Expat Chronicles: A Trip to Scotland, Pandemic Style

We took our first post-COVID vacation last week, up to the land of kilts, bagpipes, golf courses and Scotch whisky. Being a native of western North Carolina, where seemingly everyone has Scottish blood — and where Scottish culture is embedded in the music and folklore of the nearby Appalachian mountains — I had at least some personal attachment to our trek up to Scotland. My siblings and I figured we’re probably 1/16th Scottish on our maternal grandmother’s side, which makes my daughters 1/32nd Scottish.

So, me wee fellow Scots: Cuimhnich air na daoine às an tàinig u!*

Before the COVID pandemic hit, our family had some fairly extensive travel plans for the warm months. We were going to take a brief trip back to the States during the spring and then a longer summer vacation to Munich, Vienna, Prague and various other destinations. But those plans got scratched, for obvious reasons. We figured if we’re going to travel at all this summer, let’s make it a short haul within the UK. So we spent three nights in Edinburgh and a couple more in Glasgow.

The flight up was quick and easy – about an hour from London Gatwick to Edinburgh Airport. We spent pretty much every minute of our transit time with our masks on, including flights, trains, taxis and Ubers. The flight to Edinburgh was maybe half full, which means our four family members could share six seats, fairly well distanced from other passengers. The flight back from Glasgow was jammed full, so no social distancing on that one.

There were several advantages to remaining in-country. First, you don’t have to go through international customs. Second, it’s a short flight, so you don’t have to worry about being cooped up in a potentially coronavirus-infected plane for too long. Third,  if anything really heavy came down – like a sudden ban on air and train travel – we could just rent a car and drive back home. And lastly, you don’t have to worry about being quarantined for two weeks when you re-enter the country.

The world, of course, has changed over the last few months. When we arrived at the hotel (the Apex in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket neighborhood), we found one door for entry and one for exit. We were greeted by hand sanitizer stands at virtually all entry points – the lobby, the lounge, the restaurant, etc. All staff wore masks. You had to check your name in with the front desk when you wanted to have a drink in the lounge or eat breakfast in the restaurant. We were lucky to find a hotel that actually had an open lounge and restaurant. Many didn’t. (Thanks to my wife for the planning).

Scotland only emerged from lockdown a couple weeks before we arrived, which was a bit later than England. Everyone was still trying to get their feet under themselves in terms of how to serve guests, how many to serve at a time, how to design things so people all moved in the right direction, how to ensure social distancing.

At some stores you had to queue up outside due to restrictions on how many customers could enter at a time. Many restaurants had partitions between the tables to keep customers from coughing all over each other. Some restaurants used disposable plates and cups. No fancy china, no fancy glasses, no cloth napkins or leather-bound menus. Just paper stuff that could be immediately recycled or thrown away.

So: Edinburgh. It’s another one of those European cities that sweeps you off your feet with its combination of charm, scenery, culture, history, food, architecture, open spaces and all-around vibe. I’d always heard good things about Edinburgh. But honestly, nothing I’d heard or read prepared me for just how fab the place really is. Visually, it’s a stunner – a mix of highlands, coastline, urban streetscapes and natural wonders.

We climbed a small mountain called Arthur’s Seat that rises about 840 feet above sea level, nearly straight up. We took the harder, steeper path of stone steps, led by our daughters, who zoomed up faster than their poor old Daddy would have preferred, especially since he was in dress shoes at the time. We nearly reached the top but turned back when the threat of rain – which always seems to be one cloud away in Scotland – convinced me that we’d gone far enough.

We did stop long enough to soak in the panorama, though. Everywhere you looked was another magnificent view: the North Sea, the city, the far highlands. The mountain itself was rustic and unspoiled, with no signs of humanity other than the humans going up and down. No rest benches, refreshment stands or bathrooms. Just flora, fauna, rocks, dirt, shrubs and grass. I suppose it took us about 30 minutes or so to climb from the base to where we eventually did a U-turn.

