May 4, 2006

Scotland, Day 1

~from all of us~

At long last, we are ready to begin blogging about our trip to Scotland and England! Thank you all for being patient with us... some more than others. ;-) We're planning to post one day of the trip at a time with pictures from that day, probably one post per day over the next couple of weeks.

We warn you now: this post is much, much longer than the rest will be!

We have long dreamed of a family pilgrimage to Scotland, and always thought we might go when Fa graduates next year. However, when we learned that March 2006 was going to be the 700th anniversary of the coronation of Robert the Bruce as the first king of Scotland, and that some once-in-a-lifetime celebrations were being planned in Scotland to commemorate that great event, we decided to start tossing our pennies in the proverbial jar and go a year earlier than planned.

We spent this past school year studying Scottish history, getting acquainted with the figures of the Scottish Reformation, reading Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, and learning about Scottish music. (We had already spent some years studying English history and literature, so we felt fairly well prepared to enjoy England.)

The day finally arrived, and we flew to Newark to catch our connecting flight to Edinburgh. We were thrilled to fly over the Statue of Liberty -- a tiny green doll rising from the water -- and the Manhattan skyline.

Waiting in New Jersey to board the plane for Edinburgh, we began to suspect that most of the other passengers in our flight gate were Scots. They just had a different look about them. We began to make a sort of game out of guessing which passengers were Americans. (Little did we know there were Bruces from Georgia on the plane who were flying in for the same thing we were!)

We began to wonder -- what IS it that makes Americans look American? This was a conundrum we puzzled over for the next two weeks. More on that in blog posts about the following days of the trip.

The overnight flight was about 7 hours, and we needed desperately to sleep because we would be landing at 9 am. What a joke. People were not meant to sleep on planes, at least not without medical intervention. So we slogged through the night with one eye open, realizing more with each passing wakeful hour that we were going to be wrecks the first day in Edinburgh. But we figured excitement and adrenaline and coffee would make up for lost sleep!

I glanced at the map on the in-flight screen at one point in the night and almost fainted to learn that the temperature outside the plane was 87 below zero. I really didn't need to know that.

We travelled almost 5000 miles that day. Amazing.

We knew we were not in Kansas anymore as soon as we deplaned in Scotland. Our first cultural chortle happened when we went to find ladies' restrooms in the airport. Restrooms in GB are labelled "female toilet" and "male toilet." In our jet lag stupor, that struck us really funny. We heard a woman on a cellphone telling her friend that she was "in the toilet." Ahem. Oh, and we especially liked the standard signage for handicapped restrooms: "Disabled Toilet." First time I saw one of those, I thought it meant the commode was out of order.

One of the first native Scots we saw was a female chauffeur, middle-aged but stuffed in a tight, punkish black leather suit, spikey hair bleached almost white and dark red lipstick, holding up a large sign that said "Massey Castle." She looked so bored with it all. We just had to wonder about that castle.

Due to a moment of Great American Insanity, Great Scot rented a car for our week in Scotland. When they tell you all that stuff about the British steering wheel being on the wrong side and how they drive on the left, let me tell you that is not the whole story. Your mirrors are also reversed, and the gear shift is now in your left hand, which has to think "parallel motion to my right hand shifting patterns" rather than just mirroring the motions of a right hand shift, which is what the brain wants it to do just by reflex. So everything is scrambled, not just the steering wheel and the road. And I won't even try to describe the sensation of seeing trucks barreling around corners at you on the right hand side of the road while your brain is tricking you into thinking YOU are also in that lane. I just don't want to remember that part.

Furthermore, until we actually saw it for ourselves, we didn't really get the notion that there are almost no intersections nor traffic lights in Great Britain. Instead there are roundabouts everywhere. You work up the nerve to venture out into one of these death donuts and start whipping around in circles wondering "what do I do nowwwwwww???" And then you figure out that you're just supposed to know which of the offshoot roads to zip off on, while other vehicles are spizzing all around you and honking peevishly.

And the road signage! It's all unfamiliar and hard to decipher. Just for one example among many, the orange triangle that says in alarming letters QUEUES LIKELY FORMING! Uhhh. OK, so we'll be on guard for... we can only guess what. And the lanes are VERY narrow. So all in all, driving in Great Britain is, for an American, pretty much one Prozac moment after another. Great Scot was finally beginning to get the hang of it by the time we turned the car in six days later to head to England. At that point, we had learned to truly appreciate the privilege of whipping out our Britrail train passes, then sitting back and ordering a cup of tea to sip over RELAXED conversation. Whew.

It didn't help that at the time we got the car, we were sleep-deprived and not exactly firing on all pistons, if you know what I mean. I think we went 30+ hours without sleep that first "day."

By the time Great Scot managed to maneuver the car into Edinburgh without killing us and half of Scotland, we were needing lunch badly. We parked the Peugeot deathtrap and decided to walk till we found a lunch place. We tried to understand the Scottish counter girl. She didn't seem to have the proper ratio of consonants to vowels in her life. We tried to understand the sandwiches. We tried to figure out what all those weird drinks were and how people function without iced tea. We finally just ordered some mystery sandwiches and four tall mochas and a hot chocolate. Figured we needed stimulants anyway.

