Haggis. Neeps. Tatties.

Finally. I had the notorious haggis. Much to my surprise it looked like ground beef and tasted incredible. There was a spicy after-taste and it was very filling. Deep down I knew that it was a pile of mutton thrown through a JuiceMan and then wrapped in the poor sheep’s stomach, but all in all, it was fantastic. If I ever have the opportunity in the future (which I certainly shall), haggis will be on my plate. As for the “neeps” (turnips) and “tatties” (mashed potatoes), I’m not so sure, they were equally pulverized and didn’t add much to the meal. As for presentation, the Scots definitely go for the straightforward approach. My dinner looked like it had come from the Sloppy-Joe Lady in the cafeteria. Finally, here is a picture to prove I had it.

Haggis-Free Living and Arthur’s Seat

On Saturday I planned on trying haggis. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a pub able to serve my specific needs on a weekend night. Haggis, to those lucky enough to be ignorant of it’s ingredients, is the infamous treat of the Scots. It consists of the sheep’s lungs, liver and heart all mashed together with spices and a load of oatmeal. This lovely combination is then boiled in the sheep’s stomach for a number of hours. Sound exciting? I’ll report back. The other foods I have been eating have been much more tasty and easier to prepare. Since my flat is very accommodating, it offers the lovely modern feature of being “self-catered,” which I commonly compare to “self-valet” or “self-housekeeping.” At the beginning of the experiment of independent living, things looked grim. My first meal was an old favorite. Pasta. But what to use for sauce? Avast! I have a can of beans, why not just throw that on? Using clever male wit learned from the oh-so-helpful “A Man, A Can, A Plan,” I poured my beans over an already heaping pile of spaghetti. Little did I know that the certain beans I had purchased were kept in a horrid tomato sauce that tasted more like child’s medicine than anything else. Here was the result:

Luckily, with time and some ideas stolen from my resourceful flat-mates, my diet has improved. The folks I’m living with are a diverse and lively bunch. It took me a long time to finally meet all of them because we never had a group introduction or common time for meals. Finally, after popping my head out whenever I heard feet scampering past my door, I met them all. I am living with five other guys, four of whom are international first year students and one other American. There is a Brazilian guy who lived in the neighborhood next to my sister in Rio, who became a vegetarian on a whim and is struggling to follow the rules. There is a Pole who listens to loud bass-heavy club music, but was very helpful in setting up my internet. A New Zealander who is a great cook and gave me an impression of how students feel about their classes here. I asked him if he had class as I was walking out the door and he said yes, but that he “couldn’t be bothered, because it’s raining.” The American is a guy who is on the same program as me and calls me “Big Guy,” which is either a joke (because I neither the largest horizontally or vertically) or he just calls everyone that. Either way, they are an interesting group and I’m happy with my living arrangements. Overall, I’m still adjusting to the minor changes across the pond, whether it’s discovering 2% milk is the same as “Semi-Skimmed” or learning not to walk on the little metal markers for crosswalks (they’re a deathtrap when it rains and I’ve seen many people slip).Now on to some interesting stuff. Today I’ve been sorting through dozens of pictures from my trip to Arthur’s Seat. It normally should be a short hike, but thanks to icy rocks and many pictures, it took the group I traveled with most of the afternoon.

A marathon or some other running competition at the base caused all sorts of commotion and we started up the wrong peak accompanied by distant whoops and jeers. The race circled the open green area at the bottom of the hills, behind the Queen’s residence (one of many homes for royalty scattered throughout the UK). I later found out that the race was the Bupa Great Edinburgh International Cross Country.

As we made our way up the grassy hill we encountered increasingly vast panoramas and darker skies. This first panorama was pretty early in the hike the sky was actually visible.

The City of Edinburgh is built very close to the cliffs and I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed the immensity of Arthur’s Seat during my time in the city. I spend most of my time in the neighborhoods of Old and New Town, the Grass Market and the University buildings around George’s Square.

Thanks to the slippery rocks, our pace plummeted while we maneuvered our way to the actual peak looming behind our first wimpy hill, known as Salisbury Crags (not to be confused with the Aggro Crag). I rescued a fall and turned it into a steeple chase and went barreling down the mountain. When I finally stopped I was not only down off the first little hill, but I’d gone below our destination, making my explosion of speed completely useless. We met up at the base of the rock steps and climbed the flat icy rocks at our own pace. When we made it towards the top a friend proposed we race the final distance. The two of us set off in a sprint up the hill, but people were sharing the path ahead of us. I made the decision to cut up the rock face and with the ferocity of a crazed chimp, I made it up alive. We got some group pictures and headed down as it was quickly getting dark.

The decent was much more painful and treacherous than the ascent, with most members of the party taking a spill. As we made our way down, clouds swept over the mound and made us glad we left when we did. The cross country race had finished up and we navigated our way back into the city in search of food and a place to sit down.

On a completely unrelated note, I have discovered that pigeons here are quite unintelligent. On top of the episode of the bird flying into a wall, I accidentally kicked a pigeon while walking briskly to class. In DC, pigeons are quick to hop or otherwise escape from your feet in a ruffling of feathers, but this unfortunate fowl got a swift kick to the noggin. I guess I’ll have to be more understanding of the simple Scottish game.

