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Days 11-13 – Edinburgh

This has now become a retrospective report on the travels: we lost most internet accessibility in Edinburgh with the move to a B&B and lost all online access in Barcelona and France. So here it is: the closing round of the trip, catalogued in retrospect, with all that hidsight has to offer.

First, Edinburgh the Beautiful. Contrary to expectations, the weather was great. Until Monday. But we’ll get to that. Saturday was the beginning of How Many Shows Can You See in a Day? and the Search for the Box. These two activities rolled out in parallel, the former a happy challenge the latter a fierce one.

The answer to HMSCYSIAD is “infinity” provided the variable for energy and ability to get from one end of a steep city to the other is also “infinity”. Our answer ended up being more like “2”, except on Monday when it was “3” when we also saw the Tattoo which hardly counts because I got tickets weeks ahead and we might not have gone if I hadn’t because I was soaking wet (rain on Monday – see forecast below) and my legs were shaking because of the SFTB and over-exertion. The bagpipers of the Tattoo have no sympathy for crybabies though, so the show went on.

More to come…

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Day 10 – London to Edinburgh

After the botched birthday night, we discovered a new “feature” of our Horrible Hotel: 10 AM checkout, no exceptions. Our plane left at 3 PM. Sweet. Wisely, we forewent any other thoughts of London success (for this trip anyway) and just went for a long coffee and chat. Amazingly, Gatwick’s Easyjet people have also managed to construct an inter-connected series of tunnels very similar to Glasgow’s but with only half the real estate. Gatwick’s superior security made me re-think my assessment that Easyjet is just out to get me. Perhaps they’re ramping up some massively complex psychological scheme to foil terrorists. For example, if you had bombs in your shoes, walking eleven miles on flammable carpeting would likely ignite the explosives. You know, from the friction. You’d never make it with a bomb either – carrying all that weight all that distance would take the spunk right out of you.

Edinburgh was a sunny, cool relief. (London had seemed like a glamorous good idea, but we have re-assessed and decided that the fewer the destinations, the better the vacation.) Our bed and breakfast is a bit out of the way but it’s manned by a very practical and non-intrusive hostess, a prime selling point. We schlepped off to the city center immediately to catch the beginnings of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and some dinner. I’d ordered the catalog but, with 1500 un-reviewed listings, I had no idea what tickets to pre-order, so we’re winging it, which is working out well.

After a long hunt, we tracked down a great restaurant and had our best dinner yet (also a great wine – Whistling Duck Shiraz and Cabernet) and staggered back up the hill to forge through the hordes of people in the streets at 11 PM following the opening night of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. About 6 weeks ago, we snagged the last 2 tickets to Monday’s performance, so we stopped for a few minutes to gloat. All in all, a nice return to Scotland.

Day 9 – London – R’s birthday!

London was a steambath and the Birthday Gods had clearly taken the evening off, as everything that could go wrong did. We did have a pleasant morning/mid-day though. First thing, powering around at high speeds with my iPod, I tracked down my annual Levis fix and availed myself of the usual bag of Muji container goodies. (I wear my black tech pants for these errands. This leaves both hands free for complex maneuvering but, with British currency mostly being coinage and all my usual bag gear transferred to my multiple pockets, I am remarkably lumpy and weird looking. And, I imagine, heavy. I haven’t lifted myself recently, so I can’t prove this last. Perhaps I’ll ask Easyjet if I can just hop on next time we’re at the airport. “Now let’s see how much I weigh without the hairdryer in my backpocket. Now let’s try it with the hamster. Now with the gun.”)

In the afternoon, R. and I trekked off to Churchill’s War Cabinet Rooms which were excellently detailed and affecting. You’d think that these underground small spaces would trump Easyjet any day, but I’m fine as long as there’s an available exit not manned by some perky horror with a blond braid and an orange jacket who’s out for my luggage ruin. In the weird absence of any of Churchill’s own books, we decided that the appropriate memento would be a poster of Churchill looking fierce underwritten with the huge line DESERVE VICTORY! I’ll take my encouragement where I can get it.

