Edinburgh: Photo diary, and musings on travel, cities, and personality

I’ve noticed before that it takes me about a month to get settled in a place. This seems to be true whether it’s a place I know well (my aunt’s house in San Jose), a new place I take to immediately (Toronto), or a place in which I feel like a stranger (Scotland). I used to say it takes me a month to get comfortable, but comfort isn’t exactly it. In any new situation, I experience both disconcerting foreignness (“everything is different here!”) and the satisfaction of adjustment (e.g., figuring out the boarding process for local buses, learning which coins are which); that is to say, I do pick things up quickly, but the newness doesn’t really go away. I think the month benchmark is more when the balance tips — when my sense of adjustment is more pervasive than the feeling of unfamiliarity.

View to city from Leith Walk: wet street, sunny sky{as always, mouse over for description, or click to enlarge}

We’ve been in Scotland for a month and 3 days now, and Edinburgh for 25 days, so it’s about the month mark in this country. While I still feel odd here, in the past week I have definitely noticed a feeling of greater ease. The best way I can explain it is as a feeling of letting my guard down, like that subtle (and usually un-pinpoint-able) moment when you go from feeling like strangers with someone, to feeling you can trust them — or, perhaps, feeling that you can trust yourself around them, that it might be okay to crack a weird joke or share something personal (or share food).

In reading this it strikes me that I sound very reserved, much more so than people I’ve met who seem open and comfortable from the first hello (or, in Scotland, “hiya” — a greeting I absolutely love). This is true, and maybe a surprise to those of you who know how much I share on this blog. I have always been more comfortable in writing, and while I can be extremely talkative and exuberant in person — like, really exuberant! bouncy! silly! — I do usually keep something of myself back until I know someone better (an acquaintance once described me as “prim and proper”). It sounds strange to be both reserved and an oversharer, but I am. 

Gloucester Lane

Anyway, back to what I was saying… now that I’m getting more comfy in Edinburgh, I’m enjoying it more. This has largely to do with the way I explore the city, and even more so, the way I think of it. Before we got to Toronto a friend told me, “There’s not much to see in Toronto, it’s more of a city of neighborhoods.” That suited me beautifully because I’m used to cities like that, where each neighborhood has such a distinct character that short-term visitors often think “I don’t like this city” when they actually mean “I hated the neighborhood I was staying in.” In cities like these, if you don’t like where you are, the thing to do is to leave that neighborhood and find another one.

Gloucester Street

So, having come from cities like that, I was unconsciously expecting to explore Glasgow and Edinburgh the same way. In Glasgow, once I got over my jet lag, I did a lot of wandering around in an attempt to find “the” neighborhood I would like best, and I was doing the same in Edinburgh, and I kept getting disappointed. While there are definitely differences between, say, Morningside and Leith (in Edinburgh), to me they don’t seem as separate as, oh, Rockridge and Temescal (in Oakland).* So it’s taken me about a month to recognize that, and alter my exploration style accordingly.

B/W photo of side of brick building with sign reading "Thistle Street North West Lane"

As one example: George St in Edinburgh is full of upmarket clothing chains (French Connection, Hobbs) and fancy-looking hotels and their restaurants. These don’t interest me much, so I had written off the whole neighborhood as one I wouldn’t want to revisit. In some cities this would have been a good call. But I ended up in the area again on Saturday evening, and found that Thistle St, a narrow cobbled street just parallel to George, is full of small independent shops (ranging from an expensive modern kiltmaker to a vegetarian deli/restaurant with live music nightly). It really surprised me to see two such different streets in such close proximity, and — since the entrance to Thistle St was so unobtrusive — it makes me wonder whether I’ve passed over other cool streets without realizing they were there.

B/W photo of Thistle Street: raindrops on the lens, sunshine

Off Thistle Street

On a related note, in other cities I’ve been in, there has been a lot of repetition within each neighborhood: a district won’t just have one delicious-sounding Thai restaurant but several, and if you see one indie/local-design gift shop, you can be fairly certain there will be others. Here, somehow, I don’t feel that way. So I’ve had a lot of outings where I saw something interesting but didn’t stop because I thought there’d be more opportunities later on, and then it would turn out that the shop was the only one like that in the area. Then I’d go back and the place would be closed because everything here closes at 5 and I’m always getting too late a start on my afternoon. ;b So I’m learning not to skip over intriguing places just because I think I’ll find others later!

Back room of Qupi cafe, with vintage hats hanging from the ceiling, and mismatched chairs upholstered in leopard print

Inside a cute, eclectically-decorated cafe

Besides developing a greater appreciation for the individual streets and establishments of Edinburgh, I’ve also been exploring further outside of the city than I’d previously been, including to the east — which has made me very happy as I’ve gotten to see more of the city’s coastal regions, like Leith and Portobello to the northeast, and East Lothian to the east and southeast. More on these places in forthcoming posts!

Coastal view from the bus

Cute little building along Leith Walk

We’re leaving Edinburgh on Saturday, which is a pity, but with the Fringe Festival coming in August it was impossible to find affordable lodging during that month. I really do think two months is a good length of time to get to know a place. Maybe we’ll come back to Edinburgh someday, who knows? At any rate, after this we’re moving on to non-English-speaking countries, and for all we know that will be a whole different ballgame. We’ll find out!

*But that might just be because I’m familiar with Oakland. I daresay a newcomer to the area might find Rockridge and Temescal quite similar, even though to me they’re really different! Go back to post

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