Monthly Archives: May 2012

Cork 2.0: The Parentage Arrive


Two days after I got home from my Scandinavian adventure, my parents came. I actually met them right as they showed up to the bed and breakfast, after they had had a nightmare with the rented car: wrong side, one way streets, the works. So they were a bit tuckered out. But eventually they rallied, and proceeded to have a wonderful time with the best tour guide in the world. I even taught Mom how to say ‘hello’ in Gaelic. (It’s complicated.)

So for this part of their trip, it was all stuff that I’ve already seen, so this will be a slideshow, for the most part.


It’s said that if you step on this seal, you’ll get pregnant. I’ve stomped on it upward of eight times by now. Am I chancing fate? Maybe. Bring it on!

This was just the door of an entire fence capped with cans and bottles. Note the broccoli.

Kinsale and Charles Fort:

This dog was in the exact same place both times we passed him. Cute, eh?

Going Bananas Over Curried Pizza


After a train ride through Norway and into Sweden, I got off the train in a small town called Arvika to meet Kim, who I hadn’t seen since I visited him and his family in Trondheim (Norway) when I was eight. I was a bit nervous, as I didn’t know what to expect. And when Kim walked up to me, I didn’t recognize him; the child remembered someone six feet tall with a sharp wit and an ever-present enigmatic cigarette – thankfully, he knew who I was. I began to see his personality as time went on, though, until my memories of Kim fit with who he is now. It’s a weird experience to be able to revisit a person from your childhood memory and see how he’s changed, and yet recognize those things that you remember.

Kim has changed, though; when I arrived I was informed that he’d quit smoking (bravo!) and that there was no longer a need to buy mass amounts of ketchup every week – back in the day, Kim ate ketchup on everything. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother and having her ponder by the ketchup, wondering if two huge bottles was going to be enough that week.

One of my favorite memories is of the Thanksgiving Kim spent with us; everyone loaded up their plates with all the traditional foods: turkey, gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, creamed onions (et cetera). Kim got this look on his face like something vital was missing and got up from the table. He came back with a king-sized bottle of ketchup and drizzled it on everything – even the gravy and the cranberry sauce. The best part was the scandalized look on my grandmother’s face.

Kim is married now, to a wonderful woman called Jessica, who is an absolutely fantastic cook and who uses the word ‘lovely’ a lot – which is a reflection of her character. It’s thanks to Jessica that I now willingly cook and eat beets and avocadoes.

And while we’re on the subject of food, my time spent in Arvika was a bit like a detox program: I ate good food and got plenty of rest, which gave me the opportunity of getting the twelve snickers bars and one mars bar I’d eaten in Scotland out of my system. Let me repeat that: in the seven days I spent in Scotland, I ate thirteen full-size candy bars. Wow is right. If you’re thinking about doing something similar, you are 1. mental and 2. going to regret it later, because your body will punish you.

Here’s where they live:

The first evening we didn’t do too much; I got settled in and we had a great dinner. The next day we went to Karlstad, which is a place known for being sunny. Guess what the weather was like. (I’ll give you a clue: it wasn’t raining.)

We went to two flea markets and a record store. It was really interesting because there was a really long line for the first one, of people waiting for it to open up, as well as the fact that these places seemed to have everything. At the second one there was a huge warehouse of every kind of furniture that you could imagine, stuffed in this huge space. It was mind-boggling and highly enjoyable. The record store was also cool, as while Kim and Jesse were looking at reggae, I found one about a singing nun. I was really quite close to buying my first record, then and there.

Of course, it’s worth noting that Kim has gotten me into reggae, so that’s going to be a bit of an investment on my part, once I get home. (Prepare thineselves!)

After that, we had a fantastic lunch at a pizza place, where they had a kind of pizza known only in Sweden:

The toppings are: pineapple, banana, and curry. Turn up your nose if you like, but that just means that there would be more for me. It’s served with cole-slaw on the side which is made without mayonnaise, which made it an instant hit with me.

The last landmark we visited in Karlstad was the art museum; apparently, this area of Sweden has been known for being the host of a lot of artistic talent over the years – as a matter of fact, Kim and Jesse’s house used to be the home of a large family of artists. Since Kim is a photographer and Jesse is an artist, they’re keeping that part of the house’s history alive.

When we were done, we walked around a bit more…

A tidbit: did you know that when someone wants to say ‘that’s crazy’ in Norwegian, they say ‘that’s so Texas’? True story.

We drove back, had dinner, and watched The Misfits (the 1961 star-studded cast included Clark Gable and Marylin Monroe). It was much better than I thought it would be, as I thought that Marylin would be playing her usual role of the breathless stupid girl. However, she pulled off a character with a backbone quite well.

The next day we had a lazy morning followed by lunch at the art museum in Arvika. There was one painting there that really stunned me, by a guy called Gustav Fjaestad: it was the first time that I saw snow really done right – that kind of glittery kaleidoscope effect when the sun hits it that’s basically impossible to catch.

Later, we drove around the lake near the house; it’s a popular place to go swimming in the summer, but it was still a bit too chilly for any of us to go in. It’s absolutely gorgeous, though:

The next morning was spent picking lichen off of the apple trees in the backyard. It was one of those things that you start to do absent-mindedly and which just sort of takes off. After a while, all three of us were working on them – and Kim had busted out a ladder. (I know, it’s hardcore.)

That afternoon Kim and I returned to Oslo, as my flight was the next morning and Kim had a job to do in the city. We stayed over in the apartment of another of his friends and spent the evening talking with some of Kim’s friends, including the people whose apartment I stayed in while I was in Oslo, Martin and Signe.

Kim was also nice enough to get me some truly stellar chocolate; granted, it’s the normal brand of chocolate in Norway (Freia, which is made in Trondheim, I think), but the last time I’d had it I was eight and I was massively nostalgic (still am). It’s also delicious. So the next morning I woke at 6:45 to get to the airport with four king-size bars in my backpack. Then while I was in the airport, I decided to get more, as that would mean not only more chocolate, but also an extra bag I could take onto the plane.

I boarded the plane with eight massive bars of chocolate.

None remain.

The Shower in the Kitchen and the Ship in the Backyard


After Edinburgh, I struck out on my own to go to Norway, to Oslo. I got there on Easter Sunday, so there wasn’t much open – but that was all right by me, as my day had started at 3:45 in the morning.

I went to Oslo as kind of a halfway point before going to Sweden to see Kim, one of the au pairs I had as a kid; Kim is actually Norwegian, but he’s found a place with his wife Jessica an hour from the border by train, so it’s easy to go back and forth. But that’s for later.

Fortunately, Kim was able to arrange so that I could stay in the apartment of some of his friends – the couple that lives there was in Barcelona at the time, though another friend, Alette, was staying there in order to visit people over the holiday. Are you confused? That’s fine. The apartment had a shower in the kitchen and a bathroom outside the door and up the stairs. That was also fine – though it took me quite a while to figure out how to properly unlock the bathroom door. In truth, I had a great time there; I was a bit fed up with the hostel life.

The afternoon I arrived, I managed to pry myself out of bed, due to hunger pangs and the need for a reliable map. I got directions from Alette to the visitor’s center, which happened to bring me past a specter of Oslo’s recent past:

Last summer on July 22, a man named Anders Behring Breivik bombed two governmental buildings in Oslo, killing eight people and seriously wounding a further twelve. It was done using car bombs, made of fuel oil and fertilizer. Fortunately, the number of casualties wasn’t higher, because it was a holiday and not many people were in the building. People were shocked. They were stunned when, two hours later, the news came that a youth camp owned by the Labor Party on the island of Utoya had been savaged by a gunman, disguised as a policeman. He came into the camp, ordered people to come closer, and then opened fire. First he shot people on land and then began firing on people in the water, who were trying to escape. 69 people were killed and 55 critically injured in the time it took for the police to arrive to arrest him.

During the attacks, there were acts of heroism preformed by various groups – by the police, the fire corps, the ambulance crews – but also by normal citizens. There are several stories of people hearing about the attack on the island and piloting their boats to the scene; they pulled people out of the water and made trips to the island itself. When the police finally arrived, the volunteers’ boats were commandeered in order to conduct the arrest and rescue the remaining survivors.

It’s estimated that one in four people in Norway knew someone involved in the attacks – imagine the same kind of event in America. When she was younger, Alette actually went to the camp that was attacked – picture being able to recognize places on the news that you had good memories of as a child, now bathed in violence. 9-11 is the only comparable example, but even then, 25% of the population was not affected directly. Over the course of my stay in Norway – and then again with Kim and Jessica – I got to talk about this, and I can safely say that the impact has been immense. However, the response has been mainly grief and a resolve for change, rather than anger, which I think is a brave thing to do.

While I am not in favor of walls in general, this one has holes at heights so that adults and children alike can peer into the construction site: full disclosure for a country that is healing.

The trial for Breivik started not long after I left Norway; his defense is insanity.

Update: according to the New York Times, on August 22, 2012, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, after the determination that he was sane and that his motives stemmed from hatred of immigrants and Muslims in particular. This may seem like a small amount of time in prison, but it’s the longest that anyone in Norway has ever received, and can be raised if deemed necessary.

