When I was twenty I got on a plane and went to Edinburgh, Scotland, to live for a year. It was 1978 and I had just graduated from college and was headed to Scotland because I had won a fellowship from a foundation that wrote me a check for $6,000 and said have a good time. I had to do a project outside the United States and I chose one in Scotland because it seemed more exotic than England and yet they still spoke English. Kind of.
When I left my little village in upstate New York thirty years ago and landed in Edinburgh in the beginning of September I didn’t know a soul. I’d never traveled before, and wasn’t connected to a college or university so I knew there would be no one to help me make plans or to fall back on when I failed miserably at whatever it was I was going to do. I took a cab from the airport to the university and had the cabbie drop me off at the student union along with my suitcase and my backpack. Three hours later – after making one phone call to a number found on a card pinned to a bulletin board – I was standing in my bedroom in a flat in Morningside, a nice neighborhood of row houses just beyond the university. My flatmates were Phani, a man from Greece who had a brain tumor and was studying political science at the university; Amir, an engineering student from Iran; and Michiko, Amir’s girlfriend from Japan. We had varying degrees of proficiency in English from my less-than-perfect use of the language to Michiko, who spoke no English at all.
We were an odd lot. Amir and Michiko liked to dress up and go to discos, which were just springing up in the city, where they would dance and drink Carling Black Label beer. Phani – I suspect because his head hurt – drank quite a bit of ouzo and retsina every night and would stumble to bed mumbling and cursing in Greek. I took to frequenting the local pub and developed quite a fondness for pints of stout and glasses of single malt whisky, neat. I met a couple of Canadians and most nights we’d meet at the pub and drink pints of ale and stout and bitters and glasses of whisky and smoke lots and lots of Player’s brand cigarettes while trying to figure out what was up with the Scottish people. And every Thursday evening we’d listen to the Dixieland jazz band that played at the pub. Eventually the band joined our table during their breaks and the banjo player, who wore a vest and was a dead ringer for Dylan Thomas, would look at me with rheumy eyes and say in a thick brogue, “Darlin’, I’m goin’ to get to New Orleans someday and I’m goin’ to look you up.” And I’d always say that’d be nice.
Edinburgh smelled like a mixture of distillery grain and diesel fuel and every now and then I can conjure up entire sections of the city if a diesel-fueled truck passes me when the corn is being chopped out in the country. I can close my eyes and see the pizza place that sold pizza with shrimp on it and the little truck on the corner that sold baked potatoes. And I see the castle and Arthur’s Seat – the nub of an ancient volcano that rises in the city’s center and served as my refuge when I climbed it about once a week to sit on its rocky top and get the bird’s eye view of a city I felt only a tenuous connection to.
I developed a love of train travel that year and once bought a month-long BritRail ticket and lived on the train and went wherever it would take me. I traveled to Thurso and Oban and Penzance and London and all the spots in between and would stand in a station and pick the longest haul for the nights when I would curl up on a hard seat and try to get some sleep. I’d get off at a station when I was hungry, find a market nearby, and buy bread and cheese and apples and a can of beer to take with me on the next train out. I didn’t care where it was going.
In April in the span of two weeks life in the flat fell apart. Amir – this little Iranian man with the little mustache and love of western music and clothes – was called back to his country because of the Iranian Revolution. When he left, he looked terrified because he knew that the lifestyle he had come to love was over – Khomeini would never permit it. Phani’s brother came from Greece and put Phani in the hospital where he had brain surgery. It didn’t look like he was going to make it. Michiko disappeared when Amir left and I never saw her again. And I was left standing there, looking at the empty bedrooms, wondering what I was going to do.
I remember going to the pub and ordering a pint and a whisky, lighting up a cigarette, and then sitting at the table in a daze. My Dylan Thomas banjo player came over and after a moment said, “Darlin’, you don’t look happy. Go home.” I looked at him and knew he was right. I had to leave it all behind – the oppressive sadness and anxiety of the flat, the cold dreary Scottish days, my pints and my whisky, and the diesel-fuel-mixing-with-brewer’s-grain smell of a city. And for years after I left I felt like I failed in some basic way – like I had flunked Europe 101. I mean, what did I do beyond survive and learn how to drink whisky? But now when I think back on those gloomy Scottish days, I realize that maybe that was enough.
Rachel Dickinson lives in Upstate New York where she writes for a variety of publications including the Atlantic, Audubon, The Christian Science Monitor, National Geographic Traveler, and Executive Traveler. Her latest book Falconer on the Edge: A Man, his Birds, and the Vanishing Landscape of the American West (Houghton Mifflin) is now a featured selection in the YourLifeIsATrip.com Trip Shop.
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