September 2, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 1

The Day of Endless Travel

A couple of weeks ago, as I was trying to get my trip all planned out around the chaos at home, my friend Leslie commented that she "couldn't wait to read all my observations from the mothership." Now I don't know about you, but to me this comment was clearly screaming to be the title of a blog series about my adventures overseas...so thanks, Leslie!  And thus the blogging begins...

Once my plane took off from Philadelphia, the 7-hour flight itself went fairly smoothly, sketchy mechanical issues notwithstanding.  I did spend a rather uncomfortable beginning of the flight learning that Delta Comfort Plus seats aren't particularly comfortable and freezing my ass off (if only), which convinced me that we were flying to London via the polar ice cap.  To stave off the frigid cabin, virtually every passenger broke out their complimentary little red blankets, which were hardly more substantial than fuzzy red toilet paper of the thinnest possible variety (you know, like the kind used in airports--ironically appropriate, no?)  After two hours of trying to type with ice blocks for fingers, the captain finally found the heater switch and the cabin slowly returned to a less glacial temperature. I tried doing a little writing during the flight, but had issues with my laptop throwing up obnoxious pop-up ads every time I tried to access Google and with keeping the in-flight wifi signal, so I gave up and instead did some crossword puzzles and watched a movie about Queen Elizabeth I staring Cate Blanchett.  Considering the first leg of my journey will take me to the home of Elizabeth's chief rival and my namesake, the choice seemed oddly apropos. 

Once disembarked at the airport I eventually managed to navigate my way to the Heathrow Express, an overpriced direct train from the airport to Paddington Station in central London.  Sadly, I saw no cute teddy bears in blue coats while wandering around Paddington pretending to know where I was going and not looking at all clueless.  From there I grabbed a taxi to King's Cross, figuring it would just be less hassle since I didn't want to get Tube passes till I was actually going to be in London for more than 20 minutes.  Once at King's cross I went to find a bathroom, unexpectedly passing Platform 9 3/4 along the way.  Somehow I had foolishly thought that the mockup of Harry Potter's trolley would be at a wall legitimately placed next to Platforms 9 and 10, but I suppose that would be a logistical nightmare given the number of travelers--never mind tourists--on any given day at King's Cross.  I was amused that one staff member was snapping photos for people while another arrayed each patron with the house scarf of their choice, flipping it in the air at the crucial moment to make it look like you were really being sucked through to the hidden platform.  I wandered about trying to snap a photo just of the cutoff trolley, but the photographer lady just looked at me and said "Come on, you know you want to..."  So I did.

Real Ravenclaws don't fall for tourist schlock like this.

After my photo op I grabbed a quick to-go breakfast from a shop called Pret-A-Manger (French for "ready to eat").  The sandwich was pretty tasty, but the chocolate chip cookie had the texture of a steamrolled hockey puck.  Anyway, I grabbed the bag of food, went to the ticket office to get my rail pass validated, and had 15 minutes to spare before the express train to Edinburgh departed.  I was lucky enough to get a seat by a table so I could do some writing before my laptop battery died and ended up sitting across the aisle from a lovely older British couple on their way to visit Scotland for the first time.

I remember liking the trains from my previous trip to the UK 15 years ago.  All told, they are surprisingly comfortable and efficient, something Americans could desperately stand to emulate.  Other than a brief bit of rain through Newcastle, it was a beautiful and sunny morning and I quite enjoyed the trip north.  The large windows in each carriage made it much easier to enjoy the countryside speeding by, which didn't look so terribly different from home what with all the farmlands and giant windmill turbines, especially if you pretended not to notice the gothic churches and castles and country cottages dotting the countryside...as if one ever could.  I particularly enjoyed seeing a few neighborhoods that perfectly evoked the #4 Privet Drive of the Harry Potter books, as well as the North Sea lapping the shores of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. At one point along the route I saw what appeared to be an apartment building with brightly colored boxes installed over random windows that I found fun--very Mondrian. I even appreciated the little hand grips on the back of each aisle seat provided to give passengers a place to pull up or to hold on when the train lurches about without actually having to fondle the seat and/or a passenger's shoulder by accident the way we would have to do. It struck me as terribly British--polite to a fault.  Either that or just a concerted effort to avoid contact with strangers...either way.  I did discover to my chagrin that I fail at working the toilets on the train, though.  First you have to stagger like a drunken badger to the bathroom, working against the rhythm of the train, then you have to work out which button works the door and push it firmly after the first couple efforts fail to yield any results other than people in the next carriage smirking at your ignorance.  I eventually figured it all out, though you almost need seat belts to keep from careening headfirst into the wall opposite during some of the more enthusiastic train lurches.  The doors slid open and shut in such a way that I deeply wanted them to make the whooshy sounds of the doors in Star Trek and was terribly disappointed when they didn't.