(If any of the above isn’t true, let me know so that I can revise it.)

Also on the way to the information center is the cathedral; it is much different from other cathedrals I have seen elsewhere in Europe, as it is made of red brick and wood, something that barely any other that size has. The only thing that bothered me about it is that some of the murals on the ceiling are damaged, but hopefully that will be fixed soon.

After finally finding a map, I walked around, found something to eat, and stumbled across the National Gallery, which happened to be free that day. There they have many famous works, most notably some by Edvard Munch – such as The Scream. Surprisingly, despite its shock value and obvious emotional content, I liked his other works, and especially his portraits, better. There were also a number of other painters I found to be especially good; most of the artists that contributed to the collection are/were Norwegian or from Scandinavia, though there was one Van Gogh self-portrait, as well as other stuff.

After that, I went back to the apartment, hoping that the next few days would be just as sunny as my afternoon had been. I jinxed it.

The next day I took the ferry (“I’m on a BOAT!”) to go to a different part of the city, where there is a folk museum and a museum centered around the finds of buried Viking ships.

I found the folk museum first; it’s quite cool: there are several different areas, to show what different places and time periods had which kinds of houses. There wasn’t too much explanation, but they did have a demonstration for how to make lefse (a kind of flatbread), which you eat warm with gobs of butter, so explanations were basically unnecessary.

This is the kind of habitation that someone in the Sami tribes could have lived in – though now it’s different, as they all have permanent houses, with things that resemble nylon teepees for when they migrate. The Sami are comprised of several different groups of nomadic peoples; usually they are associated with reindeer herding, but most of them traditionally farmed and fished, though now they are in every profession. The Sami stretch from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia, though Norway has the highest population; in Norway, there are three recognized Sami languages and the Sami have their own form of government (subordinate to that of Norway).

Unless I’m wrong, it’s the Sami who are responsible for some of the patterns we associate with Scandinavia, so even though they are a marginal group, they have had tremendous cultural impact.

It was possible to go into at least three quarters of the houses, but since it was dark and since the furniture was really simple (wood all round), I’m just showing the exteriors.

This is a mill, run on water power.

I noticed that the majority of the houses had an outer wall on every face but on the front, and that on the front there was a flight of steps and then a log to step over – I’m assuming that this is all protection for the wintertime, from the cold and from drifts of snow.

This was a remarkable little house: basically, it was peopled with a bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a woodstove, but everything was painted or carved in some way. I think it would have been really crazy living here, especially when the paint was new. It’s a guest house, though, so waking up in a wonderland like this wouldn’t have been totally unwelcome – you wouldn’t have enough time there to go crazy.

This last photo is partially for shock value: the dummy is partially obscured by furniture and by glass, so for the first few seconds I looked at her, I was sure she was real. But this building is supposed to illustrate the rationing of alcohol during World War II: spirits became so prized that they were eventually used as currency for barter, and lines of people waiting for spirits got to be pretty intense.

That was the beginning of the newer section of the museum: there was a gas station, a number of newer wooden houses, and an entire apartment building, filled with rooms to show different periods of time. All of it was pretty much as expected, so you won’t be seeing any pictures of that.

After walking through the museum, I hurried to the other museum, trying to get out of the rain and to let some feeling creep back into my fingers.

This was the part I was really excited about: the Vikings were the original badasses in history. Don’t let the Romans fool you, because as much as the Romans did, they never can quite achieve the height of the Vikings. This could possibly be much like the debate over unicorns versus narwhals that most people my age engage in when the conversation slows to a standstill, but I’m standing my ground anyway.

The museum is set up in the shape of a cross: three wings are devoted to three ships, and one wing is for all the things that were found with the bodies. Bodies, you say? The only reason why ships from that age have survived to the present day is because they were ceremonially buried upon the death of someone important or rich (though it would generally have to have been both – come on, it’s a whole ship!). I was also pretty sure I’d seen these ships before: I have the fuzzy memories of an eight-year old, looking down on three hulks below (my family spent three weeks visiting our au pairs when I was in third grade), though I think the ships have been moved to this building in the interim.

There was one ship buried in Gokstad, with a man buried inside, and one in Oseberg, with two women. The Gokstad man was very interesting: it’s not really apparent because of the angle the photo was taken, but his bones are much larger than normal, especially around the joints:

This is because he had a genetic disorder called acromegaly, which causes bones to continue to grow once they have fused together. So what that means is that bones get bulkier, not longer. You know Andre the Giant (The Princess Bride)? That’s one person that had it, though it may also have accompanied gigantism, which is when the bones keep growing, before they’ve fused – sometimes the two are linked.

What this would have meant for the Gokstad man was that he would have had almost crippling joint pain and that his hands would have been wide, his fingers huge. He would also have had similar facial structure to Andre the Giant – big nose, prominent brow line, and broad face.

But it wasn’t his condition that killed him; there are indications that he faced multiple opponents with different weapons at the time of his demise. There are substantial injuries to his legs – one rendering him incapable of standing, one that cut directly through bone, and then finally one that would have cut through the femoral artery. Turns out hat during the medieval period, attacks to the legs were common – which makes sense, considering how well the torso would have been protected.

The elder of the Oseberg women could have been any age over 80 years old – which is determined by looking at the wear on the teeth, so all this is very subjective. For example, the ancient Egyptians had horrible teeth problems, because the way they milled their grain added loads of little pieces of stone into the meal, which chipped away at their teeth, bit by bit. So that would mean that some of the differences are cultural, but you never can tell. The older woman also had osteoporosis, a history of illness as a child, a fall that reduced her quality of life in her later years, a disorder that reduced the amount of female hormones in her body, as well as some form of cancer, maybe breast or abdominal. Quite frankly, it is incredible how long she was able to survive without advanced medical attention – after all, it was the Middle Ages.

The younger woman lived for a shorter period of time, until she was about 50 (this time it was determined by looking at the roots of her teeth), and that weeks before her death she broke her collarbone. Since the skeleton is incomplete, it’s harder to tell more, but there may have been something else associated with the damage to her collarbone.

What is clear is that the women ate a meat-rich diet, which would have meant that they were in a rich family (hence, why they were buried in a ship), though they still led very active lives.

There were three ships in the museum, in various states of repair. The most impressive one was the first thing you saw on entry:

This is the Oseberg ship, where the two women were found. It’s very impressive, though the hull should be slightly taller – there are supposed to be holes for the oars to go out and you don’t see that on this one. But it is awfully pretty, isn’t it?

This is the Gokstad ship, where the man was found; this is a much more realistic ship, as it has a hull tall enough to be used with oars – as you can see in the photo.

The last ship was the Tune Ship, which isn’t very well preserved:

Behind that are some artifacts from the other ships:

Along with the other things buried with the bodies in the ships, there is a wooden version of a tent (left), tent poles (on the wall), and smaller ships (right). The wooden ‘tent’ would have been buried intact just behind the mast of the ship and would also have been where the body was stashed. I figure they’re like the Girl Scouts: when they go on trips, they go prepared.

With that in mind, I’ve got a number of things that I found interesting in the museum, things also buried with the ships:

This is a horse’s saddle made of wood (for Chelbie): imagine sitting in that all day. All sorts of agricultural tools were also buried in the graves – it depended on the status of the person, so a laborer would have been buried (in much less style) with scythes or plows, where someone with more responsibility would have pitchforks, animal tethers, and sleighs.

There were also wagons and horses (as many as twelve) buried with the dead. As far as other animals go, dogs would also be included, and at one site, a peacock was found, showing how far a Viking’s reach could be.

These are real shoes from that time period. I couldn’t believe that they had survived; it’s strange to look at them and to see the actual size and shape of someone’s foot from so far back in history. Talk about walking a mile in someone’s shoes.

This cauldron was among a bunch of other cooking devices, including a hollowed-out tree used for mixing bread dough. Food would be buried with the dead, as well – grains, meat (such as two whole slaughtered oxen), wild apples, blueberries, herbs, and churns to make dairy products.

Some of what interested me most was the textiles that have survived; generally they break down before we can get to them, but the exact conditions of the burial sites can sometimes preserve fragments.

Much of the fabrics on display came from the Oseberg ship; the women were dressed in their finest and laid on made-up beds, bits of which survive.

The cloth itself could have come from abroad, and the designs could have been influenced by the sorts of products that the Vikings came in contact with, things from as far away as the Middle East and beyond. I think it’s possible to say that the Viking civilization was the first ‘melting pot,’ because they were exposed to so many different cultures.

For example, this probably came from the Mediterranean (I think this is linen, unless I’m wrong). This is not to say that no Viking wove cloth – the Oseberg women were buried with different kinds of looms and other materials necessary to make clothes. I’m guessing that the simple stuff was made at home and the imported cloth was worn on special occasions.

So that was that.

I took the ferry back to the city center and then walked around for a while, mostly in search of a grocery store, as even though it was a Monday, it was still a holiday. I finally found a market with loads of Middle Eastern goods: that meant that what was not in Arabic was in Norwegian. Yeah. However, there was a very nice vegetable section – and a potato will always be a potato.