Arthur’s Seat is located not too far from the University of Edinburgh, which is surrounded by hip neighborhoods and a big park. The sign of a great city is that you have a wealth of things to do, and in that sense, Edinburgh delivers. We spent part of one day visiting Edinburgh Castle, which is perched atop another high hill and dates to the 1100s. This was where the Kingdom of Scotland defended itself against its various attackers – including the English, who decided they wanted another country to shove in their pockets while they were running roughshod over much of the rest of the world.

Edinburgh is home to a variety of distinct and interesting neighborhoods, ranging from historic charm to modern commercialism and seedy noir. We stayed in Old Town, which is where you find a lot of boutiques, restaurants, cafes and pubs. On the other side of a large and lovely central park is New Town, where you’ll find museums as well as chain stores and restaurants tucked among the apartment buildings. Most buildings are brick and stone, and some date back a couple of centuries. There are a lot of hilly streets in Edinburgh, which reminded me of Lisbon.

Edinburgh is pretty ethnically and culturally diverse for a city of only half-a-million people tucked way up in Scotland. This diversity is reflected in its food scene. On our first night we ate at the best Tex-Mex restaurant I’ve found here in the UK, including London. It’s called Viva Mexico, and it rocks. Another night we ate at a Kurdish/Middle Eastern restaurant called Hanam’s (I think). Delicious. Our last night we ate at a little Mom & Pop Chinese joint that seemed to specialize in Chinese-American dishes like West Coast chow mein (more like lo mein for us East Coasters) and General Tso’s chicken. I don’t remember the name of the place. It was not bad. But try getting your water refilled there. Just try.

We also ate at an upscale place called The Witchery, near Edinburgh Castle. We grabbed lunch there after visiting the castle. The food tended toward Scottish fare and was very good overall, and the space was done up nicely in a kind of medieval Scots vibe. But as always here on this side of the world, the steak disappointed. I’m convinced nobody can cook a steak right except Americans, Australians and Argentinians. The Three A’s.

One great thing we discovered during our trip to Edinburgh is that customers get 50% off their meals Monday through Wednesday as a COVID-inspired promotion to draw in more customers. The restaurants themselves get repaid by the British government. A win-win for everyone.

Edinburgh has been described as one of those cities that punches above its weight in terms of cultural influence, along the lines of Kingston, Jamaica. These tend to be mid-sized cities that have had a global impact on music, art or popular culture. Edinburgh is host to the world’s largest arts festival, called the Fringe Festival. It’s also the “birthplace” of Harry Potter, because that’s where J.K. Rowling started writing the series. Other famous Edinburghers include Sean Connery, Alexander Graham Bell, KT Tunstall and Robert Louis Stevenson. Writer Ian Rankin bases many of his detective novels in Edinburgh.

I didn’t shop much outside of bookstores, souvenirs and the occasional men’s department, but my wife Susan found some really great deals on Scottish wool and tweed. There apparently is some special process they go through in Scotland that makes the wool better than anywhere else. And it’s cheap compared to what you’d pay elsewhere.

One thing I noticed walking around Edinburgh is that it seems to have a whole shitload of bars, pubs and taverns for a city its size. So I decided to do a little research. And sure enough, Edinburgh ranks among the global leaders in bars per capita, according to the World Cities Culture Forum website. Some of the data are a few years old, and I’m not sure how it was collected. But as of 2016, Edinburgh had around 275 bars per 100,000 residents, putting it behind only Buenos Aires and Rome on the list and just ahead of Tokyo, Seoul and Helsinki.

Surprisingly, one thing you didn’t see much of in Scotland were kilts or bagpipes. Oh, you saw a few. But I expected to see them every half-block. Not so. What you did see every half-block, at least in Glasgow, were Starbucks. So yeah, some things are the same no matter where you are.

After bidding guidbye to Edinburgh, we took a 90-minute train ride to Glasgow through the pretty Scottish countryside.

So: Glasgow. It’s more business-oriented than Edinburgh, and less interesting. Better shopping; less charm. More upscale chain restaurants; fewer interesting independent joints. Not much green space where we were. Nothing outdoorsy to do. We did eat at an Italian place called Sugo that served some of the best homemade pasta and sauce you’ll ever find.

