"H" is for Hogmanay

EDINBURGH/GLASGOW, SCOTLAND: December 28, 2013- January 4, 2014

Leah: Enjoy this homage to one of my hands-down favorite countries, a former (short term) home of mine and the backdrop to the best summer of my entire life, no hyperbole needed. 

“H” is for Hogmanay. A Scots term which signifies the last day of the calendar year, Hogmanay now encompasses a festive few days on either end of December 31 with feasting, fireworks and loads of Scottish cheer. After our lackluster 2012 New Years experience in Buenos Aires, there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be besides Edinburgh to ring in 2014. Besides, the chance to not only show Steve this most magical of places, but to return to the city where I once lived during the summer of 2002 could not be passed up. Almost 11 years to the day after leaving Scotland’s capital I returned for the first time since then, knowing full well that Edinburgh knows how to throw down for a proper New Years party.

“O” is for Old Town. Edinburgh is essentially divided into two halves aptly named “Old Town” and “New Town”, each with their own history, architecture and general vibe. I prefer Old Town, with its “Royal Mile” street ascending from Holyrood Palace to the castle nestled on a dormant volcano, bagpipers serenading the tourists as they wend their way over the cobblestones, the thrift stores and homey coffee shops in the student area near the University of Edinburgh and the myriad graveyards and brooding stone edifices every way you turn. These bookworms struck again and scoped out the Writers Museum where we immersed ourselves in the lives of great Scottish writers and even learned about the mystery book sculptures that have been popping up around the city for years. Of course we also grabbed pots of tea and cosied up in the Elephant House, an iconic tea shop and eatery where the likes of J.K. Rowling and Alexander McCall-Smith have spent many an afternoon crafting their magnificent stories. We enjoyed a free walking tour on a rare rain-free day where our guide regaled us with stories ranging from Greyfriar’s Bobby, the devoted Skye terrier who kept a daily vigil over his master’s grave for 14 years (and apparently has a donated twin statue in the Gaslamp in San Diego) to showing us the names on tombstones in a nearby graveyard that may have provided more than one inspiration for some Harry Potter characters...

“G” is for Glasgow. Yes I’m jumping around, but bear with me! We decamped to Glasgow for a few days after New Years and as luck would have it we even scored free accommodation. Thanks to our Workaway hosts in Bulgaria we were put in touch with their friend, Ian, a part-time pilot/Glasgow resident and recent convert to the Workaway community after looking for people to help him turn an 18th century church in North Umberland, England into his family home with more pictures here. Although we unfortunately won’t be able to Workway with him, he graciously shared his Glasgow pied-à-terre with us despite the fact that he was away working both nights. While in Glasgow we grabbed 2-for-1 burgers at the trendy and delightfully decorated Hummingbird establishment (yes, we’re total suckers for marketing and the delicate birds festooning the place didn’t hurt), checked out the supposedly second largest marble staircase in the world in the imposingly ornate City Council building and even made it to the magnificent Glasgow Cathedral and accompanying necropolis despite the deluge of wind and rain that seemed to spring up out of the pavement toward us. Hell, we even managed to tackle our most recent dare, which involved a Chinese man with Steve’s feet in his lap, a Rihanna soundtrack and bright blue sparkly nail polish. If Edinburgh is the posh sibling then Glasgow is the working-class but no less loved version and our last night here found us throwing back ridiculously cheap pints at a J.D. Wetherspoon pub plotting our imminent US return and musing over how much we loved Scotland.