And while I’m on the subject of buying things: don’t be fooled by the exchange rate for dollars and kronor. For one thing, kronors are the name used to describe all of the units of money in Scandanavia, but they are not all worth the same amount in each country. It’s like the American dollar versus the Australian or Canadian dollar. Second, a sandwich may be priced at 30 kronor – this is not the same as 30 dollars; while I was there, 30 kronors was about five dollars. Still an expensive sandwich, but at least you would know what you were getting into. I had to write down the exchanges for dollars to kronor in my notebook at various amounts in order not to pay ridiculous sums of money for things. It worked out pretty well.

The next day I went to Oslo’s castle. It takes a while to figure out how to get in, and then how to find the exhibition that they have on the castle’s history.

There are other things there – a museum on the Norwegian resistance during World War II, some sort of art thingy, and other stuff. So when I realized that the castle museum was closed, I slouched off to the resistance museum, which turned out to be really cool.

It’s really intense at first, though:

There’s a visceral reaction to having that many weapons pointed at you, and I’m not going to lie – I was genuinely afraid for a moment. I think that’s the point, though, and it sets the tone for the rest of the museum.

On April 9, 1940, Hitler invaded Norway, with a force of 1,200 troops and 1,200 airplanes, basically every aircraft in his army. Basically all of Norway was taken in a very short period of time – much of it before the sun set on the first day – though there were still some outposts. The king, Haakon III, and his government barely escaped before the Nazis arrived, fleeing the country for England, where he would stay in relative safety until the war ended.

While in Norway, the Nazis did the whole nine yards: the possession of a gun merited the death penalty, all Norwegian soldiers went to internment camps, sports were Nazi led and organized (with the result that no one went to games in protest), censorship, Nazi values in schools. They went so far as to close down universities, arrest students, professors, and even police officers.

The largest prison camp was outside Oslo, in Grini; in total, 40,000 Norwegians were imprisoned during the war, and of the approximately 1,800 Norwegian Jews, half survived. It was worse for the Russians and Eastern Europeans that were held in Norway (probably due to the fact that Norwegians are considered as ‘Aryans,’ a big racial/cultural thing for Hitler): there were about 100,000 prisoners, 17,000 of which were killed and buried in mass graves.

At one point I took out one of my chocolate bars and downed the whole thing. Granted, it was lunchtime, but this part was just plain depressing.

The Norwegians had an active resistance movement, of underground newspapers and radio stations, hidden radios (one P.O.W. even had a receiver in his dentures), as well as camps and training centers, from which groups would do reconnaissance or go and blow something up. One of the most important groups was M.I.L.O.R.G., which was destroyed and then rebuilt, so that by the final stage of the war it became a crucial line of communication of the Allies. This organization was also a crucial player at the end of the war, when the Nazis tried to conscript Norwegian men: M.I.L.O.R.G. helped them hide in the forests, get into Sweden, or join the resistance until the Nazis gave up looking.

One thing that isn’t well known is that D-Day almost happened in Norway, rather than Normandy. It was a last minute decision (to throw the Nazis off the trail), and probably a bummer for Norway, but oh well.

After the castle, I decided to walk around the city – I was pretty museum-ed out.

There are loads of cars of this make in Oslo, but this has got to be the most awesome.

The plan for the next day was to spend the morning in Oslo before catching the train to Sweden; so I went to the palace.

Apparently, people are actually still using this as a palace. (How strange!)

The botanical gardens are close by, so I decided to go there instead.

I had a fantastic time here; there was a lot to look at and it was nice and quiet. In fact, there was a guy proofing a paper or something on one of the benches – proof that a garden can be better than a library.

This was one of my favorites.

So in the second glasshouse of the two, there is a pond. With fish. I’m not going to bore you with any fish pictures except one, but it was really and truly beguiling.

This is the clearest image I have of the fish that was tugging on some of the plants – it would move all around the area and you could tell exactly where it was, but with no idea of what it was. So if anyone can pull off a hat trick and tell me what kind of fish this is, you will make that part of my brain that short-circuits at the mere mention of fish very happy. All I can say is that Finding Nemo has scarred me for life.

After this, I went back to the apartment, said goodbye to the wee-wee room on my way back down, and left for Sweden.

Like a Red, Red Rose


Edinburgh was our last stop in Scotland, and definitely one of the most interesting for me. There’s just so much history there, so many good stories. This is a long one, folks!

Edinburgh’s history is mostly centered around its castle, as many cities in Europe are. The first settlement in the area was where the castle is now; human settlement goes back as far as 850 B.C., and in the first century A.D. Romans traded gifts with the local inhabitants of the hill fort, and it’s been a hub since then, of the Scottish, then the English, then the Scottish…

One of my favorites is the story about how Robert the Bruce took over Edinburgh Castle during the Wars of Independence – he was a great guy (flash to Finding Nemo: “hi, my name’s Bruce”), who followed William Wallace, the guy Mel Gibson played in that movie (of course, none of Braveheart is correct except for the way he died; if you want to look it up, he was drawn and quartered, which is not a story you tell at bedtime). But anyway, Robert the Bruce had been going around Scotland taking back one castle at a time until Sterling and Edinburgh were the only ones left. When he got to Edinburgh, he was helped out by a night watchman who had a secret way of getting into and out of the castle (while on duty…) that he used to go and see his lady friends. The Scots decided that information was a fair trade for not killing him, following which they climbed up the cliff during the night and butchered the British in their beds.

More on the castle later (it’s not as great as Sterling, anyway).

One of my favorite parts of walking around the city was that there were bits of Macbeth (‘the Scottish play’) scattered all over the city:

…Which was right next to:

From one angle, there was even a kilt.

I only found two of the odes to Macbeth, but I walked past both of them several times.

This one is right next to what is either called the Market Cross or the Mercat Cross (you get the same thing either way on Google Images), on the Royal Mile, the main street in Old Town:

This is where you would go if you got caught for petty crimes, like stealing from the grocery store. They would grab you by the ear and proceed to nail it to the wood of one of the doors – there’s only two doors now, but originally all of the sides were like that. You would stand there like that for at least a full day, with the inhabitants of the city using you as a place to deposit compost or the contents of their bedpans; little kids would spit on you and adults would insult you, your mother, and your fashion sense. If the hardship got to be too much for you and you just couldn’t wait, you had the option of ripping your ear off of the door, permanently branded as a thief. That would mean that you could only get the lowest kind of work, generally piracy for men and whoring for women.

On a cheerier note (by comparison, anyway), three days after the monarch of Britain dies, someone opens up one of the doors of the Cross, runs up the stairs, and screams that the king/queen is dead. They wait three days because in the old times before trains, telegrams, and radio, it took three days for a horse to get to Edinburgh. Now, it’s just tradition – though I suspect that part of it is rubbing it in: “Oh, your king’s dead? Well that just sucks, doesn’t it?”

There’s also a story about a particular monarch, Charles II, who tried to gain favor with the inhabitants of the city by running wine from the cross for 24 hours. Edinburgh partied continuously throughout that time. And then they woke up the next morning, with the mother of all hangovers, cursing the king all over again.

The cross is directly next to St. Giles Cathedral, which is actually not a cathedral. Since the Scots are mainly Presbyterian, they call this place ‘high kirk’ rather than a cathedral. This is also the only cathedral in the world with a carving of an angel playing the bagpipes. It’s a shame for you that I didn’t take a picture of this, but it just means that if you ever find yourself there, you can hunt for it yourself. It hides very well – I had to have Pauline point it out for me.

This is also the site of the beginning of one of the dark periods of Scottish history: Charles I decided that all of his kingdom would be under the same religion; this applied to the Scots, too, so on the appointed day the Anglican religion took over St. Giles. People went to church at the appointed time as usual; there was one woman, Jenny Geddes, in the congregation who was a little different. She came in, saw the new banners, the new bishop, and the new music, and decided that she could deal with that. However, she picked up her prayer book and simply cracked. The prayer book was The Book of Common Prayer, a canon in the Anglican church: this wasn’t what she believed in and she wasn’t having it forced on her. So she stood up and threw her chair directly at the bishop. As far as the story goes, her aim was true – and she incited a riot of people against the new faith, people called the Covenanters. These people would go down in history as some of the most persecuted people Scotland has ever seen. And for the record, that’s saying quite a lot. There’s more on them later.

Also in the area is a heart in cobblestones:

We were told that, every now and then, some guy proposes on this heart. It would be wildly romantic, but it’s really not, because every native Edinburgian spits on it as they go by; it used to be the site of a hated prison. Our guide said that it is the most hated square meter in the city. And yes, I did spit on it.

And here we have a statue of David Hume, noted Scottish philosopher:

Once you get past the stylish traffic cone, you can notice that one of his toes is really, really shiny. This is because students rub it for good luck – and yes, I rubbed it. Feet and specifically toes completely disgust me; that statue needs to cut his toenails.

