Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Great Glasgow Getaway

As an official Edinburgh resident several things are expected of me. I must possess a burning hatred for the tram project. I must roll my eyes every time I see a street performer playing bagpipes, and murmur something about Edinburgh having "so much more to offer than that." And I must have a condescending, disparaging opinion of Glasgow.

And to be honest, I am a little critical of Scotland's other major city.  Despite the fact that it has over 200,000 more people than Edinburgh, I find it a lot less exciting than the capital city; over-industrialized, a bit dirty, and not nearly as historic.  However, it does have a thriving underground art scene, some amazing restaurants, and great live music.  Oh, and you're much more likely to meet actual Scottish people in Glasgow than you are in Edinburgh.

A few weekends ago, I boarded a train and headed West for a days' sightseeing with my pal Marc. Here are a couple of highlights of our day:

Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis

Dedicated to Saint Mungo, also known as Ninian, this medieval cathedral is one of was built in the early 12th century.   It's an imposing and impressive structure, and it looks strange in the middle of Urban Glasgow's city center.  Built on a hill behind it is a Victorian garden cemetery, with 3,500 tombs and 50,000 graves dating from 1832.  Both the Cathedral and the Cemetary are fascinating, scenic, and well-worth visiting.

Glasgow's Christmas Festival

 Glasgow's George Square Christmas display was impressive, with a big "observation" wheel that made the ferris wheel in the Princes Street market look like a kiddie ride.  While it will never beat Edinburgh's Christmas Market in charm and authenticity, Marc and I thoroughly enjoyed our deep-fried veggie burgers while people watching for a lunchtime break at Glasgow's Christmas festival.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Santa Claus is Running Through Town!

Here comes Santa Claus, 
Here comes Santa Claus, 
Right down Princes Street...

Hold on.  Make that 1,000 Santa Clauses.

Every December, Edinburgh's Christmas hosts a Great Scottish Santa Run to raise money for When You Wish Upon a Star, a charity that grants wishes to seriously ill children.  For a seriously small registration fee (5 pounds!), I got a free Santa Suit and beard, a warm-up Zumba class (gosh did I feel ridiculous doing that), and a chance to exhaust embarrass myself with 999 other maniacs for a mile.

And a lovely finishers medal.

Here's a video of the madness:

And the Scottish holiday-insanity doesn't stop here.  Next on the agenda: The New Years Loony Dook!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Edinburgh Christmas Markets

There's a lot to complain about during December in Scotland.  To be specific, the weather sucks.  The days are short (the sun's setting at around 3:45 pm now), cold, wet, and windy.  It takes a lot to get me to leave my flat right now, but one thing has tempted me out several times: Edinburgh's Christmas Market.
Princes Street Gardens, home of the Scott Monument, is completely transformed during December, with an ice rink, carnival rides, gift stands, and food and drink stalls.  On the East end of the Gardens you can sample scottish goodies like haggis, hot cider, and mulled mead.  The West end of The Gardens is home to a little German Christmas Market, run by a company from Frankfurt.  There you can try all sorts of German goodies like Käsespätzle (I'm not even going to attempt to explain it- see this video if you're curious), and the all-important Glühwein (mulled wine).

How could I complain about weather when I have this to look at every day?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy Saint Andrew's Day!

First off, apologies for my recent neglect of this blog.  It turns out being a  MA Journalism student can be quite busy, especially during finals.  Luckily, I'm all done at the end of this week... sort of. Classes end tomorrow and then I have a week of essay due dates and shorthand exams.  Then a week of work placement at this magazine, and then I'm really done.

But in spite my hectic schedule, I need to take a few minutes to tell you about Saint Andrew's Day 2011 in Edinburgh.

Saint Andrew's Cross, The Saltire, is on Scotland's Flag
November 30 is a bank holiday in Scotland every year to celebrate the life of Scotland's Patron Saint, Andrew of Galilee.  While it isn't as raucous or legendary as Ireland's Saint Patrick's day, Saint Andrew's Day is an important holiday in Scotland, especially for history buffs. For the week leading up to November 30, many Scottish Heritage sites, especially castles, offer free entry and events.

Today I took advantage of this program with a free trip to Edinburgh Castle.  The city's top attraction, it is home to Scotland's War Museum, The Stone of Destiny, and the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Since it was built around 1130 AD, it has seen many battle but never changed hands by anything but willing surrender.  As far as castles go, Edinburgh is as tough as they come.

 It is also the inspiration for Hogwarts' Castle in the Harry Potter series, which is pretty exciting for nerds like me.

But this year's Saint Andrew's Day wasn't only marked by free entry to attractions and closed banks. This year, November 30 saw 300,000 public sector workers go on strike in Scotland, as part of a larger "day of action" throughout Britain.  Universities, libraries, doctor's offices, and local government shut down today, as workers protested pension cuts.

I witnessed a demonstration in the city centre this morning, and it was absolutely massive.

To be honest, I'm not sure what my exact opinion is on this movement, but I was happy to see all these people standing up for their beliefs in a non-violent way.  As my friend Claudia said, we were lucky to witness "British Democracy in Action" on Saint Andrews day.