“M” is for Morningside Road, #64 to be exact. It was at this address, about a 25 minute walk from Old Town through The Meadows (a sprawling expanse of green space and paths just south of the city center), where I spent the aforementioned best summer of my life at the tender age of 20. Across from the Churchill Theatre, next to the Indian takeaway restaurant, behind the cherry red door and up two flights of stairs I found a world I didn’t want to leave. The flat consisted of me and three posh English friends (including one, Guy, whom I would soon date and have subsequently stayed in touch with…teaser alert…we’ll meet in London in February after 11+ years apart), a few dingy couches, a couple resident mice, high ceilinged bedrooms, a questionable back garden and loads of laughs. They schooled me in the art of Bristish slang, which lasts to this day, and I whipped up their first delectable taste of Mexican food. We went clubbing together, lamented our jobs, wound each other up and generally acted like youth the world over do at that age. I even remember one memorable night when we had to move a couch onto the street for trash collection the next day. Instead of us carrying it Guy decided to give it a heave-ho and then hopped on board, essentially surfing it down two stories of spiral staircase. We then plunked said couch on the sidewalk and drank beer and played guitar while the cultured of the city streamed into the Churchill Theatre for that evening’s performance. Epic. Needless to say, I had to revisit my former haunt, so Steve traipsed along beside me as I practically skipped through the Meadows and speed walked the streets, stopping triumphantly before #64, whose door is still cherry red to my deep satisfaction. Pictures and jubilation ensued, but it’s probably best for the memories that I left the literal door closed.

“A” is for aglow, also known as the Torchlight Procession held on the 30th of December as the (free) opening of Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh. Over 35,000 people gather in the city center to watch or carry wax torches accompanied by numerous pipers and drummers as well as kitted-out Vikings (check out the video here). I’d missed it on my last visit and we were chuffed to see it this time. All bundled up we trundled off to the main drag of Princes Street in time to see the start of the procession lit up by thousands of glowing torches and accompanied by the high energy vibe that only numerous pipe bands and screaming, shield-carrying Vikings provide. Up to Calton Hill we marched, past flame dancers and other street performers to take our place under the watchful eye of Calton Tower as we stood poised over the city watching the thousands of processors stream through the streets with their fiery tributes held high. After waiting for about an hour and as the sound system blasted out fire-themed songs we were treated to a simply magnificent firework display illuminating the Calton Hill monuments and showering the city in an ethereal glow. Nothing short of magnificent.

“N” is for The National Museum of Scotland, which is where I was gainfully employed during that blissful summer of ’02. Ensconced in my sexy floor-length blue apron, oversized button-down shirt and topped off by men’s shoes I had found in a discount shop, I worked fulltime in De Los Café inside the museum, alternating between short-order chef and waitress. It went without saying that visiting this important landmark in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town would be a necessary trip down memory lane, in addition to providing free bathrooms and culture galore. The museum, while always architecturally striking, had seen a refurbishment since I was last there and my former workspace was no longer. The building was even more breathtaking than I remembered, the exhibits were a feast for those with varied interests and short attention spans and the creepy Millenium Clock, created to embody human suffering of the 20th century, was still present and performing on the hour. We stopped in several times over our Scottish sojourn as a respite from the rain, to take in the city skyline from the museum’s roof terrace and even to procure our very own stuffed haggis Christmas tree ornament--please don’t be jealous. We even saw Dolly, the first cloned animal in all her taxidermied glory. I can’t recommend this place enough, regardless of my personal memories--like the time my coworkers threw me into the filled-to-the-brim-with-dirty-dishwater industrial sized sink. They also inadvertently gouged out a chunk of my left shoulder on the faucet; it was a nasty wound and bled like hell but every time I glimpse the deep scar a smile plays across my lips. I’m so glad The National Museum played such a starring role on this trip, as it truly is a wondrous space.