Absolutely beautiful countryside.

So far I have found the people I've talked with perfectly friendly and helpful, if perhaps a bit cautious (stranger danger!)  There were even some train staff singing and jamming to music in the cafe car behind me, pretty much negating the many American stereotypes that all British people are stuffy, very proper graduates of Oxford who have nothing but tweed in their closets, including their undergarments (though frankly, if I had to wear tweed skivvies, I'd probably be a bit tense and reserved  too).

As we went along I listened to the various train stops being announced and thought the practice was likely helpful in more ways than one, such as in keeping idiot foreigners from mistakenly pronouncing  things like "Derby" instead of "Darby" or  "Worechester" instead of "Wooster."  I hope this will aide me in Wales, because otherwise I'm screwed.  Pronouncing English city names is one thing--I've mostly got that down--but the Welsh deliberately steal all the vowels from their language and ship them overseas (I'm guessing) to languages consisting mostly of vowels in some sort of devilish linguistical exchange designed to torture residents and foreigners alike.  At l.east I know how to pronounce "Aberystwyth" and "Llewellyn" properly...that's a start.

After I departed the train station in Edinburgh, I schlepped my stuff down Princes Street to my hotel, passing the Walter Scott Memorial along the way (Hi, 'Cuz!  Did you miss me?).  I eventually found the hotel tucked away between a New Look (not that I know what we're supposed to be looking at) and a Starbucks (manna from heaven!).  Upon reaching my room I discovered that I have to leave my card in a little slot in the wall to keep the electricity turned on.  I can only assume that electricity thieves run rampant throughout Edinburgh otherwise.  Either that or they knew I was coming from Philly, home of Benjamin Franklin, the original electrical thief.  I seem to recall his efforts involving a questionably-deployed key as well.  I'd also forgotten that British tubs are frequently so tall one needs a stepladder or stilts to get in and out of the basin.  On the plus side, there will always be enough bath water to completely cover a person wider deeper than 3", unlike with American tubs.

Now, with convenient handrails to keep you from falling to your death on the way out.

After spending a few minutes exploring the room amenities, I sat down, took off my shoes, and checked all my messages.  And, since I'd not really slept on either the plane or the train, I nearly passed out on the bed but forced myself to stay awake till a normal (or slightly early) bedtime in order to recalibrate my internal clock.  I also took the time to change out of my sweaty and gross clothes; nearly 24 hours of nonstop traveling of one sort or another can make a person just that little bit ripe.  The funny thing is that a friend suggested before my departure that I should only take old underwear and socks and just ditch them as I go, freeing up more room for souvenirs and such in my bag.  Ironically, I had already been considering this, though I confess to wondering how this will go over with the hotel maids.  Can you imagine?  One of two things is likely to happen:  either they'll think someone is making random sacrifices to the trash and knickers gods or else they'll try to solve the mystery by following the trail of underpants left behind in my wake all over Great Britain, which can only lead to all sorts of awkward questions such as "What exactly were you doing in all those British hotel rooms again???" or "Is that how you were paying for your trip???" Ah, well...that might be embarrassing, but it's not like some random American can damage our international reputation much more than it already has been. Besides, think of the story the maids would have to tell their families that night...almost better than a tip, right?