Edinburgh holds the fame of being the inspiration and birthplace of Harry Potter; I’m not that into Harry Potter anymore, though I will say that the first three books are all right. (If you want exchange me in an argument about this, I’m afraid that I will not be convinced to see the light, so just accept me as a lost cause.) The building (a school) in the back of this photo was the inspiration for Hogwarts:

A fun side note: J.K.R. is a billionaire – the only author to be one – and richer than the Queen of England. She made 53 million pounds alone on the first day of sales for the seventh book.

This is where she wrote the first book:

There’s a huge sign in the window: ‘J.K. ROWLING WROTE HERE!!!’ You can almost hear the stink of greediness wafting off of this place. I bet they’ve jacked their prices. Capitalist dogs!

Does this name sound familiar? I didn’t actually get the chance to see this stone in person, but a friend we made in Edinburgh took this photo for me after we left. (Thank you Anna!) I’m also informed that J.K. Rowling stole loads of other names from the graveyard: first names, surnames, places.

The photo was taken in a famous cemetery, Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. It’s a pretty small area, but it’s estimated that half a million people are buried there, more than the current population of the city. Did you ever play the ‘how high can I stack these blocks’ as a kid? They did that here, only once you hit the last strata possible (burying the corpse with a few inches of soil on top), and then when it rained, things sort of…surfaced. It rains a lot in Scotland.

Also, if you look at the left side of the photo above, you can see that one of the graves has a set of iron bars around it, and another one just in front of it that has a cement wall. These are ‘mort safes’ or ‘mortis guards,’ to ward off gravediggers. Edinburgh was the home of one of the most important medical universities in the 1800s (and still is today), and there was an urgent need for corpses to dissect, so they paid good money for every body brought in. One option for families wanting to ward off gravediggers was to use these safes, but many people weren’t that rich. What the poor did was wait all night by the graves to keep the bad men with shovels away, at least until the body had decomposed enough to no longer be interesting (two or three days in summer and two or three weeks in winter) – that was called ‘doing the graveyard shift.’

Two infamous corpse-sellers were two Irish men, Burke and Hare. Burke and Hare were in a tight spot one night – a lady friend that they liked had a dead body in her room and didn’t know what to do with it. It was commonly known that the university would take any bodies, no questions asked, so they hauled off dead-whats-his-face and received three pounds. To put this in perspective, three pounds would get you 750 pints of your favorite beer back in the day. I’m guessing that it would have lasted them maybe two weeks. (They were Irish.) So when they ran out of money, they decided that they’d like to keep up their shenanigans. Unlike other people with similar ideas, they decided that grave-digging wasn’t really their thing, especially since the university wanted really fresh bodies. So we can all see where this is leading. The two were able to kill anywhere from 15 to 35 people in the space of a year before they were caught. At that point, Hare looked around, realized that they were both screwed, and promptly squealed his guts out, leaving his friend to dry. The result of all this was that Hare got six months, Burke was hanged, and his body was given to the medical school for dissection. Apparently, Burke’s skeleton is still there for scientific inquiry and his ghost is out for revenge.

On a brighter note, there are good stories about the graveyard; it’s really not a bad place to be (in the daytime, anyway). We were told that on sunny days (so basically three times a year) people like to hang out in the graveyard. Lawn is lawn, I guess.

One of the most visited graves – by natives and tourists alike – is a grave without a body beneath it. It is of a dog named Bobby, who has a remarkable story. John Gray was a night watchman in Edinburgh – basically, a policeman who patrolled around to make sure that no one was up to no good – when a law was passed that required watchmen to have dogs with them at all times. Most guys probably got a mastiff, something big with lots of teeth. John Gray got himself a terrier and called him Bobby; they had two good years together before John died of tuberculosis (note that tuberculosis is also called ‘consumption’ in older literature). After that, the dog Bobby returned to John’s grave every day for fourteen years until his own death. The rule is that only people can be buried in the graveyard, so Bobby’s stone is just a prop. There’s a statue of him outside the limits, though:

I’m going to take the mood back down and talk about the Covenanters again. They had themselves a good riot and then a few more; the government stepped in and decided to put a stop to it. The majority of the protesters were put in a prison inside the kirkyard:

This is very close to how it would have looked when it functioned as a prison. No roofs, little protection in the wintertime. At the beginning, 1,100 people were held here; 300 were left after the winter. After this, the British had what was basically a civil war on their hands, as well as several secret religious services: people were pissed, especially with a total death toll of about 18,000 on the Covenanter’s side. So the British did what the British generally do: bury the evidence. They shuffled the 300 survivors onto a ship bound for Barbados – except that didn’t go so well. It sank off of the coast of Scotland; 43 swimmers made it to the Orkney Islands, and were allowed to live there for the rest of their lives. I guess the Brits decided that they had been victimized long enough.

Edinburgh is called the most haunted city in Europe, maybe even in the world. I can vouch for that myself – though I’m saving that for the end.

The man that organized the persecution of the Covenanters was ‘Bloody’ George Mackenzie, who is also buried in the graveyard; you might notice that his mausoleum has a sturdy padlock on it. This is to make sure that people do not go in, people that ignore their own safety. Once (pre-lock) a homeless guy broke into the mausoleum to get out of the cold; the floor fell out from underneath him and he dropped down onto the coffin of Mackenzie himself. He emerged, having had the fright of his life, inflicted with inexplicable bruises all over his back. There are other stories of people going insane after having gone inside, as well as a number of deaths in the kirkyard itself.

The next area of Edinburgh of interest has another site associated with the Covenanters (I promise this is the last, it’s not a very happy story). I told you that most of the prisoners were held in the kirkyard. 100 people were killed brutally and then butchered on this spot, as a public show to quell violence.

This is in an area called the Grassmarket, where grain for cows was sold. It was also a site where public executions took place – though generally they were not as gruesome as with the Covenanters. It’s also quite close to the old red light district, Victoria Street:

Now Grassmarket is one of Europe’s most popular sites for hen and stag parties: we saw at least three groups when we went out to dinner here. There are still many reminders of the Grassmarket’s past, however, with pubs with names like ‘The Last Drop’ and ‘Maggie Dickson’s’:

We ate here the first night: I had a colossal serving of fish and chips. Fortunately, it was light on the chips, because they gave me a whole fish; I was determined to finish it, as I was paying in pounds. I am pleased to report that I did consume the whole beast, though I could swear it was still swimming around in my stomach for a while afterwards. Pauline had haggis, which she said was okay, but not great. If you’re wondering what haggis is, read on; if you don’t want to know, skip to the next paragraph. First, you take the heart, liver, and lungs of your least favorite sheep and dump them in a pot with some oatmeal and herbs and spices. You let that happen for a while, stuff that in the stomach of the sheep, and place it in a pot of boiling water until it’s done in its haggissy strangeness. It’s generally served with ‘meaps and tatties,’ turnips and potatoes.

Maggie Dickson was the wife of a man that preferred the company of other women, so she took a lover of her own. Unfortunately, in 1728, she got pregnant. This was bad news for her, as it was known that she was married; she kept her secret under wraps. Keeping this covered up was a hanging offense under the Pregnancy Act, so when the baby miscarried, when Maggie tried to bury it, and when it was later found, she was in deep trouble. Maggie was taken into custody and then hanged in the Grassmarket, with a huge crowd looking on. She was hanged until dead, placed in a coffin and loaded into a cart to be buried. So the appointed driver drove the wagon toward a graveyard – it’s unlikely that she would have been buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, as hers was not exactly an honorable death. However, on the way there (and maybe after a pit stop for a bit of alcohol), the poor guy heard banging on the inside of the coffin. Consider the shock: what would you be thinking? Zombies? Vampires? Aliens? So the guy summoned up his courage and pried open the coffin. Maggie Dickson sat up, quite alive. (He probably peed his pants.) Then a discussion ensued: should they hang her again? Finally, they decided that since the doctor had pronounced her dead, she had served her sentence, and since when she married her husband her vows were ‘till death do us part,’ she was a newly single woman. Maggie Dickson was literally given a new lease on life. She married her lover and ran her pub (coughcoughbrothelcough) for 40 more years. She became a local legend as ‘Half-Hanged Maggie,’ and went down in history.

This is what looks like a cathedral, but is really a place called The Hub, which is the center of the festivals that happen in the city in August. The festivals are enormously popular: in August, the population of the city doubles – that means that 487,000 people becomes approximately 974,000 people.

The Flodden Wall used to circle all of Edinburgh in a time when an attack by the English was considered fairly imminent. This was because James IV had launched an attack on the English in 1513 but had then been driven back. James IV was killed in battle (the last monarch in the UK to do so), so James V began construction; the wall took 50 years to build, and by that time, Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth of England, the city was bursting at the seams, and the wall was basically useless. There are also rumors that the ashes of witches were incorporated into the mortar in the time of James VI.

