16 Weeks in Scotland

Saturday, January 13, 2007

And Now We're Home

The end of the semester came quickly, after our trip to Budapest and Kris' visit. The academic side was its usual flurry of student conferences, test preparations, meetings, grading, etc., but we had to add to that usual stress the additional pressure to pack up all our textbooks, clean the house, and leave forever these people we'd come to love and enjoy. Dec. 14 was house-cleaning day:

Then, that evening was the house party. Henry catered, providing us some very nice snacks and sweets (really nice sweets!), and there was an open bar, dancing, and karaoke (which the Scottish seem to have a strange fascination and aptitude for). Although they couldn't persuade us to sing, the students did persuade us to dance, and I think they were duly impressed by how well Cyndi and I could shake our groove thangs. Here's a couple of shots from the party; there's Jerry, in his Charlie Brown sweater:

And Cyndi and Nic (Nic wearing the beret we got him for Christmas after he had admired Dennis' all semester):

Here are two of my students, Erin and Maria:

And here we are with Dennis' two faves, Beth and Abby:

It was a fun time, and the students got more and more sentimental as they returned time and again to the open bar. We left the party around 10:30, and although their bus for the Glasgow airport left at 7:00 the next morning, I did hear a few students coming in around 5:00. I'm assuming they all made it home . . . .

We left Saturday morning, the 16th, and after a LONG, LONG (like 28 hour long) day, arrived in La Crosse early Sunday morning. Here's me, our first morning home, with buckwheat pancakes, veggie sausages, and the Sunday paper:

So, home safe and sound. Happy be home, happy to see the kitty, happy to cook for myself again. But missing the woods of Dalkeith, the walks into town, the easy access to Edinburgh, the excellent pastries, the students, the shared meals, the company of Cyndi, Nic, Jerry, Pat, Tim, Gloria, and Bill. I'll leave this blog with a picture of Simeon, who took such good care of our cat, our home, and our yard (even though he looks guilty of something in this picture, the house was fine, and I'm sure we'll solve the mystery of the disappearing blow-dryer).

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Rosslyn and Kris

In December, my brother, Kris, came for a visit; I was really getting pretty lonely -- no family nearby, no easy phone communication, very few letters, almost no personal e-mails (starting to feel sorry for me?) and not very much blog activity. We had seen my other brother, Kurt, in Budapest at the end of November, which was really wonderful, and although we had some new good friends with us at the house, I was really happy to have a familiar face and voice around the house and exceptionally glad to be able to share this great experience with another family member.

In addition to all our favorite sights near Edinburgh (the woods at Dalkeith;

the Royal Mile and Princes Street:

Edinburgh Castle:

Susie's Diner), we also wanted to use Kris' visit as an excuse to see some sights we hadn't made it to yet: Holyrood Palace

and Rosslyn Chapel. Kris was the first person we knew who read The DaVinci Code, and his brief obsession with it became something of a family joke (we bought him a coffee mug with a picture of the Mona Lisa giving the finger). Of course, we read the book, too, and we liked it and its ideas well enough to want to see Rosslyn Chapel -- especially when we learned that it was only 3 miles from Dalkeith!

Rosslyn Chapel was famous long before Dan Brown's book (which is probably why he knew and wrote about it); in a nation of old buildings and churches and monuments, Rosslyn Chapel still stands out in Great Britain because of the fine detail of its interior decoration. It's a small private chapel, built by the St. Clair (later, Sinclair) family in 13something, which explains in part why it survived Henry VII and Oliver Cromwell.

The chapel has been surrounded by a massive, permanent-looking scaffolding since the early 1990's as restorers attempt to dry out the stonework, which had a nice bright green layer of moss and lichen on it from years and years of moisture. So, the stunning, decorative exterior can only be glimpsed in pieces -- a window, a doorway, a gargoyle.

Here's a view from the outside of the chapel to the surrounding countryside; you can see why the family chose this particular hillside:

I think the most well-known feature of Rosslyn Chapel (other than Mary Magdalen's tomb in the sub-basement, of course) is the interior decoration, and that's also what fascinated me the most. The mix of Christian and pagan iconography is intriguing, and I could almost imagine a time when people could worship a god who didn't deny the supremacy of nature. I was especially taken by the "green man" inside the chapel, a direct homage to pagan fertility and earth cults.

