my parents and grandparents, that I made the first of my cultural mistakes. This was ironic, seeing as I’d just come from the National Museum, and I ought to have been armed against such intellectual hiccups. I had selected a necklace decorated with a cross, and made the mistake of asking the bald, bespectacled shop owner the following question:

“Is that Gaelic or Celtic?”

The proprietor gave me a look over his glasses that would’ve made any schoolboy wilt in his seat.

“Celtic,” he pronounced, pointedly.

“Ah, yes,” I said, soul bleaching, dignity withering. “I should’ve known.”

The man finished checking me out and handed my precious bag of purchases.

“Thanks,” I mumbled. “And I’ll read up on the history.”

“Thank you,” the proprietor said, an amused smile on his face.

I walked out, kicking myself for not being more familiar with Scottish history, and not knowing a Celtic cross when I saw one.

It was at ClamShell, a fish ‘n’ chip shop, where Jeff and I located the coveted prize, the golden horn, the thing we had come all the way to Edinburgh to find: deep-fried Mars Bars. For those unfamiliar with British confectionery, a Mars Bar is a chocolate bar, somewhat resembling a Three Musketeers with caramel, or a Snickers bar without the nuts (in other words, delicious). In Scotland, where practically anything can be deep-fried and still called food, Mars Bars are often dipped into boiling oil and served up like a hot snack. The result is an unholy union of sweet and savory, a gloppy chocolate bar coated in a thin crust, dripping with grease. It’s a thousand-calorie heart attack waiting to happen, and it only costs a couple of pounds. Resist if you think you can.

After licking the greasy chocolate off our fingertips, Jeff and I returned to the hostel for a nap before our planned expedition to the pubs. The light streaming through the enormous church windows beamed directly onto my bed. Feeling rather blessed, I put my hat over my eyes and catnapped.

So, An American And A Canadian Walk Into A Bar . . .

A few hours later, curried, combed, and brushed behind the ears, Jeff and I stepped out for a night in Edinburgh. We were going to keep things tamer than we had in Dublin. We both knew how miserable traveling with a hangover would be, firsthand. A few drinks and we’d call it quits. We stopped first at Mather’s Pub on Queensferry Street, but the atmosphere was cold and the seating nonexistent, so we finished our cider and went across the street to Ryan’s.

That was the second cultural mistake I made while in Scotland: I went to an expensive gastropub instead of a free house. Moreover, there were disturbing rumors that Ryan’s was the most expensive pub in Edinburgh. Even so, it turned out to be a marvelous experience. The food was top-quality, the whisky selection exemplary, and the beer relatively diverse for a brewery-owned establishment. More importantly, they took care of us there. After forgetting Jeff’s order, the waitress came personally to our table to apologize (leaning on our shoulders like she was an old chum), giving us another round free on the house, and refunding us the £10 for Jeff’s Sunday roast. The Tennents Scotch ale was smooth, hearty and satisfying; the nachos were a little taste of home in a strange land; and the television screens were easy to see. Jeff and I sat, drank and munched the night away as Brazil knocked the tobacco juice out of the Ivory Coast.

So far my batting average was deplorable. There had been five pretty girls per square foot in Dublin, and I hadn’t gotten anywhere with any of them. I was determined that this night would be different. Fueled by nachos and a few pints of ale, I wiped my mouth and cast a probing eye around the pub. A short-haired, freckled brunette at the bar caught my eye. She appeared to be alone, sipping a listless cider and looking like she was about to leave any second. I knocked back the rest of my pint, squared my shoulders and bellied up to the bar. I ordered the second of the three types of Scotch I hadn’t yet sampled: a 10-year-old Campbeltown single malt called Springbank; light, with overtones of vanilla, quite palatable and easy (the whisky, not the girl.) Then I nonchalantly looked to my side.

“You don’t look happy,” I said. It was a far cry from suave, but it was all I could think of.

“I am very tired,” she said, with a smile and a German accent. “I have been up since 4 a.m.”

“What for?” I asked.

“I had to get on the plane to come here,” she said, revolving slowly on her bar stool until we were facing the same direction.

“Where are you from?” I asked, and the rest was easy.

Her name was Kalya, and she had come from her hometown of Stuttgart to visit some friends in Scotland before going back to Germany for fall studies. She was tired and lonesome — she’d attempted to strike up a conversation with her hostel roommates, but the five American girls had snubbed her. Even the two German girls sitting at the table a few feet away from us hadn’t bothered to talk with her. I called Jeff over and introduced him.

And so the three of us passed a happy two hours, drinking cider and discussing football and traveling. Things stood to get a bit awkward when the football match ended and Hart’s War came on, but Kalya and I just laughed it off and kept on drinking. I found her to be a delightful girl, full of smiles, with an excellent command of English, a ready wit, and an engaging conversationalist. We parted at midnight and went our separate ways.

Even if I didn’t get to first base, I was happy that I’d had the chance to meet a foreign national in Edinburgh — particularly one so pretty and freckly. I counted myself fortunate that I didn’t commit any cultural blunders in front of her, despite my track record. It was good to just sit down, take a quiet drink with two friends, and make fun of the French.

That’s all I really wanted, honest.


Coming Next In Part Six: Scotland continued . . .

Read Part One Here

Part Two Here

Part Three Here

And Part Four Here

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