Sidenote: so you can figure out the Stewart dynasty: James I was assassinated; James II got himself killed while experimenting with a cannon (still a national embarrassment); James III was thrown by a horse on a battlefield; James IV was killed in battle; James V died due to an illness of the brain (leaving behind one surviving legitimate heir and nine illegitimate ones); Mary of Guise ruled for a while; Mary of Scots ruled for a while before being imprisoned and then beheaded; James VI became the king of England (James I), uniting Scotland and England. They didn’t tend to have happy lives – though what do you want, it was the Medieval Age – but it still leads to the question why anyone would ever want to name their son James after all that lot.

Back in the times before indoor plumbing, things did not smell so great in cities. When we were in Edinburgh, I detected a slight iffy smell in the air; back in the day, though, you could smell Edinburgh from five miles away. This relates to the Irish method of cleaning up dog doo: they don’t. There is the assumption that ‘the rain will take it away’ – total fallacy. Think about this happening on a city-wide scale, with…not dog doo. There are stories about people having to cut the…muck away from their doors in order to get out every morning. Eventually it got to the point where the government had to pass a law so that people could only dump their chamber pots at certain times during the day: the usual way to deal with things as to take the bucket, yell ‘gar dee loo’ (bad French, which means ‘look out for the water’), give the passersby a moment to scatter, and then huck the contents out of there. So this law made it so that you could do what needed to be done at ten in the morning and at ten in the evening. The morning time was fine; everyone was awake and cohesive, but considering what we know of the Scottish, they tend to appreciate their alcohol – and if the bars close at about ten at night, a drunk guy’s response to someone yelling above him is to look up and say ‘wha…?’ I think this is one of the most underhanded abstinence programs in history. And if you were wondering about where the term ‘shit-faced’ comes from…now you know.

Of course, when the stench got too terrible for the rich of Edinburgh, they moved to a completely different area, which now gives Edinburgh Old Town and New Town.

While we’re on the subject, I want to show you something pretty:

This is Prince’s Park, the low ground between the two different sections of the city. Edinburgh is built on a series of steep hills, and there are loads of bridges in between the two (but still, more on that later). So that means that if Prince’s Garden is where the low ground is, when it did rain, all of that…stuff…went the one place it could go. So that means what is a beautiful garden now was once one of the world’s largest cesspools: you need not wonder why it is so green!

To one side of the park, you can see Edinburgh Castle:

That’s the way Old Town works: the backbone is the Royal Mile; at one end is the castle and at the other is the palace (which is now some lame museum about money or something; we didn’t go in, but if you’re into currency you can’t spend, by all means, go).

So I’m going to talk about the castle, because it’s much cooler – though wildly touristy in a cheesy and uncool way. It’s still a great piece of national heritage, but it’s harder to hear the echoes of the past there than at other places.

The castle is located here because it is sitting on a volcanic plug (that people call ‘Castle Rock’), basically the chute of a dead volcano. What that means is that the castle is on basalt that is surrounded by softer stone, which then means that the weaker stone was bullied away by the forces of erosion and that the plug remains, relatively unpestered by the forces of geology, making a cool hill to build stuff on.

It’s been a common thing that Britain has laid claim to her neighbors – with or without their consent – with Ireland, it goes back through to Henry VIII. So it was for Scotland, though much farther back in history. Eventually, it came to the point where Queen Elizabeth I imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots, because there as some sort of tie from Mary so that she could contest for the throne of England, bad news for someone like Elizabeth who as breaking new ground and trying to find a place for herself. Some people in Scotland were understandably a bit pissed off about this and so they staged a number of rebellions. One of them as at Edinburgh Castle, called the Lang Siege. It took a year, but the castle was eventually reduced to rubble and the fighters surrendered. It is said that at the beginning of the siege, a group of three golfers were playing a round; a horseman from the castle came up to them and told them to stop, for fear of their lives. They decided to keep playing (“who spit in his haggis?”): they were all killed. This says a number of things about the Scottish: 1. they are crazy; 2. they like to kill things; 3. defying authority is a national pastime.

The last time the castle was used as a player in military action was in 1745 during the Jacobite rising; this ‘rising’ took place all over the British Isles, and included Catholics, Presbyterians, and other assorted groups. Basically, there were some people that wanted King James VII (a Catholic) back on the throne and there were some people who wanted William III (also called William of Orange – basically a Protestant Dutch dude that married an English broad). There were big battles fought, like the Battle of the Boyne, fought in Ireland (the Irish lost because the French flaked out. Stupid French). In Edinburgh, rioters in the streets found themselves under cannon fire from the castle. Effectively, the last time the castle was used it was against the people it was meant to protect. Fun, huh?

But anyway. The castle now has a bunch of museums and memorials in it, including two for military history, one for the P.O.W. prison, the state apartments, and the crown jewels and Stone of Scone (don’t get too fluffed up about the jewels: they don’t let you take pictures).

This is as good a segway as it gets for my favorite story about Edinburgh. Up in that fancy room with the crown jewels is a block of stone with two chunky metal handles on it. It looks exceedingly out of place. It’s called the Stone of Scone, but that makes me hungry, so I’m going to call it by its other name, THE STONE OF DESTINY! It’s kind of a big deal.

The stone is made of red sandstone and weighs about 330 pounds, roughly Paula Deen’s weight. (Did I go there? Yes, I did.) There are loads of different stories about where it came from, such as a lost city in Scotland, a relic from Biblical times (Jacob’s pillow), the pyramids, or (my favorite) from Ireland, that it is half of the Blarney Stone. As is known, I have not the guts necessary to scrutinize the Blarney Stone (I prefer to live), so I don’t know how true these stories might be – but if the aim is an air of mystery, they nailed it. The Stone of Scone was used for the coronations of Scottish kings and is now used for the English. Sir Walter Scott, Superhero in a Kilt, prophesied that whoever had the Stone of Destiny would hold Scotland…we’ll see how true that is.

Of course, the Stone of Destiny is now in Scotland, but that’s only been since 1996. Before that, it was a part of the throne in Westminster Abbey in London; King Edward I stole it in 1296 as spoils of war – though to give the English credit, they did try to return it in 1328, but crowds outside of the cathedral kept it from being removed.

Up through 1996, there has been a campaign to get the stone back. Nothing has really worked, but on Christmas Day in 1950, a group of four students came really close. Their first plan was to have one of the group hide behind a suit of armor in the cathedral until closing time, when he would let his other friends back in. That didn’t work because the guards had eyes and because suits of armor were made in a time where men were short. It just didn’t work out.

So Plan B was breaking in and getting the stone. Funnily enough, that plan worked…up to a point. The problem with carrying a Paula Deen-sized rock out of a cathedral is that there cannot be a weak link. So the stone broke into two pieces. Two of the group ran off with the smaller fragment and managed to drive it across the border, leaving the other two high and dry. So the others looked at each other, looked at the stone, and went, ‘huh.’ They dragged it out of the cathedral on one of their jackets, hoisted it into a car, and started to drive to Scotland. They realized on the way that the border would probably be guarded heavily by the time they got there, so they buried it in a field in Kent, marked the spot, and left it alone for a few days.

They came back and had no trouble finding the spot – however, there was a gypsy camp sitting right on top of it (as a side-note, it’s more politic to call them ‘travelers’). Happily, once they talked to the leader of the group, they came to the consensus that neither of them liked the British, so the gypsies helped them dig it up. They removed the front seat of their car, put the stone in its place, and took turns riding the stone back into Scotland. Once there, they took the two pieces to a stonemason in Glasgow to stick the two pieces together. After that, groups of students hid it all over Scotland. Now, just for a moment, imagine all of the things hockey players do with the Stanley Cup. Then imagine all of the things that were done on/over the symbol of the national heritage of Scotland. However, they did successfully keep it hidden, so that’s a consolation, at least.

On April 11, 1951, the original group had had enough of all of the antics that had been happening and put it on the altar of Arbroath Abbey near Dundee (north of Edinburgh), probably hoping that the church wouldn’t return it back to England. This wasn’t quite the case, as when the pastor came into the sanctuary and saw the stone on his altar, he went “oh crap I really don’t want to go to prison” and promptly turned it over to the police. So all that work was for nothing.

However, Scotland does have it now. This is because a nominee for Prime Minister wanted to curry favor with the Scottish – basically a desperate measure. But the Scots did get it back, so there was a huge procession, bagpipes and everything. However, the bagpipes weren’t playing any of those traditional Scottish songs, oh no. They were playing the theme from Mission Impossible. Take that, English swine!

Of course, in the next election a candidate vowed that Scotland would get its own Parliament if he got elected. So he got elected and now Scotland has both the Stone of Destiny and a Parliament. Winning.

And now back to castle stuff. The great hall was a bit of a disappointment, as it was made to be more of a space for kids, but there were loads of swords and things on the walls:

But wait! What time is it??

Well, if it’s one in the afternoon in Edinburgh, a cannon goes off from Castle Rock. So if you’re at the castle, you get your butt out of wherever you are and you watch, trying to keep your head above the crowd; we found a hilly bit, so it wasn’t a problem.