I will spare readers the gory details of the evening out on the town. Suffice it to say that the restaurant was located all the way across London from the hotel, that it lay on a street which shares its name with four other streets, that the staff themselves could not locate it on a map, that it had changed its name recently, that the staff was useless, that the food was only all right and that it was about 1000, say it with me, UN-AIRCONDITIONED degrees. (When will Europeans realize that we have the technology to address temperature irregularities? They don’t have to elect Bush or make any other concessions to America to get it: we’ll let them have it for free. In fact, if they ask nicely, I will personally send them a prototype model from which they can construct their very own and manufacture others for their profit.)

Day 8 – Glasgow to London

We hate Easyjet. They suck. There is no limit to their sucking. Their suckage is monumental. First of all, they have no right angles. Apparently, all the big airlines appropriated all the right angles before Easyjet got there. Or Easyjet had theirs taken away for SUCKING.

Let’s start at the beginning. No sleep. Then 90 minutes on the train to and from Edinburgh for 20 minutes in Edinburgh to drop off a piece of luggage we saw no point in taking to London. This was my cagey plan that would, supposedly, deliver us from Easyjet’s Nazi luggage tactics. Then I went and dropped off laundry in a totally grim area of the city and had lunch at a place where everything tasted and smelled like it had been flown in from hell `specially. (What nut came up with Mango Spice salad dressing? It’s a f#$ing fruit, for Pete’s sake, not a piece of cajun meat ready for the rubbin’.) Then I rushed back, packed and grabbed a cab to go meet the bastards at Easyjet. So I was in a good mood when I got there. And we all know how much I love flying.

They “made an exception” for us by not charging us our first-born for checking my CARRY-ON bag (which they claimed was too large for them, despite the fact that other people were carrying on their living room furnishings in paper bags). There was much frantic re-sorting to remove from this bag everything spillable and valuable before they took it away to join the bag that they informed us could have been a carry-on, the fact of which they informed us of AFTER they sent it through.

Then they tried to confuse me (when I tried to get up to speed on the cost to weight ratio of our bags) by insisting on using the word “pounds” to refer to the cost while I was using it to refer to the weight. After I’d gone cross-eyed, they sent us on the death march of about 7 miles of un-air-conditioned corridors, passageways, terminals and tarmac that separates the devil-spawn check-in people from the evil minions of Satan who man the planes themselves. This is so that when you actually finally completely lose it, you can only take half the staff down with you and the rest will remain to complete the mission.

Being now both blind and disoriented, they sprang it on me that it’s free-for-all seating. (The first time I took Southwest, I cried right there in the terminal.) How expensive can it possibly be to stick little labels on the rows? At this point, I took a Xanax. Heroic R. did get us seats together but, unfortunately, they were not seats but BUCKETS thinly disguised by polyester. I couldn’t really get up to check on this theory because I would have had to bend my knees slightly, which is not permitted by the available space.

Once in London, we discovered that our recommended hotel did not in fact have a lift or normally spaced floors, so we carried all our bags up four flights of – SURPRISE! – un-air-conditioned stairs. (I am well aware of what a diva I sound like, but, with respect to heat and space, I am a difficult case, being both claustrophobic and, history has shown, susceptible to heat stroke. London in August in a heat wave is not my best environment. I could do snakes probably. Or ninjas. Or mud. But not heat. Or small spaces.) Rough day, needless to say.

Day 7 – Glasgow – The House for an Art Lover

The weather’s turned nasty again – overcast all around. “Discouraging” is the right word, I think. It’s not bright or dark, not raining but also not not raining. I think the sunny afternoons have been an exception. R. took the morning off so we could see Mackintosh’s House for an Art Lover which lies outside the city and was closed during our Saturday Day of Mackintosh.