After a couple hours of rest, I ventured out to find some dinner.  I'd seen a steakhouse online that had gotten pretty good reviews and set out to find it.  All I can say is that I don't have to worry about being considered an 'Ugly American' after my expedition, because all the locals were likely too busy smirking over my Keystone Kops antics.  I must have spent an hour walking around in ever-expanding circles while trying unsuccessfully to find this place, which included an eloquent and graceful faceplant (think the dancing hippos from Fantasia) onto the pavement after I tripped over one of the ubiquitously uneven flagstones in the sidewalk and skinned my knees.  A couple minutes later I looked up and saw a pub called 'Shakespeare' and thought to myself, "Screw it--I'm tired and sore.  Also?  BILLY SHAKES--duh."  So I crossed the street and went into the pub, only to learn that their kitchen was untimely ripped, erm, closed for the day.  Sigh.  Exhausted as I was after the long traveling, this only served to make me more determined to find the steakhouse.  I ended up going into a small cafe with wifi, thinking to look it up on my phone, but was assisted by a young man at the counter with a beautiful Scots accent (I can't help it...it's a thing.  I have an inexplicable weakness for a good Scottish brogue. Genetics, bitches.)  Fifteen additional minutes of walking later, I finally arrived at my destination:  McKirdy's.  I found it disconcerting that a place with such good reviews seemed to be a complete and utter mystery to the locals I'd asked for directions. Turns out McKirdy's is a steakhouse run by a family of butchers for that fresh-to-table-hunk-of-bloody-meat sort of thing.

After consulting with the owner, I opted for a classic burger over the more expensive rib-eye or filet.  The nice thing about talking to the butcher himself is that you get the inside track, like that the burger is basically just chopped-up rib-eye and,  I have to say, that burger was arguably the best burger I have ever put in my mouth...it was freaking DELICIOUS.  Those Lothian cows are damn tasty. The burger came with some perfectly serviceable curly fries and a pepper sauce which I found surprisingly subtle and tasty when dipping both fries and burger into it.  I also learned that "Rocket" is a type of lettuce described as "peppery."  Between the peppery mustard and pepper sauce and peppery lettuce, I'm beginning to sense a theme here in the Isle of the Mighty.  Could it be that the British are secretly spicy?  I couldn't remember the name of that type of lettuce back home, so had to look it up later in my hotel room.  Seems that 'rocket' = 'arugula.'  Who knew?  For desert I ordered the cheesecake of the day, a sticky-toffee cheesecake which looked uncomfortably like cat food paté with a couple of piroulines stuck in the top and a scoop of ice cream beside.  Looks notwithstanding, the cheesecake was tasty enough, though nowhere near the caliber of the burger.

For when you need utensils long enough to feed your neighbor.

After dinner I meandered back to my hotel, stopping first at Boots for some chapstick, water and to look for a particular cough syrup for a friend.  I couldn't help noticing as I walked that with the majority of shops closed the streets had mostly cleared of everyone but young people and young couples.  Seems even in Edinburgh teens and college-age kids go cruising, just on foot or by bus instead of cars.  And I don't think I saw a woman of any age not wearing some variety of tights or hose with her skirt or pants, though I imagine in this climate that is nothing more than sheer (ahem) practicality.

All in all, it was a very pleasant evening, in spite of my Coca-Cola and jet-lag kicking in.  On a side note, how is it that Coke tastes lovely and refreshing when poured over ice but once the ice has melted it burns in much the same way I imagine paint stripper might.  What's up with that?  How are ice cubes the magic ingredient?

Likewise, how is it that it takes approximately 12 hours of excruciating pain to trudge towards one's hotel but the same distance is traversed later in a pleasant 10 minutes?  Stupid perspective and adaptive walking.

Hopefully you've all had as pleasant an afternoon as I have.  Next up, Archives and Edinburgh castle!

So what are your favorite trips/sights?

Kilt Count:  Sadly only one, and that was on a girl piper near the Scott memorial.  I did see a guy wearing plaid trews, though, and another dude with a Stewart tartan tam, so there's that.

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