Arriving in the Land of My Clan

I set this blog up as a journal for my time here in Edinburgh and in Europe, but it’s mostly to spare me the time of sending out emails to long lists of people, so sorry to put the burden of checking this on the reader. It’s informal and quite a humble undertaking, but you won’t see any emoticons or mood updates that I tend to associate with blogs. This particular post is focused mainly on my first couple days in Scotland, but I plan on supplying updates once or twice a week depending on work/travel.

Well I’m finally getting settled here in Edinburgh in my flat. I’m in a pretty small room with a huge window facing the large park next to my building. I spotted a family playing golf outside and I soon found out that the Warrender Park doubles as a public golf course. Not bad to be living 10 feet from the green, I just wish I had some more experience with the sport than Ryan’s Mini Golf. My building has barren linoleum hallways and in some areas the floor switches to old wooden floorboards with columns stuck dangerously near doorways. My guess is this used to be a boarding school and I’m finding that most buildings here are either ultra modern or precariously ancient.

I figure I should have some short of method to this update, so I’ll start at the beginning. I flew from Dulles to Newark and sat around with the cadre of students headed for Scotland, most of them from the northeast. The preflight conversion worked its way up from polite introductions and ended up with frantic packing advice given by relatives and the younger members of the program expressing eagerness to partake in the more liberal laws of libations across the ocean. We flew on Virgin Atlantic, which is quite an experience in itself. While I knew Virgin’s reputation from the pompously clad flight attendants in bright red outfits and “rebel billionaire” Richard Branson at the helm, I wasn’t ready for the coming experience.

I was wholly unprepared for the attention given to the passenger, including the “beauty packs” that were handed to you when you board, containing a tooth brush, a dollop of tooth paste, a sleeping mask and a pair of socks, all bright red, of course. There were a dozen courses of drink and food offerings and at the initial beverage selection I asked the flight attendant what wares she offered in her rolling cart of bounty (or pain, if you are unlucky enough to fall asleep with a knee dangling in the aisle). Stunned, she responded that she had “everything.” Overwhelmed with possibility, I clammed up and ordered a V8. She laughed, “What’s V8?” My dreams were crushed and instead of describing the simple tomato concoction, I settled on some OJ (a decision that prompted a judgmental frown from a woman clearly used to prepared orders of fine wine). As the flight continued, I enjoyed two movies from the screen embedded in the seat ahead of me. I also religiously stuck to the regiment of 2-hour-increments described by the NO-JET-LAG pills I had heard so much about. My attempts to sneak pills out of the crumpled container resulted in nervous glances from my neighboring passengers. After explaining the wonders I had heard of these tasteless pills I was challenged to explain how it could possibly work. I whipped out the package and was greeted by such perplexing ingredients as: Leopard’s Bane, Clubmoss, Wild Chamomile, Daisies and finally Ipecac. As much as I shared these curious and humorous ingredients with others, it seemed to end up working and the five-hour time change was easily adjusted to.

I arrived in Edinburgh in the early afternoon after a short flight from Heathrow (the largest and craziest labyrinth I have yet traversed). Even though the sun was nearly set as it was almost 4 pm (not kidding), my spirits were high because I had expected to go through customs, not wander past the tiny phone near baggage claim with a sign simply saying “Pick up this phone if you want to declare anything.”

I got a taste of what to expect from the winter weather thanks to a bird that flew directly into the huge gray metal air duct on the side of a building. It was similar to the frequent glass related fatalities in the US except this bird’s demise was meet with cold tin and a resounding boom. Why would this bird run into a opaque wall? Well, the metal was gray, which is the same hue of the sky during 80% of the day. Once settled I went on a quick bus tour of the city with the rest of my program and got to stop at the Edinburgh Castle (a tour is said to take a full day, more on that in the coming months). It was dark and it was snowing hard, as these pictures hopefully illustrate. The tiny hilltop where the castle lies has been occupied by humans for over 2000 years since it is a great place to survey the land and nearly impossible to invade since the climb is so steep. One thing I noticed about the city is that while there are as many street lamps as my native DC, there was not the omnipresent orange light pollution reminiscent of a nuclear bomb blast. The city has a light purple-blue glow that is accompanied by dozens of church spires jabbing up in through the skyline.

As I’m sure everyone is aware of these days, the American greenback has plunged in value to wampum levels. The exchange rate is atrocious and numbers of UK price tags are deceptively low. Only 6.25 for this whole meal, you say? Ah wait, that’s almost $13…drat. On the up side, the Scottish (and hopefully Europeans in general) recognize the budget of a student. When in doubt, ask about a discount and flash one of the four student IDs you now carry. One local pub had a backpacker/student deal where anything 6.50 pounds or less is only 3.50 if you carry the corresponding identification, though I’m unclear where one would get a “Backpacker ID.” As for the language, I have yet to learn Scottish. If this is any indication, I got lost recently and ended up in the “Haberdashery” section of a department store. I’ve met dozens of other international students, but hopefully once classes start and I meet some Scots I’ll pick up the local tongue.