The House was stunning. It was built in the 1990’s based on drawings Mackintosh submitted to a design competition in 1900. In itself, that’s impressive, both of Mackintosh for rendering such a complete design (without resorting to actual architectural diagrams) and for the architect who decided it needed to be built 90 years later and was able to construct a real structure from non-architectural diagrams. The house is a complete experience – Mackintosh surrounds you in every detail. Mackintosh and his under-attributed wife Margaret Macdonald designed wall insets in pewter, fireplaces, the glass in the patio doors, wall hangings, the piano in the music room, wall tiling, chandeliers, light fixtures, carpeting and every other little thing. The rooms in the house, as at his own (see Saturday’s blog), are either entirely dark or entirely light, heavy paneling and dark brown furniture or cream paint and white furniture. It’s odd and surprising that the dark rooms aren’t in the end oppressive – you’d expect them to close in you. My personal favorite were the grasso panels in the dining room. The process is extremely cool: layers of plaster-like grasso create the background material, the drawing is traced on, covered with icing-like lines of more grasso into which are set semi-precious stones while it’s still wet. Then colors are washed onto this 3-D panel, to fill in the drawings, and it’s burnished with an agate stone to shine it up. How do people come up with this stuff? Apparently, the Egyptians thought of it. You’ve got to think that they had some time on their hands.

Day 6 – Glasgow

Today is a down day – much writing and some reading and feeling vaguely ill. Perhaps it’s the sudden reintroduction of caffeine to my system, or the jet lag or the recovery from long-term sleep deprivation. Or the French yogurt. We are eating very late: it’s light til 10 PM here (we’re closer to the Arctic Circle than Moscow), so we keep being startled that it’s 9:30 and we’re just thinking of dinner. Good practice for our brief time in Spain coming up next week.

I was almost killed by a Mercedes yesterday, as I was the last time I was here. As I approach intersections, I check both directions about four times because you never know where the car will be coming from. Half the streets are one way, but I’ve got to cover the wrong-side traffic issue AND the turning into the wrong-lane traffic issue on the one-ways. I do not manage this as well as you might think. I check and then I go and then I check again instinctively – this time the wrong direction – as one does when in mid-crossing. Good luck. With the near-death and the getting lost, you’d think I’d stay in the hotel more, but I press forward.

Spent six hours in a cafe? writing, joined up with R. and, after a rough day, he braved haggis at a nice pub we found. It was so finely ground and so not served in the actual sheep’s stomach in which it is traditionally cooked – as the waiter noted, “It’s cooked in a plastic dish.” – that it was actually very tasty and looked remarkably like grainy meatloaf. R.’s braver than I am in matters culinary and we love him for it.

Day 5 – Glasgow – Burrell Collection

On my own again and sinking slightly into that subtle but evident hotel discouragement (impersonal room, a little too much time alone) that creeps on after a few days, I took off for the country, namely the Burrell Collection and Pollock House. The Burrell Collection is one of Glasgow’s gems, if not its outright main attraction.

Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (my favorite museum) and the Frick in New York, the Burrell is a personal collection of art and artifacts. I generally like these collections because they have a flair and inconsistency that is refreshing and lacking at traditional museums. Such was the case here: a bunch of armor (cool), a ton of Chinese ceramics (not my bag), tapestries to burn, a lot of stained glass, some falconry equipment (huh?), a heap of Degas, a Whistler or two, a couple of Rodin’s sculptures, and some Egyptian cats. Burrell apparently had distinct tastes and was notoriously frugal, so the collection is comprised of a.) things he liked, and b.) things he could get at a bargain. It’s quite an organizing principle.

I didn’t like the building itself, which looks like a monster warehouse made of yellow wood and brick and glass. There was a 20-year gap between the donation of the collection to Glasgow and its opening because Burrell had stipulated that the collection have a rural home. When Glasgow finally came up with a site, they chose this building design because, quoting roughly, “It was designed around the objects and not as a building unto itself.” What the hell?? This seems silly to me. I think they should have held out for Gehry and gotten a design that doesn’t look like your average lumber storage depot.

The building does do the items justice, they’re right there, but I would have preferred either the original setting – as at the ISG or Frick – where you get a comprehensive sense of the things/person/collection as a whole, or something interesting in its own right. (They did reconstruct a few of Burrell’s rooms to meet some of this desire but, in that setting, they look dark and not a little bizarre.)

I saw only the gardens of the Pollock House, not the collection, because the Scottish Trust charges an arm and a leg to get into a floor of paintings, I was tired, and there was no wall for me to scale to break in so what’s the fun in that? The formal gardens were beautiful – I don’t know what they feed that grass but it’s crazy-fine. They’ve cultivated an all-yellow labyrinth garden which provides a great exhaustion exercise for holiday-ing kids hopped up on tea and cakes.

