The most nervous I can remember being in a long time was staring between the clock and the door from my seat on the bus, just minutes before it was due to leave for Scotland.
There wasn’t a lot of help available for my friends and travel buddies this late at night. Three of my summer classmates and I had decided to plan a weekend getaway to Edinburgh, but they were having trouble retrieving their tickets, and the bus would not be waiting for them.
So yeah, you can imagine some of the panic I was feeling.
They ran onto the bus just two minutes before it left the station, and as the bus departed London, I still had to force myself to breathe normally. There’s nothing like a good bout of terror to kick off a nine-hour overnight bus ride. When we arrived in Edinburgh, we were achy and tired. And what woke us up first was not the crisp, chilly air or the sunshine on our tired eyes. It was the view.
The best way to describe Edinburgh at first glance is an older, greener San Francisco. The hilly landscapes, close-together houses and idyllic beauty reminded me of being back home in the Bay. But the surrounding landscape was wilder, the trees infinitely greener and the architecture different in ways that spoke of a vastly different age and a much longer history. We stared north, down at the blue waters of the Firth of Forth and the rolling of the wild country that stretched beyond.
It’s also worth nothing that Scotland apparently has no idea what summer looks like. By that point in my summer, I was used to mild weather. The month I’d spent thus far in London meant cloudy skies, a slight chance of rain and typical highs of around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Edinburgh was a different story. Our weekend there featured some particularly nice weather for the city: temperatures topping out around 64 degrees Fahrenheit, strong winds, mostly cloudy skies and some decent rain. I couldn’t help but think of home, where the first weekend in August meant hot days and sunny skies, not weather that felt like November in the middle of summer.
We headed uphill, spending our morning wandering up and down the narrow, winding streets of the Old Town of Edinburgh. We looked at the tartan scarves that hung in every other shop we passed. We took pictures of the monuments that littered the main streets. We looked interestedly at the modern architecture of the Scottish Parliament Building, so different from the brown and tan stone of the rest of the city. And we made our way up Calton Hill, enjoying the beautiful panoramic view of the city below us before heading to our next destination.
Our trip was designed to be mostly spontaneous. We figured we would wander from place to place, exploring the city and its major destinations on our own terms. The only thing we’d planned for in advance was a chance to experience the ultimate Scottish souvenir: scotch whisky. We had signed up for a scotch tasting at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, which proved to be a fascinating experience. We learned how scotch was made. We learned about flavor profiles, body and tasting technique. Of course, we also learned that none of us liked scotch, but that’s beside the point.
Afterwards, we stopped at a sandwich shop across the street. I laughingly pointed out something to my friends at the shop’s cashier stand: haggis and black pepper flavored potato chips. One friend turned to me grinning. “What are the odds you would buy those and eat the whole bag?”
“What are the odds” is simultaneously the best and worst game in the world. The idea is to say a range of numbers that describe your comfort accepting that dare. Then you and your friend say a number in that range at the same time — if you say the same number, you have to take the dare.
I said one in ten. My friend and I both said the number three. I ate the stupid bag of chips. They tasted mildly like sausage, and they were actually pretty good.
Our afternoon at Edinburgh Castle meant beautiful scenery and incredible history, but it also meant a small rainstorm in the true fashion of Scottish “summer.” We looked around for a while, but the blustering winds blowing back our umbrellas and our growing need for coffee cut our visit there a little short. After a short snack break, we headed down the hill to take advantage of the recently extended hours at the Scottish National Gallery, looking at beautiful artwork and coming outside to enjoy street performers dancing on rollerblades.
Edinburgh had a fresh energy just in time for us. August in the city meant gearing up for the Fringe Festival — the biggest arts festival in the world — as well as the parades and bands of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. In preparation for the influx of tourists, the museums and nightclubs had all extended their hours. We wandered through small street fairs with local food vendors on our way to an authentic Scottish pub to enjoy some dinner.
I learned there that haggis chips are good, but the real dish — complete with mashed turnips and potatoes — wasn’t half bad either.
I said goodbye to my friends after dinner; they had a bus back to London to catch, but I had an extra day free from classes and a thirst to see more of the city. So I headed to my hostel to check in and, with no plans for the night, went to the bar downstairs to hang out.
Which brings us to the story of that time I befriended a group of Australians and ended up going on a pub crawl.
At the time, I don’t think I realized what the night would involve. I just figured I ought to be spontaneous. I knew I’d be safe with an organized group, but I still didn’t know any of these people. Naturally, I did what any good traveler should do when they face hesitation: say “fuck it” and go anyway.
It made for an interesting night. I made friends with people I never would have met. I got to experience a staple of Scottish culture. I was 20 and filled with wanderlust and adventuring through Europe, and I felt like I was having the weekend getaway that I was always meant to have.
Of course, I also learned that it’s okay to be tired and feel like you can’t hang when it’s 3:30 a.m. and you want to sleep. And so my new friends put me on a pedicab and sent me on my way back to my hostel.
Fueled mostly by coffee and sheer power of will, I made it through one more day. I took a free guided tour to learn more about the city’s history. I wandered through Scottish churchyards and shopped for souvenirs. I wound my way through the massive Scottish Museum, taking as much time as I could to appreciate this wonderful country, its small but mighty nature and unyielding national pride.
For dinner that night, I headed to The Elephant House, a small cafe that prides itself on being “the birthplace of Harry Potter.” While writing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, J.K. Rowling would frequent the cafe to write after taking long walks around the neighborhood in order to get her infant daughter to fall asleep. The cafe was quaint and comfortable, and what wall space that wasn’t covered by decorative elephants was dedicated to The Boy Who Lived. Newspaper clippings hung in picture frames told the story of the author’s journey from rags to riches and the times she’d spent in that very room, scribbling the story that would shape a generation.
But the real magic of The Elephant House isn’t in its food or its decor. Strangely enough, it’s in its bathroom.
Walking into the bathroom was a shock to me. I’ve seen graffiti notes before. I’d been to the bench in Amsterdam made famous in the film “The Fault in Our Stars” and read the fan notes there. But there’s something about walking into a bathroom covered wall to wall and floor to ceiling in notes from Harry Potter fans that feels particularly powerful.
Everything was covered. The backs of the doors. The cracks in the walls. Some brave souls had even added notes on the top of the toilets. I sat there reading notes in Spanish, French, Chinese and every language in between. Notes to Harry and the other characters, and then notes to Rowling herself. Underneath a Deathly Hallows symbol and the word “Always” written three years before, I added my own note, wondering if Rowling ever came back here on a day off from writing to get inspiration from her fans.
The rest of my evening was marred by the sad realization that everything closes early on Sundays in the United Kingdom. The shops had closed. I went to a park I’d hoped to walk through on my way to the bus station, only to find the gates locked up. I wandered through the quaint but deserted streets, hoping for some way to spend my time before resigning myself to the bus terminal. In some final and blessed moment of spontaneity, I stumbled upon a small outdoor music festival. I stayed there for only a moment, but standing there in the sunset with the music washing over me felt like the perfect way to end my trip.
As I sat on the bus home, preparing myself for another long night, I felt, above all, a sense of pride. I thought back on my weekend— the food I’d tried, the things I’d done and the sights I’d seen. And no matter how tired I knew I’d be the next day when I finally arrived back in London, I knew that I was leaving Edinburgh with no regrets.
Except maybe forgetting my spare camera battery. That was pretty damn stupid.
Contact Kelsi Krandel at [email protected].