And with classes cancelled as our lecturers walked out, we had a ready-made excuse to skive off and enjoy a wee bit of free sightseeing on Saint Andrews day!

Friday, November 11, 2011

How to Deal with Stereotypes while Travelling

Loud. Proud. Fake. Closed-minded.  Safety-obsessed.  Uptight.  Imposing.  Assuming. Ignorant. These are a few of the American stereotypes I’ve encountered since moving to Edinburgh.

I shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of British and European people have preconceived notions about the United States. People all over the world are exposed to American films, television, sports, and politics every day. With constant exposure these things, of course people will develop opinions of the USA, even if they haven’t met an American before.  Unfortunately, some of these opinions are negative.

In a way, I can’t blame people for being a bit cynical about Americans.  We impose our culture on the rest of the world, and yet we often fail to learn about our global neighbors. But it’s also not fair to make assumptions about people you don’t know, and being subjected to a stereotype can be difficult to deal with.

So, I’ve come up with a few coping mechanisms. 
Laugh it off.  When somebody raises their eyebrows or rolls their eyes after hearing I’m American, I might say “I know, you were expecting a 250-pound, bleached-blonde, ultra-conservative, nut-job.  Sorry to disappoint.”  By addressing the stereotype in an off-hand way, I’m able to challenge them without starting an argument.  Joking around about the stereotypes I don’t take myself too seriously, and helps me make new friends. 
Ask “why do you think that?” Even though it’s tempting to take a defensive position and challenge a stereotype, it’s more constructive to try to understand why that stereotype exists.  Maybe your new Austrian friend thinks American girls are shallow and giggly because he’s watched a lot of teen films from the 90’s.  Or maybe that French girl thinks Americans are rude because she met a lot of pushy American tourists while working in a shop in Paris.  Questioning the root of stereotypes can start interesting conversations—and it shows that you’re concerned with others’ perceptions of your country.
 Just walk away.  If someone’s being blatantly rude or antagonistic towards your nationality, just leave the conversation.  There’s no point in engaging with somebody who’s determined to dislike you. Besides, if someone is closed-minded enough to attack you based only on where you were born, who care’s what they think? 

But please don’t do this…
Some Americans I’ve met abroad have deal with stereotypes by simply “jumping on the bandwagon.”  In just agreeing with whatever assumption about Americans that they come across, they hope to come off as likeable.  They represent themselves as a “rare” and “unique” American, above all the flaws of the rest of their country. 
To me, this is shallow and disingenuous.  Travelers have a responsibility to represent their homes in the best ways possible. This doesn’t mean bragging or denying a country’s flaws, but it does mean being honest about their opinions. People can always tell when someone’s lying to impress others, anyway.
So be honest and polite.  Ask questions.  You may learn something about yourself as well as the people you talk with.  And isn’t that what travel is all about?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Shetland Part 3: Muckle Roe

Muckle Roe

I've mentioned before that in only 2 days in Shetland, we did a lot of hiking.  Of all the hikes we undertook, though, 3 hours on Muckle Roe, a little Isle of Shetland's west coast, was most challenging, and most rewarding.

Our hike started on the wee beach of Muckle Ayre.  It was unimpressive in size and didn't contain much sand, but did have a sort of romantic charm- tucked behind rolling hills on one side, and red cliffs on another, the place felt so secluded. We didn't remain there long, though, instead charging right up a steep slope in search of Muckle Roe Lighthouse.

The hike wasn't easy- there wasn't much of a trail in some areas, and given the amount of rain in Shetland, it was quite muddy.  At one point I slipped and fell on my butt (more embarrassing than painful), and in the end, it took us well over an hour to find the lighthouse.

And when we found the lighthouse, it was so disappointing.

Next to the saddest lighthouse in Shetland, however, was a cliff overlooking a little pool.  And in that little pool bobbed little heads- seals!  We perched ourselves on rocks for a short rest, watching the seals play before heading back to our böd for a big dinner.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A (not so) Wee Taste of Scottish Breakfast

Pubs differ from U.S. bars in many ways- the casual atmosphere, the specialty pints, the quiz nights, and the general acceptance of drinking at any time of day, any day of the week. Still, you can usually find a bar in the US that offers all these things.  But I challenge you to find a U.S. bar that serves breakfast.

In Edinburgh, pubs are plastered with advertisements for variations of "The Full Scottish Breakfast" of "The Traditional Fry-Up."  Weekend breakfasts are an important ritual in Scotland- a great chance to catch up with friends after a hard week of work- or a hard-core night of partying.

Like other countries' fry-ups, a full Scottish breakfast contains fried eggs, bacon, and sausage.  And while that alone would be enough to fill most people up, Scottish Breakfasts also feature local specialties- most often black pudding (blood sausage),  potato scones (similar to potato pancakes), and haggis.
The blood pudding is the dark stuff in the middle!
There are, of course vegetarian varieties on the full Scottish breakfast, and these often contain veggie substitutes for sausage and haggis whose health benefits are stripped away by a dip in the deep-fryer.