This is a silly exercise today (duh), but was actually very useful when Edinburgh was a port and trading center: Sailors would come to shore and have no idea of what time it was – you may be thinking that it didn’t matter if they knew what time it was, so long as there was a bar in the vicinity, and you would be right, BUT the captain of these sailing ships would need to know exactly what time it was in order to navigate. So when the cannon went off, the captain factored in the number of seconds it would take for the sound to reach him from the castle (and there are maps to show exactly how many seconds off you would be from each point in Edinburgh), and adjusted his watch.

Many P.O.W.s were held in the castle in the early 1800s; there were a lot of French people incarcerated due to the Napoleonic Wars, but there were also others of other nationalities. They were jammed in cheek-by-jowl, though by all accounts, the conditions here were miles better than in many other places. For example, the conditions on a prison ship (also known as a prison ‘hulk’) floating in the middle of the Thames in London weren’t all that great. There was also an impressive display of the things the prisoners made: a replica of a ship, inlaid boxes, and so on. I liked being down here because there wasn’t that stifling feeling you get when you’re in a usual prison; maybe it was the lighting.

You see that thing the cannon is pointing at? That’s the Walter Scott monument, and I think it’s shamefully ugly. But remember him as we exit the castle:

I should have called him SIR Walter Scott, but I do so love being informal. He was knighted because he was a spanking great author (though this is hearsay for me, I don’t actually know), made being Scottish popular again, found the crown jewels in the castle, and a bunch of other stuff. I like him because he said “Surely, chess playing is a sad waste of brains,” and that learning other languages was a better use of his time. I suck at chess.

Scott also reintroduced tartan back into Scottish culture: after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Rising in 1745, wearing plaid was declared an act of rebellion. Most patterns were burned, so clans had to start from scratch or from a smuggled piece of material. So think of a dead Scottish man whenever you put on that cute scarf you bought for $4.99.

This next photo is what a loom for tartan looks like when it’s all set up – it was in a touristy place meant to make you spend all your money, an amalgamation of people selling products made of different tartans and a small creepy museum with dummies. But I talked to a variety of tailors there, and all of them said my clan was ‘too obscure’ for that pattern to be available (not even for ready money). Underachievers.

So after we did the castle, Pauline went to do nerdytime at the Scottish National Museum and I went to be a literary geekypants at the Writer’s Museum. There I learned about Walter Scott – did you know that he first published his books anonymously not because he was afraid of censure, but because he thought attention would hurt his writing? – as well as Robert Burns and Robert Lewis Stevenson.

A little sidenote: this building looks much as it did in the 1700s, but for the fact that there would have been four or five stories made of wood on top of that, so that some buildings could have been as many as 14 stories tall.

I went to this museum mainly because of Burns’ “A Red, Red Rose,” which has a simplicity I fell in love with as soon as I heard it. In addition to being a poet, Burns wrote loads of songs; during is career, he was increasingly drawn to songwriting, until he was writing barely any poetry at all. He was a farmer all of his life, even though he was successful enough to give it up. The only really sad part of his life is that he died young, at age 37, with the feeling that he had not contributed all he could, that his death cut some of his potential short.

I would like to take a moment to note that the building the museum was in was out to get me; I smashed my head against a low stone doorframe, ironically while letting other people go up the stairs. My head ached for days. But at least I didn’t fall down the stairs:

Robert Lewis Stevenson was also an interesting character. If you’re scratching your head, here is a partial list of his books: Treasure Island, How to Be Awesome Like Me, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson traveled widely despite his poor health, and had been educated as a civil engineer and as a lawyer (he’d graduated by the time he was 26). He ended up living the last four years of his life in Samoa with his family, where he was less prone to the attacks of hemorrhaging that plagued him. The Samoans really liked him, giving him the nickname Tusitala, which means something like ‘the story-teller.’

An interesting tidbit is that Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t an entirely original story: it was actually based off of the life of Deacon Brodie, who was a species of Renaissance man. He was a family man, politician, locksmith, inventor, and thief. By day he was one of the most respected men in Edinburgh, and by night he raided the homes of the wealthy, using keys he copied in his normal line of business. He was wildly successful, partly because on social occasions he had the opportunity to scope out the homes he visited. As a trusted member of the government, he was made the head of the team set up to hunt himself down, so he led Edinburgh on a merry fruitless chase, until the night one of his three cronies was caught and flipped on him. Now, some might be thinking about how that has got to stink for Brodie – but also factor in the practice of torture, widely accepted for hundreds of years: that poor crony probably took one look at the thumbscrews and squealed the secret of life itself. Brodie caught wind of this and fled to Amsterdam, hoping the marijuana fumes would confuse anyone looking for him. Unfortunately, this did not work: he was caught and then hanged on the very gallows he had designed.

I was done with the writer’s museum a bit early, so I muddled my way to the Scottish Museum:

Fine, fine, cool stuff. Yawn. But wait! Was that…?

Dolly was the first successful cloned animal, and if you don’t know about her, you’ve had a life outside the exciting field of biology. But no matter. She has been preserved for your convenience. Did you know why she was called Dolly? Think of the famous people called Dolly over the course of pop history: there’s Barbara Streisand’s character in the memorable musical, and then there’s Dolly Parton, a woman known for the ampleness of her bosom. This is a purposeful correlation, as Dolly the sheep was cloned from another sheep’s mammaries.

So I’ve promised to talk about my own experiences with ghosts. I didn’t see, feel, or hear anything direct or concrete, but I will hold that I was in the presence of some very serious stuff: it’s up to you to decide about your own opinions on the matter. The second night, Pauline and I grouped up with some people from our hostel and did two tours: the first one simply sucked and the second one gave me the fright of my life.

The second tour took us down into the South Bridge – Edinburgh was built on a series of hills (much like Rome, actually, only the Romans tended to level their hills), so bridges were needed to connect them. The bridge has always been surrounded by bad luck: deaths during construction made people wary, so when the bridge was close to being completed, they asked an old lady in the city that everyone liked to walk across the bridge as a show of confidence. Unfortunately, she died, too, a week before the ribbon-cutting. So instead a horse and cart pulled her coffin across the bridge – meaning that the first person to cross the bridge was dead, which didn’t exactly quell fears.

Then there was the fact that the vaults (rooms) inside the bridge weren’t feasible for use as storage, as the dampness permeated barrels of alcohol and other goods and ruined them (“save the whiskey! save the whisky!”). So effectively, there were 1,200 empty rooms in a time when being homeless was illegal: people packed in, sometimes without space to lie down to sleep. Many of the people didn’t have work, didn’t have money for food or light. Disease was rampant – as was crime – making the average survival in the bridge 18 months. This would have been a prime target for criminals like Burke and Hare, as these people would disappear off the map and no policeman would investigate. For that matter, if you were a criminal on the run, all you had to was make it into the South Bridge and they wouldn’t come in after you. You can see why this place would be haunted and why the topside of the bridge was barely used.

We saw four vaults in the bridge – barely scratching the surface – and from the moment I stepped inside, my hands were sweating and my knees were shaking uncontrollably. While it was cold down there, it was also just unbelievably frightening. There were things down there that no one alive could explain, a feeling of being watched very intensely, a feeling of being at a disadvantage in a very important way. Now, on this tour, they did pull some cheap tricks – lights turning on and going out at exactly the right moment, turning off the flashlight (partially to show us how dark it would have been, which was incredibly dark), yelling while it was so dark, then turning the lights back on and having a guy in a scream mask jump out and go ‘boo.’ All that crap aside, I think that there was something truly evil there, something that was glad that we were there and something that, if it had the energy, would be able to do truly horrifying things.

I’m going to make a note here about people that may want to play tricks on me in light of the previous information: I get really and truly pissed off when someone does this, and it takes a while to get back on my good side afterward. I scared the crap out of an Italian guy on that tour because he tried to ‘ghost-touch’ my shoulder.

This is Calton Hill, one of the places I wish I had gone while in Edinburgh. I don’t know what’s up there, but it looks cool.

And that’s finally it for Edinburgh. Thanks for sticking until the end!

Communing With the Mountains for Some Solace


After Sterling and the fracas in Glasgow, we finally caught our bus to GlenCoe. Technically, we didn’t stay in GlenCoe itself; we stayed in a small town called Kinlochleven, which is in the same area. Again, this place doesn’t have heaps of history, but it lacks in heritage it more than makes up in landscape:

Snow-capped mountains: check. Small village with great people: check. Lakes and streams: check.

We really only had one afternoon and one morning after that due to the missed bus, so we didn’t have the time to check out Hidden Valley – the major feature of GlenCoe – but there are some paths from the town that are incredible in their own right, as well as views of the loch.

I was astounded not only by the views – as you will see – but also by the idea of living in such a place year round, in a community in which I could know everyone. I know that when I settle down (and God knows when that will be), I will try my damndest to find a place like that.

You may not be able to tell, but this waterfall is ginormous: we later hiked up to find the top of the falls; there are no pictures of this because the brush got in the way and because I was too busy holding onto trees for dear life and attempting to control my fear of heights to keep track of my camera.

Say hi, Pauline!

This is what the path looked like after the falls. Gnarly.

Onwards and upwards, right? We eventually ran into a fence and turned back, which was tricky going down the hill.

