My friend Denise and I had a grand time wandering Edinburgh, that first day opening to bright skies, a bit of brisk wind nothing that a wool scarf, gloves, and some undersilks couldn't handle, and visits to landmarks and curious places that filled our days there. (I've given up repeating my journals verbatim...counting the 25 large pages from beginning to end of the journey, I have guessed that all of you would be at your wits' end reading over the next month, so I'm attempting to write, instead, these backward glances.)
Happy with my hat, I set off around the corner to Victoria Street, a short winding route banked with small shops from haberdasheries to juice bars, with reservation only restaurants and...yes...a patisserie, La Barantine, right out of the Rue Cler. Where was I, anyway? I stopped for an Americano, sitting outside in the sun on one of two tiny tables hugging the window display of breads and pastries from some celestial oven.
Later, Denise joined me...that's her pastry on the table and my second cup.
Finally, going back under the direction of a nice woman in (yet another) woolens shop, I came to the correct close, squeezed behind a mound of Walker's Shortbread boxes and plaid kitsch, and stepped inside Scotland's old literary heritage...Burns, Scott, Stevenson, and a few others I hadn't known.
It didn't take me long to go through the three stories of the old building, but the exhibits were interesting, especially the paintings which accompanied quotes from texts.
Denise chose to go to the underground street exhibit, meanwhile, and then, after some necessary phone-card exchange on Princes Street, the major shopping street, we went hunting lunch on the small alley between Princes and George. We soon found the Rose Pub, and its welcome offerings: pea soup with mint (vegan), home baked flat bread, wine and ale.
It began to rain while we ate, and the pub became a refuge until the sun returned a half hour later. It was, as pubs can be at their best in such weather, a good place to sit and watch the few walkers tread by under hoods and umbrellas.
When we left, we kept between Rose Alley and George Street, where the latter brought us to a chocolate shop Denise needed to explore.
You will think that food was all we toured, but you would be only half right. Our explorations led us over bridges, by gardens, on overlooks and in small closes where the ancient buildings hid their grim past.
Over the next days, St. Giles, the Parliament Building, the Queen's palace (Holyrood), the Botanical Center, and the Portrait House. In between, a trip to the aforementioned old books stores, where I buy a copy of Muriel Spark's Complete Poems (who knew she wrote poems?) and find, upon opening it, this apt comment in its preface, in which she describes that though she wrote mostly in prose she had always thought of herself as a poet, with a poet's inscrutable relationship with the word:
'Edinburgh Villanelle', for instance: what did I mean by 'Heart of Midlothian, never mine'? There is a spot outside St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, my native city, which marks the "heart of Midlothian'. I have fond memories of Edinburgh. My pivotal book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was a novel about Edinburgh. I have no idea what I meant by those words in the poem 'never mine'. And yet I meant them at the time.
Perhaps Ms. Sparks had once had an afternoon like mine? Here is my journal from a visit to St. Giles Cathedral, which, along with the Parliament building, inspired me most about the city.
I find St. Giles in the middle of the Mile. Up a ramp and around to the entry, the dark stone nearly melting into the sidewalk surrounding St. Giles, I came through a blue glass partition and thought, ah, here is a place rooted in memorials to heroes of all sorts and to philosophical/literary thinkers.
Plaques and reliefs on every wall, statures and inscriptions read like a history of Scotland and its honor of men and women who leave us or themselves with something to found a life on. This is a church which is also strongly re-grounded from its initial Catholicism to the Reformation Presbyterianism, so that the very design of the inside of the building has been shifted architecturally.
At first, as I walked up the main aisle, I couldn't figure out why something seemed off kilter. The main and naves had been originally built in the balanced way of Roman churches, but the Presbyterians, wanting not to frame their worship in that repudiated structure, turned their gazes 90 degrees to put a flat-table altar to face a modern organ, nave to nave. The whole shift was like seeing the place lying sidewise. They were, of course, beautiful organ and beautiful nave. I went round looking at every "page" of that historical tribute.
The treasure of St. Giles, however, lies in the small close elegantly and elaborately carved Thistle Society Chapel, where the Queen became queen and Knights have been inducted since.
Its ceilings, even beyond the symbolic emblems, were intricately carved and the rises above the council seats amazing for work done in the 1910s. I spent nearly an hour there and then went back with Denise after her tour to consider its fascination again. It was on the sidewalk outside, looking down in the lowering light of mid-afternoon, that I saw the Heart of Midlothian that Spark writes of.
Edinburgh is, after all, a bookish town. At night, looking at the offerings of the bookshelf near the fireplace in the apartment, I found Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel. Tired feet made the sofa and a good book the best tour of the moment, and soon enough I came to a passage on page 9 which stood out like a beacon:
...the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial [as why and how] and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed EUDAIMONIA or human flourishing.
Human flourishing: exactly what happens to me as these travels unfold, one by one, each leaving me opening and drawing out new nourishment (not really the word I want, but close). Now that I know Eudaimonia, I have a word for what I am about these days, indeed for the whole traveling year and perhaps, I hope, longer.