“A” is for art. Jumping back (or forward?) to Glasgow, we escaped the omnipresent rain by taking our host Ian’s suggestion and walking to the Burrell Collection in Pollak Country Park just southwest from the city center and a 25  minute walk from our temporary digs. He told us it was the perfect museum for those with short attention spans who appreciated an eclectic collection of bits and bobs from around the world. Sold. It truly was just as he had described and a staggering assemblage of Medieval and Renaissance art, Chinese furniture and porcelain, Islamic prayer rugs and works by the French masters such as Degas and Rodin. Walking through this personal collection gifted by Sir William and Lady Burrell to the city of Glasgow in 1944, one was truly mesmerized by the breadth and beauty of the displays, especially since only a comparable few pieces are on display from the vast array of over 9,000. We worked on maintaining our erroneous cultured façade by also taking in The Gallery of Modern Art, or GoMA, the most visited modern art gallery in Scotland. We knew we’d be fans when we noticed that the statue of a prominent figure astride his noble steed happened to be sporting some unique haberdashery in the form of a traffic cone hat--a result of New Year’s revelry no doubt--but still a fitting addition to a modern art museum. Inside we found exhibits ranging from artists’ takes on the effects of modern warfare to a splendid and colorful floor dedicated to French artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who many San Diegans will know for her mosaic sculpture Sun God on the UCSD campus and her whimsical Queen Califia’s Magical Circle in Escondido’s Kit Carson Park. Our artistic and cultural sides fully sated, we headed off to find some tea we could sip with pinky fingers raised while pretending to order each other around like scullery maids and butlers because we’re mature like that.

“Y” is for yummy because let’s be honest, what blog post could pass without some mention of foodstuffs? Steve was able to taste and scarf down haggis daily at the hotel’s breakfast buffet (mmm, oatmeal and innards), and I rejoiced in the country’s proclivity for stuffing oversized baked potatoes with a variety of scrumptious toppings, like tuna and sweetcorn or spicy vegetable curry. I reconnected with an old favorite, millionaire shortbread (shortbread smothered in a layer of buttery caramel topped with a coating of hardened chocolate), and Steve tasted a deep-fried Mars candy bar just because he had to. We finally scarfed down some proper fish and chips doused in sizeable quantities of malt vinegar and I also bade Steve try Irn Bru, a bright orange almost bubble-gum flavored soda that outsells Coke and Pepsi products in Scotland, no rare feat. Our other new drink obsession was alcoholic ginger beer—take a strong ginger flavored soda, add alcohol and voila, new favorite. And of course we combed the supermarkets for their reduced sections where we scored things like Thai chicken wraps, spinach and tomato pasta, gourmet sandwiches, double chocolate cheesecake and boxes of mince pies for $0.80/each just because they hadn’t been sold that day. Steve is pretty much terrified of letting me walk into a grocery now because almost like a sick game now to see what I can find. We certainly didn’t lack for calories, that’s for sure.

Our actual New Years Eve was perfect beyond all expectations. We got gussied up (I even did my hair and put on makeup!) and headed out to a former haunt of mine in Old Town, The Brass Monkey. The lighting was low, the bar was accessible and we were only a few minutes’ walk from the North Bridge, where we’d be able to see the fireworks over the city come midnight. We knocked back a few gin & tonics (me) and Joker IPAs (Steve) before hurrying to the bridge to cram in with hundreds of new friends moments before color exploded across the sky from the castle esplanade and people from every continent joined in singing Auld Lang Syne and spraying each other with champagne. From there we stopped by my old kebab shop to grab a greasy one for the road, hugged every stranger who wanted one on the way home and enjoyed more champagne back in the room before delightedly calling it an evening. We even managed to make a New Years video the following day.

While initially worried at what it would feel like to return to Edinburgh and Glasgow after so long and concerned that maybe the magic would have faded, I’m delighted to report that they are just as enchanting and intoxicating as I remembered. Seeing them through new eyes with Steve and being able to celebrate our first New Years out in years without having to worry about driving or cover charges (we usually stay home and eat fondue in our PJs after celebrating in the afternoon because we’re party animals like that) was nothing short of Heaven on earth. I have no idea what 2014 has in store or where we’ll even be this time next year, but thank you, dear E’burgh and Glasgow for the glorious merrymaking. This was one for the record books!

CLICK FOR PICTURES OF EDINBURGH AND GLASGOW.

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