The town felt much more different than Luss at Loch Lomond ever did – it may be laid out in rows and organized meticulously, but everyone has a garden that’s arranged differently, and nearly no one caters to tourists. It was refreshing.

It was peaceful on the loch the next morning, the water a mirror of the mountains. Birds were singing, but otherwise it was utterly still. There are moments when you travel, of knowing where you are but being completely lost, but this was also coming home in many ways.

Someone took an eraser and wiped away the top of this mountain – what geology took millennia to create vanished in moments.

For those of us that are cow-conscious, there is probably some rumbling at the back: “She went to Scotland and didn’t even get any pictures of #$%^&* cows!” (Cough cough ZoeChelbie cough) Well, have no fear: while we were waiting for the bus back to civilization, Pauline went to go have a ‘cow moment’ while I had a quiet cup of tea. (What? I was tired.)

Meet, from left to right:

Bridget, Alastair, Tavish, and Elspeth.

In the following photo:

Ewan. He was supposed to be losing weight, so please don’t mention it to him – he’s very sensitive.

And finally:

Lorna. Yes, it is a new haircut.

Glasgow…City of Pain


I’m mentioning Glasgow because we seemed to find ourselves there quite often. We didn’t mean to – but it seems that in order to get anywhere in Scotland, you have to go though this point, by train or by bus. We were in this city FOUR times, and spent one night here following our time spent at Sterling, because we missed the last bus to Glen Coe. My only positive association is the ABBA song that pops into my head whenever I hear ‘Glasgow.’

But here are some pictures anyway.

Just know that this represents a pound of flesh taken from me – and that you should never go there unless bidden to by travel authorities. Here be dragons.

Where People Volontarily Jump off the Battlements


After a day in Loch Lomond, we decided to go somewhere else before Glencoe; we felt like we’d seen everything worth seeing where we were. So after a conversation with a great woman who seemed to know her history and geography of Scotland, we chose to go to Sterling, because she said that there was a fab castle there.

Turns out, you should always listen to the advice of strangers (except for…), because this was well and truly awesome. Sterling Castle is on a hill – most of them are – so it’s a bit of a hike to get up there, but it is well worth the effort.

There is so much to see there and even though it is touristy, it’s not really touristy in a bad way. It’s also gorgeous:

So after getting a hernia on the way up the hill (I’m not exactly sure about what hernias are, but I’m sure we had them, as we had our heavy backpacks on), we were greeted with:

Yes, fellow dudes, that is a castle. It’s a really cool castle. You can also tell at first glance that there is a reason why the king that held Sterling Castle and Edinburgh Castle held Scotland. This was also the home of a very important mint for the English pound – Sterling is why they call it ‘pounds sterling.’

This is the view from a tower back toward a balcony of some really strange statues (it’s to the left). There was even one of a devil with the usual horns and tail, but also with breasts – it’s supposed to be androgynous, some weird phase. You aren’t seeing a photo because it was cold and that statue was just too weird.

Whatever the case, this particular balcony was only meant for royalty, so because you know what the name ‘Sarah’ means and that I’m Scottish (in part, way back), I had full right to be there.

The balcony-gallery leads to a museum about the Sterling Heads. They aren’t real human heads, thank God (admit it, that was your first thought) but are instead wooden carved disks that have survived from the Middle Ages. They used to be on the ceiling of one of the king’s apartments; I think it was the king’s inner hall, but in any case, the king and queen each got a set of rooms: outer hall – inner hall – bedroom/receiving room. The king’s apartments in Sterling Castle weren’t furnished – with the exception of replica, full-color (garish) heads to replace the real ones, which are too frail to expose to tourists. The bareness of the kings rooms is due to the fact that the museum follows the story of Mary of Guise, King James the fifth, and Mary, Queen of Scots. King James died during the continued construction of the castle, so he never got to sleep in his apartments all that much.

For that matter, none of the three really lived fantastic lives. Mary of Guise was a widow from a powerful French family when she married James V, childless but with two children dead before their time. Then things were looking up: two boys were born, a year apart. The younger child died of an illness, and then his older brother followed soon after; Mary was able to go on, but James was brokenhearted (according to the audio guide we got – how do they know that?). They tried again – turns out that girls were luckier for them. They had Mary 2.0 a little over a year later, but James wasn’t around long enough to enjoy it: he died six days after.

Mary of Guise was left with a veritable graveyard of four children and two husbands, but she soldiered on, acting in her daughter’s name as regent. She ended up dying and passing on the unluckiness onto her daughter, now grown-up enough to eventually merit beheading by Queen Elizabeth due to her Catholic-ness and her plotting to escape confinement and regain her throne (the first Queen E. – the current one isn’t that old).

On a sidenote: Sterling Castle has a group of people replicating the Hunt of the Unicorn series of tapestries, in which a unicorn is killed – this is the last one, where the unicorn is magically back to life, though still in captivity. There are speculated Jesus references.

Mary, Queen of Scots (I really like Mary 2.0 better – why do they repeat names in adjoining generations?) managed to get married three times (one of which she may or may not have had murdered), so over the course of that time she had a son, James VI – who is also called James I, because he eventually ended up taking the English throne when Elizabeth I died, childless.

Congratulations! That’s something of a crash-course of Scottish history during the rule of the later Tudors. You made it. I’m sorry, but I have no medals for you.

In 1507 the court alchemist, John Damien, badgered for results, decided that it would be time to exhibit his skill and put on a show for the royal court – to ensure continued funding for his expensive experiments. We all know that this is not going to end well, so when I say that he declared that he would fly to France in a chicken suit and that he jumped off the battlements of Sterling Castle (pictured above), you’re expecting a crash landing. Fortunately for Damien, he survived with nothing more than a broken leg – however, this was because he landed into a manure pile. So while his exhibition was not a success, he continued as the court alchemist for many years – though perhaps taken less seriously than before.

This is the Great Hall – up at the other end there is the table for the king and queen, so the open area is where everyone else would be sitting. There are a couple interesting things about this place, too – for starters, there are fireplaces all along the gallery, so it wouldn’t just be the high and mighty kept warm at mealtimes. There’s also the ceiling, which is built without nails and is also the reason why this building is often associated with maritime nicknames, due to its resemblance to the hull of a ship. And speaking of boats: at one point there was supposed to have been a great feast here, with many important people in attendance. All of the courses were over the top, but they all seemed to pale in comparison with the fish course (of all things), which was served off of a platform with a scaled-down replica of a ship, complete with mermaids and other mystical creatures.

Up next: Glencoe – or maybe not…

Number of Nessies Sighted…Zero


Loch Lomond was our first official stop in Scotland – Pauline and I had taken the bus from Cork to Dublin, flown into Edinburgh from Dublin, and taken two more buses. You may be thinking, “Holy Crap.” If this is the case, then you have an idea of the amount of time that it might take to get from A to B, something like 14 hours and 20 minutes, from one in the morning to 3:20 in the afternoon. We were a bit tired.

However, we had picked Loch Lomond due to what we had read on the internet: it is touted as one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Well, it’s not so bad:

There isn’t much history here, though, so this will basically be a photo album; our hostel (more on that later) was pretty far from pretty much everything, so you had to get a ride from people you met in the hostel to one of two towns. We went to Luss, and forgot the name of the other one.

Most of these pictures are from the boat tour we did of the Loch; it is remarkable how much it felt like a lake at home, except it wasn’t so densely forested away from the shoreline.

The town of Luss is like a postcard – though in a very deliberate way, a gift shop on every little lane.

After getting off the boat, we walked down some of the paths around the town. It was fantastic to be in the woods again – that feeling of being lost and yet completely in my element.

Not only has there been a campfire at the base of this tree, there is also something odd going on…

The rest of the photos will be of the hostel. Why? Because it looked like this:

Yeah. This is a hostel. However, it’s not just for backpackers; they accept families, school groups, and weddings. This must be the only hostel in the whole wide world that people actually want to get married in. And who could blame them?

Now that you’ve all been wowed – a warning. I do recommend this place, but you need a mode of transport or willingness to hitchhike, as well as tolerance for a less-than-stellar staff. We were woken up just after we had gone to bed after that travel extravaganza because the guy was unsure we were in the correct room, as well as two mornings later. But they do have a staffed kitchen, and they’ll give you a great dinner (three options) for a reasonable price. Pros and cons, right?

That’s one dead deer. Also note the wallpaper. It’s not paper: its tooled leather, so you are technically looking at several dead animals, not just this one. I wonder if they ever make these heads with a tongue sticking out?

This is the smuggest bird I have ever seen. Too bad it’s too dead to enjoy the other dead thing…

Plaid carpet. ‘Nuff said.

The day we left – April third, 2012 – it was snowing. This is significant because I have a picture of it:

…and because I thought that I would be able to get through a whole winter without snow. Bummer.

And a final note:

I do rather like Scotland.

Land of Mists and Mellow Fruitlessness


This marks the beginning of a series of posts about what I have done with my month break from school in April – my marathon of traveling: planes, trains, and automobiles. But before that even started, I had a week of field trips for a class and before that I had a weekend in Galway, which is what this post is about. If you’re confused, it’s fine. I have decided that events on trips are so muddled that it’s just not worth the effort – and it’s more fun that way, no plans so set that they can’t be changed.