Edinburgh was COLD. COLD, I'm saying. Somehow it had escaped our notice in geography class that Scotland is on the same latitude as northern Canada. COLD. Did I say that already? And mizzlish all the time -- it rains without notice, and without the Scots seeming to notice -- they just walk in it like it's not happening. We actually saw people carrying folded "brollies" in the rain instead of using them. We were whipping them out at the slightest provocation. Silly Americans.

We found the people in Edinburgh, and in fact throughout Scotland, to be very friendly and helpful. We were just swimming in the accents -- some so thick we could barely recognize them as English!

We were surprised to find how much more we liked the clothing in Scottish stores than what we typically see in American stores -- women's clothes there are so pretty, so colorful and feminine, and beautifully made. If the exchange rate had not been so terribly high, we could have gotten in a LOT of trouble buying skirts and such.

This picture is of a typical street in Edinburgh -- the buildings are centuries old, and they feel substantial. The architectural detail is complex and almost overwhelming. There are statues every few yards! Except for the cars and the merchandise in the windows, the streets probably look pretty much like they did in Sir Walter Scott's day. This street is mentioned in his book "The Antiquary," which we just read.

There's a lot of music in the streets of Edinburgh. Bagpipe tunes waft on the breeze and weave into the background of your thoughts. We saw this piper at the base of the castle hill. Later we happened upon a violinist playing the winter movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons on a picturesque side street.

We meandered up to Edinburgh Castle... which is jawdropping incredible. It spans the top of an imposing cliff above the city, and seems to be hovering whenever you look up. This photo was taken from a great distance, and doesn't begin to hint at the immensity of the castle nor the height of the cliffs it rises from. You could fit several football fields atop that hill.

It was so cold on that cliff that our lungs winced when we breathed. The wind blew my umbrella inside out! We toured the castle until the cold rain drove us into the gift shop... there we were in multiple layers and heavy coats and utterly miserable, and there were these Scotsmen in kilts and Prince Charlie jackets with bare legs just visiting comfortably with one another beside the cannons. They just don't notice the weather!

Here are some shots of the castle. The statues flanking the entrance are Robert the Bruce on the left, and William Wallace on the right. It's so hard to convey a sense of scale in pictures... these statues are quite a bit larger than life size.

This cannon inside the castle walls was Spuddy Buddy's favorite thing on the whole trip, I think. It was the biggest cannon we saw on the whole trip -- and we saw lots. The last time it was shot, back in the the 1500's, the cannon ball was found two miles away. We saw the cannon balls, which were about 2 feet in diameter!

We were pretty much zonked at that point, so we piled back into the Peugeot deathtrap and risked our way north across the Firth of Forth bridge -- one of the loveliest bridges I've ever seen -- into Dunfermline, where our hotel was. We learned pretty quickly that we didn't have a clue how to pronounce that name. We had been saying DUN-firm-liiine. No. No. Doon-FERRRRM-lin. There ya go. We hoped for a great night's sleep, as tired as we were... but our bodies were telling us it was merely noon. Needless to say, we tossed and turned most of the night, but somehow managed to get enough sleep to get us through the next day, Saturday... which was one of the most amazing days ever.

But that will have to wait till tomorrow.


Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band said...

wha...I...umm...words...wher...flouughhh....I'm speechless!

Androphenese said...


LaceyP said...

how exciting! I can't wait to hear tomorrow's stories...I love the ones about the car..or "death trap"...

Gracie said...

can't wait to hear more! Sounds fantastic, absolutely fantastic!

TheHeadGirl said...

wow! Yay! I was sooooooo thrilled to see this post here. Keep it up, because it's making this gal very happy indeed!

Karen G. said...

I'm so glad you've started telling about trip! Looking forward to the rest of it. (and I *warned* you it was going to be cold for Texans...):-)

cpuaggie said...

"Disabled Toilet?" lol! Those are some beautiful pictures!

rachel tsunami said...

Good start! Looking forward to a great travelog.

Katie said...

Yay! So glad you've started your tales! Can't wait for the rest!

Laura Kathryn said...

Your umbrella turning inside out is just like on Mary Poppins; only something that could happen in Great Britan.
Great Scot looks like he's about to pop with the thrill of all the Bruceness of it.
And I think if I were standing in front of such a cannon, I might react like Spuddy Buddy too!

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

Wonderful! I drove on the left side of the road for five years. That stick shift took some getting used to. The first time I drove I had some fellow tailgating. I had a little, er, trouble downshifting, and when I looked again he was about a mile back.

I am impressed that Great Scot was able to do it all immediately on landing. I am amazed that they let him. I had to get an international driver's license.

Mrs. Happy Housewife said...

Wow,wow,wow! It's fantastic that ya'll got to go to Scotland. Thanks for telling about it. I can't wait to hear and see more. As I'm Irish and Scottish, I have always dreamed of visiting those countries. I'm afraid, though, that I'd have to visit during a warmer time of the year. This FL native does not like cold.

Headmistress, zookeeper said...

LOL- the umbrella turning inside out in the wind happens lots of places other than GB. Colorado, for one...=)