The decorations inside are really intricate, as you can sort of see in these pictures. The light is pretty dim in the chapel, so we didn't get a huge number of good pictures, but these can certainly give you a sense of it.

Overall, we had a great visit with Kris, and we were all three duly impressed with the chapel (in spite of having to wait over 40 minutes in extreme cold for the bus back into Edinburgh). We didn't even get kicked out of Holyrood Palace when Kris and Dennis started making jokes about Queen Elizabeth in her bedroom slippers!

By the way, there is no basement room in Rosslyn Chapel (at least, not one open to visitors). But we did also visit the Louvre . . . .

Monday, December 11, 2006

Edinburgh in Winter

As we look at going home this week, we're excited about returning to our space and, indeed, our country. I think I've realized while I've been here that I am very much an American AND that I resent that conservative politicians and over-produced country singers have made it nearly shameful for me to say that I like America. I like the movies, the music, the books, some of the TV -- I like the choices, the openness, the variety, the ease of movement. Of course, I've also seen very clearly the things I don't like: the intolerance, the moralizing, the excessive consumerism, the denial of science (can you believe that in the UK there's absolutely NO public debate about whether or not global warming is happening? They all just assume that it is and that we have to do something about it), the cheapening of people's lives and work, the guns, the death penalties, the love affair with the automobile. In the end, of course, no country has it all figured out (okay -- maybe Norway).

But this started out as a blog entry telling you how much I've fallen in love with Edinburgh and how much I'm going to miss it. I guess I'm trying to figure out how to say what I love about it, how it compares to those things I love at home, and how it differs from our home places.

I love how old it is, how layered with history and grime. Walking through 600 and 700-year-old buildings, thinking about families who can trace their ancestry in a direct line back to 1066, I'm struck by how patient this country seems to be, how mature. They seem to have realized that there are certain responsibilities humans have to each other and that taking the time to preserve and understand history might enrich our lives (not just our wallets).

I don't know -- maybe I should just show you some pictures of November and December in and around Edinburgh:

While most of the students and faculty took our last long weekend break (Nov. 30-Dec. 3) to cram in one last trip to the Continent, Dennis and I decided that we wanted to spend that last bit of free time exploring more of Edinburgh, seeing places we hadn't seen, revisiting places we'd loved, and checking a few more restaurants off our "must eat" list. So, we booked a room for one night at the Old Waverly Hotel on Princes Street, with a lovely view of the Christmas markets, Ferris wheel, and twinkling lights of Princes Street Gardens.

Although the wind that first day was so intense that the markets and rides were all shut down, we did blow up and down the street doing some Christmas shopping. We ate a marvelous lunch at La P'tite Folie and a "moveable feast" for dinner, starting with whisky at the Bow Bar, then Foster's and onion rings at Maggie Dickson's, margaritas and chips at a place on Victoria whose name I can't remember (we were getting pretty happy by this point), and ending with excellent Italian food and wine at Gennaro before going to a pretty disappointing concert by the incorrectly named Alex's Hot Club (they played more tunes by Stevie Wonder than Django and Stephane!).
Friday morning was warm and dry and much less windy, so we took a long walk through the New Town over to the Royal Botanical Gardens. We discovered the really interesting Stockbridge neighborhood and then followed the Water of Leith over to the gardens (here's Dennis by the water, at the Stock-bridge).

The Royal Botanic Gardens were beautiful, even in early winter. Here are some scenes from the Palm House, which is the largest palm house in the UK and offers a step back into the Victorian obsession with plants.

The garden gate led us out the back of the RBG and back into the city, where we ate a terrific vegetarian lunch at Henderson's. From outside the restaurant, we got this view of the New Town sloping down to the Firth:

We ended the day with "chocolat chaud" from Le Plaisir du Chocolat and dinner and a movie at the Filmhouse. Writing this, almost a month later, I wish dearly we could do it all again tomorrow. I know we'll be returning to Edinburgh again and again in the future; it was familiar, comfortable, fascinating, and beautiful.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