I got lost again on my way back. Someone should really send me a compass before I get hurt.

I’d like to say here, for the record, that I love tea (the concept and the reality), but English food (original and imported) is really just the blandest stuff on earth. Fortunately, they have plenty of croissants and French yogurt to cover me. I have also noted the absence of organic fruit, or fruit at all really, and bottled water. Huh. Something nice about California. Who would have thought??

Day 4 – Glasgow – Mackintosh

Day 4 Glasgow

The idyllic Radisson experience continues with excellent pastries and coffee at breakfast, overseen by a Maistridge impersonator. His greeting – “Good morning. Your name?” – is high-pitched and begs for a “Bitte?” at the end of it. (See The Imposters). In keeping with this, when I wake up or glance out the window, I have a reflex to think of this as Germany. This is odd, since clearly its not Germany and I’m not speaking German. Perhaps its the salespeople, who all look really grim. Unlike my experience in Germany however, the Scottish are friendly in conversation, but I’m seeing a lot more people than I’m talking to, arent I? Hence the impression.

At any rate, we raced off on a whirlwind Mackintosh tour, hitting the Willow Tearoom which has mediocre food and service but which is a very decent example of Mackintosh’s work. Excessively tall chairs, a lot of pink and vertical lines. (If you’re the only Mackintosh tearoom still standing, you can pretty much get away with Wonder Bread, I guess. I kid you not.) Mackintosh’s School of Art was closed off during a tour but what we could see on the outside and in the foyer was even better than the Tearoom.

From there, my life of English crime picked up where it left off years ago when Carl and I climbed a castle wall to avoid paying exorbitant entrance fees at an historic site. R. and I felt that we had to scale two fences, erected no doubt to keep people just such as ourselves out (or “in” as the case was). We were running late for the Mackintosh House, and it turns out that Scottish parks have one entrance only, which would explain how nice they are. Walk about as much as you like, but don’t try to get anywhere.

The House was very soothing, many dove greys and creams and, upstairs, light. I’m not a huge fan of that school of design (Wright, the craftsmen of the early century), but, as at Falling Water, I have to admit that when you’re inside the completed vision, its consistency is impressive and, in a geometrical way, lovely.

I was also struck by how imperfect well-made, handmade objects are. Part of the pre-fab, Ikea generation that passed through the chilly 80’s with its Wall St. lofts, I am aware that my implanted instinct for clean edges, perfect seams and machine-like perfection runs in contradiction to my deeper desire for sturdy, substantial, and unique design. (Wright and Le Corbusier’s houses leak like bastards, as I understand it. That would drive me nutty…but I’d still like to have one, in case you ever come across one you’d like to get for me.)

Day 3 – Glasgow – new hotel

Day 3 was a triumph of luxury over crappy orange sofas and substance over fluff. After sorting through the options, we booked a room at the Radisson, across town from the scary shower. (I failed to note in yesterday’s litany that there is no temperature control on Scary Shower, so it is susceptible to toilets and sinks everywhere in the hotel. This added a nice hot potato gaming aspect to the experience. Also, SS’s drain cover, directly in the center of the Designated Showering Circle Area, is pressure sensitive, so about every minute and a half, when you accidentally step on it, you have to re-set the lever on the wall so that the midget doesn’t drown.)

The Radisson is one of the nicest hotels at which I have ever stayed. It’s mostly pewter grey and crimson in the lobby, which gives it a subtlety and class lacking in our previous accomodation. (Turquoise was big over there.) Our room is on the top floor – 6th – and has a full-wall-of-windows view of an old building that looks like it’s out of Harry Potter. Most importantly, the Radisson has wireless and there are no tacky 1960’s used sofas anywhere. Aside from the luxuries, the coolest thing in the hotel is the electrical system. Right above the light switches is a slot for the room key. This turns on all the fuses. When you leave, presumably taking your room key from this convenient storage slot, the lights all go out 2 minutes later. Cool. (Except when you are in the shower. Which is how I found out about this.)