One of my Glasgow highlights:

I chilled out in a great, divey little bar called Tabac for an hour or so while the rest of the family shopped. The bar is tucked in an alley just off the main shopping drag. I stepped outside for a moment to soak up the alley vibe and was approached by a tattered-looking dude with wild gray hair, a gray beard, a tweed coat and a cigarette dangling from his fingers. He looked a little unsteady on his feet. I seem to attract this type of person, no matter where I go, or what I happen to be doing. He introduced himself as Jonathon, and I said my name was Vance. He asked where I was from. I said London for now, but originally from the States.

“Whereabouts in the States?” he asked.

“Originally North Carolina, but I lived in various other places on both coasts.”

“North Carolina!” Jonathon exclaimed. “Well known for folk music!”

I nodded that yes, I suppose it is, though I guessed he was talking about mountain music rather than “folk” music as Americans tend to define it.

“Glasgow is the sister city of Chicago,” Jonathon said, apropos of nothing. “The architecture is very honest.”

I nodded that yes, I suppose it is, though I had no idea what he was talking about. Meanwhile, I began to worry that he was standing too close to me in this Age of Coronavirus, and that he might burn my shirt with his cigarette any second now.

He asked me what I did for a living and I said I’m a writer and editor. Then I asked him what he did for a living.

“I’m a physicist,” he said.

Well, shit. A physicist?

“That’s about two pay grades above my intellectual level, buddy,” I said, chuckling.

“Ah,” Jonathan said, waving his hand in the air. “They say physics is above you, but it’s all a pile of pesh. That’s a Glasgow saying: Pile of pesh. Meaning rubbish, all rubbish.”

He taught me how to say “pile of pesh” the Scottish way, with a real guttural landing on the “esh.”

I gave it a shot, but didn’t quite nail it.

So I taught him how to say, “Well I’ll be damned” in Deep South speak, which is more like “Wail ah’ll be day-ummed.”

Jonathan gave it a shot, and came pretty damn close. They say Brits do better American accents than Americans do British accents because Brits see American TV and movies all the time. I’m down with that.

I wished Jonathan well and made my way back inside.

Another Glasgow highlight:

At another Italian restaurant we ate at one of the waiters asked where we’re from. So I told him we moved to London from North Carolina. Then he went into a three-minute monologue about Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. It seems ol’ Jefferson made a trip to Scotland following his post-Civil War imprisonment, the waiter said, and spent some time in Glasgow. The waiter continued on about Jefferson Davis long past the point where I could understand what he was saying. But it was sort of fascinating, and I did more research on it.

We gave the waiter a nice tip. But try getting him to refill your water. Just try.

A final Glasgow highlight:

People in Glasgow say “youse” a lot,. As in, “How many of youse will be dining with us?” Or, “Have youse been enjoying your time here?”

I haven’t heard the word “youse” this much since I was a kid, and we’d visit our family in St. Louis. Grandma and Uncle George said “youse” a lot. “Youse want a soda pop?” “Youse want more chicken?” They were ethnic Midwesterners of Armenian heritage, with some Greek mixed in for Uncle George and Uncle Bobby. To this day, I find myself saying “youse” every now and then in some unconscious homage to my relatives, may they rest in peace.

Ironically, the Scottish flank of our extended family never said “youse.”

They just said “ya’ll.”

Postscript: The weather in Scotland was cool and cloudy, temps in the mid-60s pretty much throughout. We returned to a London that decided it was Miami instead. Temps in the mid-90s pretty much every day. Did you know almost all the homes in London, and most of Europe, do not have air conditioning? Do you know how hot 95 degrees feels like when all you have is an open window and a fan spinning the hot air around? We actually bought a couple of portable A/C units a couple years ago to help cool things down, and they make life during heat waves just this side of tolerable. I will never understand how the others here get by.

*Translation: Remember the people from whom you came.

Note: The fabulous photo that accompanies this post was taken by my wife Susan in Edinburgh while we walked down one of the most noir-looking streets I’ve ever seen. It looked like it stepped right out of a Mickey Spillane book. Following are a few more of her photos.

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