Budapest: The Danube Blues

We just got back from Budapest. I was impressed. This is a whole other part of Europe, as different from the western reaches of Paris and London as New England is from the Great Plains. It's a strangely depressing yet vibrantly curious place. Downtown is still riddled with fifty year old bullet holes and everyone is on the make. This is a city of contrast. A medieval castle shadowed by modern condos and world banks on one side and crumbling commie bloc apartments on the other. People in Prada evening wear mixed in with bent and worn "proletariat" still wearing their communist party pins. The national dish is gulyas, a thin stew made with beef joint, potatoes and cabbage in paprika broth. Very unlike the Americanized goulash at the corner diner. There’s another version (halaszle) made with Danube carp which they sell live from tanks in the grocery stores. The local wine is called “Bulls Blood” and it flows freely. The city’s great monument plaza, Heroes’ Square, shouts out hope for the future by lauding a politically complex past while tattooed and pierced skate punks vie with the pigeons for roosting rights beneath huge Huns on horses. Like Dorothy said, “This ain't Kansas,” but this whole area seems to be what Kansas might have become if Attila, Stalin and Hitler had their way in heartland USA.

We enjoyed a misty day in the jewel of the Danube. As tourists we had a great time and wondered what an elongated working visit might be like. Budapest seems to have its welcome mat out – or, at least the people don’t mind a few visitors meandering about while they take care of their daily business. It’s fairly easy to get around using the very efficient public transit system. Although it helped having brother Kurt as a guide and interpreter, there seemed to be no real problem with the language. Because Magyar is such an obscure language (with no Indo-European roots/cognates) most people are fairly well versed in English and especially have a lot of German (unlike France or the US where so many feel you should know the language or leave). They seemed as fascinated with us as we were with them. On more than one occasion we bumped into friendly folks who were happy to try out their English on us. At one point, Kurt was engaged with a young man who uttered in broken English, “I am soldier . . .” and Kurt uttered his response in equally broken Magyar. They helped each other communicate for several train stops and left with the promise to speak again. I was especially charmed by the beautifully broken English of a young country girl selling her freshly dug truffles at the central market. “So, they haff no truffels in Amerika? Is so too bad, no? You buy from me?”

The “fun-with-language” feel in Budapest made negotiating the city and doing business in its many restaurants and cafes much easier than trying to get a recalcitrant French barmaid to cooperate in a mutually advantageous transaction. Unlike other major Euro cities we visited, Budapest seems to have far fewer “tourist trap” businesses. Even in the major shopping districts there is a feel of business as usual rather than the "Grandpa went to Budapest and all got was this lousy T shirt" fleff. This is one of the city’s most endearing qualities: The tacit invitation to join the fray and rub shoulders with the locals.

Not that that there isn’t anything for the tourist, it’s just that Budapest offers up an intellectually more substantial fare. The historical stuff is marvelous. Budapest is a strategically well-placed area that has been fought over for so many centuries that it has had a hard time discovering (and maintaining) its own political and economic persona on a world scale. Just about the time the Magyars gained some security and balance, another "hoard" came over the horizon or up the river to re-configure the place in their own political likeness. From the Romans to Attila, to St Stephen’s christianity, to the Turks and various royalties, to the 1848 revolutions, the Nazis, Stalin (whose pewter bust, along with Lenin's adorns the shelves of every junk shop in
town) and the current geo-economic forces of the EU, this place has never had enough time to actually establish its own nationalistic equilibrium. It seems that the geographical Mittle European identity holds more sway than the singular Hungarian nationalistic identity – and that’s a shame. And NOW, from what I saw, there is a new invasion in the form of western capitalist "investments" and a global economy that threatens to undermine any real sense of a local economy. City center is web of global franchise -- Prada, Louis Vitton, Gap, MacDonald’s, Pizza Hut and the ubiquitous and varied international mobile phone dealerships. At first glance, you could be in any large Euro-city (or Manhattan). The global franchise movement has done its best business in former communist areas where westernization and fashion combine to offer a superficial status that obscures the ideological pieties necessary to nationalistic identity. The great contrast in “new capitalist” cities like Budapest can be seen in the difference between their many sober, patina green marble monuments to historical greatness and the glittering glass and neon monuments to the new global economy found in every city’s center.

Yet, through all this economic change the people of Budapest trundle along through history like the rest of us, taking it all in stride.

In Budapest we met an urban population still buying their daily bread from the babushkas at the city markets where you can buy a loaf of rough rye, a bag of chicken heads, sheep necks, and tripe along with foraged wild mushrooms and locally netted carp, pike, and catfish from the Danube and Lake Balaton. One of the most curious sights of our whole trip was watching a young woman in a Prada coat and designer boots buying a bag of chicken heads from a local butcher shop. It's a heady mix: some people eat the sturgeon, others eat the caviar -- but it all comes from the same river. . . .