It takes four hours to get to Galway by bus, which gives you an idea of where it is: it’s on the western cost of the country, about halfway up the coastline. It’s known for an oyster festival that is (apparently) very famous. I’m not that interested in eating mucous out of a shell, so don’t be too down that I didn’t participate in this aspect of the culture (they’re all farmed, anyway).

Galway is also the birthplace of the claddagh ring, which is the traditional crowned-heart-and-hands we see in the movies. They’re all over the shops in Galway.

Galway is a city of 18,000 people on the River Coribh (pronounced as ‘coriv’); as far as I can tell, it’s a commercial center, and has been for a long time:

This is the Spanish Arch, one of the remaining parts of the wall protecting the harbor from marauders. It’s called the Spanish Arch because this was the area where the Spanish did their trading with the Irish of Galway.

I really loved being in this city, because there was high density of friendly people and because the streets and buildings are beautiful in a non-pretentious kind of way – which is saying something, more than a month later.

This is a bank. In a castle. Think about that.

One of the places in Galway that I kept finding myself in was Eyre Square, a park in the city center – unfortunately, I don’t know if this is a reference to my favorite book or a happy coincidence –this is where all the kids go to hang out and be cool, which is unfortunate, as Irish teens are vicious sometimes. Why? No clue. Everyone above the age of eighteen seems normal enough – congenial, even. Also at Eyre Square – or rather, the top of the square – was ‘Occupy Galway’:

I thought that this was ridiculous. The main thing that the people there were unhappy about was the charge on septic tanks so that they can be properly maintained. This is a directive from the European Union itself (one with a time limit), so this should be no surprise to the Irish; however, the government dragged its heels and now they’re up to the deadline and everyone has to pay the tax or be fined by the E.U. It seems fairly straightforward to me, but what do I know? Getting septic tanks checked and/or emptied, will, by the way, prevent nasty situations happening in your lawn and in the environment around. (Consider yourself reminded.)

The first day I was there, I got to the city late in the afternoon, so everything was closed, but I walked around with my friend Joel and his friends (blessed is he among women). There is a beautiful walkway that has been put in by the river that we went to:

The walk ends at ‘Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicholas.’ Despite the long and pretentious name, it is beautiful inside, not too complicated, not too simple.

The next day I went to the Cliffs of Moher (also known as The Cliffs of Insanity), a major geological feature of Ireland. I’ll let them speak for themselves:

Uhm…duh. Though it was in part justified: the wind that day was fierce, and there were many people stepping over the barriers at the point where the walk ended. I didn’t go – if Blarney Castle makes me shiver before I even get to the top, 200 meter high cliffs sans fence are just not an option.

I was surprised that I could still hear the waves from so high up, but if I listened hard enough I could put aside the howling of the wind in my ears. But after all, this is how the cliffs were formed: millenia of waves beating themselves against the rock.

There are many stories about the Cliffs, some of which are more true than others. For instance, there is a long record of shipwrecks on the cliffs, including a few from the infamous Spanish Armada. There are also stories of mermaids, a sunken city lost to time, and a hag that became part of the cliff. There is a general history of people having the crap scared out of them at the sight of the plummet down to the ocean. I can’t blame them.

In order to get to the cliffs, you have to drive through The Burren, an area of rocky ground and mountains made of jagged rock and sheep.

I got back to Galway with some time left in my afternoon; I wandered around, ate gelato (!!), and encountered a street market, where there was this great pea-potato-curry yumminess and other foods, as well as crafts and curiosities.

The next day I went with Joel and Company on a tour of Connemara, an area in County Galway known for being beautiful.

If you have ever seen a spindly yellow plant in any of my pictures – like the last photo for Waterford, for example – that’s gorse. It’s a plant native to Ireland and England that you can find all over the countryside. It smells like coconut, or maybe coconut shampoo.

One of the most important sources of heat historically and in the present day is peat, an organic, dark solid that if you give a few thousand more years becomes coal. Peat is found in bogs, and when it has been cut looks something like this:

There is an upside and a downside to this; peat is part of the Irish culture, part of traditions and national identity. However, the bogs that it is cut out of get a substantial amount of water drained from them: this is critical for the life and health of bogs, a critically endangered habitat in Ireland. In order for the bog-building moss (sphagnum) to survive, it has to be in a water-dense, acidic environment, so you can see the problem here. Bogs help to purify water by removing toxins and excess nutrients, as well as promote the health of a variety of species. In Ireland there are under 20% of the total bogs left in their natural state.

We were also shown a classic example of a thatch-roof house (one thing I abhor about bus tours is that you are let out for five minutes at a time to take pictures, and in this setting, I felt like I was intruding into people’s lives bigtime, though I was nothing next to the woman that took photos through the window of a house to see what the interior looked like – I’m not kidding!).

We made a longer stop to see Ireland’s only fjord. Not to diss Ireland’s geologic heritage, but even my dim eight-year-old’s memories of fjords in Norway shove Ireland’s fjord into a locker, relieved of its lunch money. But it was still beautiful:

This last one is a fairy tree; if you want to make a wish, you take a token, climb over the barbed fence (ouch!) and tie it to a branch. They’re found all over Ireland – or so I’m told. It’s a great idea, though, isn’t it?

We spent the most time – a mere two hours – at Kylemore Abbey, a huge mansion nestled into a mountain, facing a lake. I could have spent double the time we were given there; it’s beautiful and very well maintained. By nuns.

Sweet digs, eh? There are about 15 nuns that run the place, accompanied by a load of staff that run the café and clean. I’m not really sure how much the nuns actually do, but these are definitely the nuns that have got a sweet life. If I ever get struck by lightning or impaled by an iron bar and convert, I’m moving there (and hitting tourists with my stun gun when they displease me). The house was not originally meant as a nunnery; it was built by a man called Mitchell Henry for his wife, Margaret as a wedding present. They had honeymooned in Connemara and loved it so much that they decided to spend the majority of their time there. It was built starting in 1867 – in the years after the biggest of the potato famines (this is the famine with the capital F, from 1845-1852). This basically means that if Kylemore took four years to build and employed about 300 people (100 of which actually constructed the mansion), the Henrys saved the area from continued, unbroken destitution. The potato or poverty didn’t go away after the Famine, after all.

At the end of it all, there was Kylemore Castle, with 70 rooms – which included 33 bedrooms and a Turkish bath, if you can believe it – and the estate, which included six acres of Victorian gardens (which also housed 21 glasshouses), as well as a forest of about 30,000 trees, native and non-native. For that matter, Kylemore comes from Gaelic roots, ‘an choill mhór’ (pronounced, maybe, ‘an keol mhooer’) which means ‘the big wood,’ because of the oak forest that covered the area. And now, cut over to you, sitting at your computer: “PICTURES!!” It’s like a battle cry, right across the Atlantic. Just calm down; the pictures are coming:

This was taken while walking through the Victorian gardens, which I assume are a lot nicer when they’re in full bloom. The tulips were really nice, though.

The nuns are also working to rebuild some of the glasshouses – now it’s a lot of really old exposed pipes, but it looks pretty cool. The head gardener also got a sweet place – less showy, but definitely roomy and comfortable enough. If you’re asking, “What the __ is a head gardener?,” he’s the guy that organizes the minions to do his bidding, botanically speaking. He also arranges the layout of the beds and all of the flowers therein, and problem-solves when something is wrong. That house is open for people to walk through; I liked it better than the manor itself, as it looks much like a place frozen in time (once you take out the annoying museum ropes), someplace I could see myself living in, back in the day. He also had a great collection of books:

See an interesting title there? Yup. I think I might put that on my Christmas list…

The manor itself only has a few rooms open to the public; the other rooms are used to do mysterious nunny things that we, as members of the heathen public, are not allowed to see. But the ones that are available are pretentious enough – just imagine a whole house of rooms like this:

That’s that, really. But no bother; the parts outside were really more interesting, anyway.

This is the mini-cathedral that Mitchell Henry bought when his wife Margaret died. All indications show that he really and truly loved her, and even though he really didn’t have the money to spend on a mini Gothic cathedral, he did it as a memorial for his wife when she died. By the end of his life, Mitchell was broke, so in 1903, the estate was sold to an oil baron, who then gave it to his daughter as a wedding present; unfortunately, the man she married was a gambler, so then the property was eventually sold to the Benedictine nuns, and became much creepier. (The reputation of nuns as depicted by The Blues Brothers has stuck with me.)

The inside of the building is exquisite; the columns there are made of four different kinds of marble from the four different provinces of Ireland – rose for Munster (where Cork is), emerald for Connaught (the west), black for Lenster (the east), and grey for Ulster (the north). It’s highly symbolic, but also just plain pretty. Connemara marble is sold everywhere in Ireland (tourist trap! tourist trap!), because it really is emerald-colored, shot through with veins of white and black. This might also be on my Christmas list – and for all those judging me right now, that’s fine. Rocks are cool and you’re just too afraid to admit it.