What pisses me off, looking back on the awful Novotel, is that they charge about $18 less than the Radisson for about 75% less stuff. The Novotel is like what this comedian said about Motel 6: “Their motto is, `You’re outside. We’re inside. Want to come in?'” The Radisson, on the other hand, has everything and then some: fridge, safe, cool soaps, great bed, swivel TV, view, yummy breakfast, neat-o lobby, interesting drapes, and no cartoons anywhere. I guess you get to charge whatever the market will bear, but I am definitely reserving a teeny grudge slot that will prompt a full background check on hotels prior to future arrivals. Never assume that the awesome places are too expensive.

The new location did cause me to get massively lost on the way home tonight – I saw the entire Merchant City due to an incredibly incomplete map and a total absence of a sense of direction. Somebody should really have stopped me when I walked by for the ninth time.

On the fluff note, I would just like to say that whatever you read about Glasgow being equal to Edinburgh, the new cultural hub of Europe, blah blah blah is total garbage. Not having been to Edinburgh in almost 15 years, I thought, reading all the happy Glasgow hype, that I might have forgotten what it was like. Nope. I took the train over today. Edinburgh is drop-dead beautiful. It’s green and old. Glasgow is not. Mind you, Glasgow has its own charms and I’m delighted to be here – we’re off to Makintosh on Saturday and I can’t wait – but the over-statement seems unnecessary. Let’s just be honest: Edinburgh is the hottie of Scottish cities.

Day 2 – Glasgow – Scary Shower

I just showered. I was trying to think, as I strode towards said shower desperate for the bathroom, how I would characterize my first full day in Glasgow. I thought over the details. It was an all right day, a day of logistics and small frustrations and a lot of redundant walking. No big wins, no big losses. I settled on “great” with some irony.

For one, I wasn’t at my job, the job that is so ludicrous it’s beyond hating. So that’s a big plus. In addition, I’m away and in Europe. That can’t be bad, America being where it is (tiring election, ridiculous president) and Europe being Europe. There are also no Republicans here, as far as I can tell – it’s a relief not to be confronted with Bush every day.

Now let’s run through the day. The hotel, ready room and semi-Scandinavian light fixtures notwithstanding, is not cool – literally and otherwise. It has no air conditioning, which in Glasgow’s overcast and muggy summer, is not good. It also has no internet connection, save, ahem, an extra phone jack. I know this sounds American and spoiled, but they are charging $170 a night, for God’s sake and this is a business hotel, not a quaint Scottish bed and breakfast. It’s version of a business center is 2 monitors in the lobby next to two huge cartoon drawings of some kind of conglomerate animal – you know, for the kids – where you can pay �5/hour for internet access. This is a dealbreaker for the boyfriend, as he does actually have work to get done. His dealbreaker is great for me because those animals annoy me.

It’s really the shower that kills me though. Come to that, it might – blood has been drawn, but more on that later. It’s one of those single plastic piece showers and it’s shaped like a normal bathub at the back (albeit narrower and shorter) but then balloons to a round shape up front instead of continuing the oval.

The shower curtain only encircles the round part. I can only assume that this is so that one midget may bathe privately in the back while someone else takes an equally private shower. Of course, one might argue that the midget’s privacy will be undermined by bathing in the shower water of the other person, but at least, like Adam before him, he need not be ashamed of his nakedness. Well, as long as there’s pre-arranged timing of bathing anyway.

In a stroke of blindness, the shower curtain is fixed to the rod at the side wall of the shower, meaning that the only way to reach for anything at the back of the tub, where the storage ledges are, is to actually open the curtain on the room side, so that all the water may then spray onto the floor. All in all, it’s really ingeniously exactly NOT what it should be.

(The aforementioned blood came into play when I made the huge error of trying to shave my legs in this fabric-enclosed space. I should know better, from experience in box showers over the years, but I got cocky. After all, I lived in Brooklyn for 5 years with a square shower and I didn’t die.)

The dangerous shower was preceded by the usual details of a new city: ridiculous converter plugs (we’ve moved on to a 2-converter system which seems to work – nothing’s blown up yet, at any rate), annoying wireless at cafes, looking for a new hotel, a return to deep caffeine and sugar after months of decaf and Splenda, and the annual search for massively over-priced European Levis.

All in all, it’s coming together nicely.