Full Scottish Breakfasts and Full Veggie Breakfasts can be as cheap as 3 pounds. And it's a cultural experience, so travellers can ignore any health-related reservations you have about eating it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Shetland part 2: A Wee Capital and Stunning Views

Flipping through the photos from my trip to Shetland, it became clear I could never sum up the place in one measly blog post.   Condensing the place into one article simply wouldn't do it justice, and I really want the chance to share all these photos with you! So I've decided to give you the highlights of my trip- in no particular order- in several installments.  So for today I give you (drumroll please) Lerwick, Eshaness, and Saint Ninian's Isle.


Standing on the top deck of the ferry, the bitter wind biting the tip my nose, my fingers, and my ears, I caught my first glimpse of Shetland: Lerwick materializing through the morning mist.

It’s a small town with a mere 7,500 inhabitents, but what Lerwick lacks in size, it makes up for in character.  It’s 18th-century sandstone buildings are built on top of one another; its narrow, cobbled streets wind up and down hills in little mazes.  Like many Scottish towns, Lerwick wasn’t planned, it just grew.  And while it’s lack of city planning frustrated us in our early efforts to find a grocery store, I found it charming.

Lerwick might be quaint and historic, but it does offer tourists plenty to see, as well as many choices for accommodation and amenities.  As Shetland’s capital, it’s home to Shetland Museum and Archives.  It’s also the launch point for boat tours, and a lovely place to stock up on hand-made Shetland souvenirs like jewelry, knit-wear, and local music.

Eshaness Lighthouse

About an hour’s drive from Lerwick, Eshaness Lighthouse was our first stop in Shetland.  Built in 1929 to prevent ships from hitting a group of Island's surrounding the North-Western shore, it now serves as a guesthouse (and boy, do I wish I had the money to stay there).

More impressive than the lighthouse is it's dramatic location: imposing cliffs  completely untouched by humankind.  Nobody watching but a flock of sheep, we spent an hour walking along the coast, but it seems we could have gone on for eternity. It might have been an excellent place to bring a picnic lunch, but we were perfectly content to climb rocks, becoming increasingly daring in our attempt to get a perfect photograph.

Saint Ninian's Isle

The walk to Saint Ninian's Isle was like nothing I've ever experienced.  It's connected to the mainland by a thin strip of beach, called an "ayre," so while Saint Ninian's isn't accessible by car, it's easy enough to walk over- we even found a tour guide in a very friendly stray dog.

The Isle itself is inhabited, as is most of Shetland, by thousands of sheep.  In fact, in order to cross the Isle, we had to jump a fence, and walk across a field full sheep poo, the animals watching us like we were crazy.  Getting our boots dirty was worth it though, as the coastal view on the Isle's West side was even more fantastic than Eshaness (not to mention the hiking bragging rights we earned.)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Weekend in Shetland

I’m a country girl.  There- I admitted it.   In a town of about 6,700, I grew up picking apples, riding bikes, and playing hide and seek in a huge back yard.

So to me, Edinburgh’s a big city.

I realize that at 470,000 people, Edinburgh’s a relatively small city.  But I have to think about things like bus schedules here.  At least once a week, I get lost trying to find a shop or restaurant.  I have to struggle through rush-hour crowds to make it to school events. And don’t get me started on choosing pubs for a night out- there’s so many options, it’s impossible to get a group of people to agree on where to go.

As interesting and engaging as Edinburgh is, city life can be stressful for a country girl like me. So a trip to Shetland last week was the perfect chance for me to give my brain a rest and unwind.

Shetland is a cluster of Islands in the far North of Scotland.   150 kilometer’s away from the mainland, it’s the perfect destination to escape city stresses.  In fact, even though Shetland is made up of over 100 isles, only 15 of these islands are populated by a mere 22,500.  And even though we didn’t leave Shetland’s “mainland,” my friends and I rarely saw another soul in our 2-day trip.

Shetland  may have been mentally relaxing, but don't think we lazed around there.  Shetland is an outdoorsman's paradise, perfect for a weekend adventure.  We spent all of our time exploring the mainland’s beautiful but perilous landscape: windswept beaches, steep cliffs, rolling hills, and endless green fields.  Driving through the countryside there were so many natural wonders to explore, and by the end of each of our nights, we were completely exhausted.

Our group was keen to break away from the hostel scene and try out a new kind of accommodation.  By renting a böd, or simple camping cabin, we experienced something unique to Shetland-- and proved how tough we were.  Originally built to house fisherman, these buildings truly provide the bare minimum for survival- bunk beds , a refrigerator and stove, a shower (with lukewarm water), and a fireplace.  There was no linen, no mattresses (ok there little plastic matts), and most importantly no heating.  We spent our one very cold and windy night in Shetland huddled as closely as possible around a peat fire, wrapped in blankets and sipping wine.  It was cold, but it was fun, and I think sharing this experience made us bond as a group.

Expect more specifics about travelling in Shetland soon!