Too many times as travelers, we grow too eager to explore uncharted territory and don’t find time to return to the places that have touched our souls. I’m as—or likely, more—guilty of this as anyone. No matter how much I enjoyed a region, why would I want to return to any of the hundreds of cities I’ve visited when there are thousands more out there I haven’t yet seen?
But Scotland will always be the place that keeps beckoning me back. It’s beauty is undeniable, but there’s something about the culture, the people and the place that resonate with me even deeper. This time was even more exciting, as I was able to give my sister and mom a glimpse into the country that I hold so dear.
The only thing that was slightly unfamiliar was the neighborhood in which we stayed. When I lived in Edinburgh, I was but a broke student who did all of her socializing on the Cowgate, in the Grassmarket or around the university in the Teviot vicinity. We never ventured north of Princes Street due to the sheer cost. Well now that I’m an adult(?), nine pounds for a cocktail isn’t reasonable, and a suite that accommodated three people in Stockbridge for just over $200 a night sounded like a downright steal.
Note: Accommodation for more than two people in Scotland is really hard to find—but I promise to share tips with you on doing so another day. (Updated to add: Here’s that post!)
After poring over reviews on several user-generated sites—I’m nothing if not thorough—I settled for the Nira Caledonia, which turned out to be a smart choice. It occupies an old Georgian home, with all the class and charm of the finest Edinburgh home (squeaky floor boards, included).
Given that we were in Europe, where city hotel rooms are notoriously tiny, I was pretty shocked to find such spacious quarters. Not that we spent much time in them, but it was still a great home-away-from-home to return to at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
True, I didn’t know this neighborhood when I lived here—had never even heard of Stockbridge actually—but once we wandered a couple blocks from our hotel, I found myself not needing a map. That’s the true beauty of being in a city that you know like the back of your hand—you can navigate even those unfamiliar streets without outside assistance. It’s like you were always meant to be here, and your feet lead you to where they’re supposed to be.
While our first day was dedicated to beating jet lag and catching up with my friend Jo, day two was devoted to showing Mom and Kari all my old haunts. Let’s take a little virtual stroll down memory lane, shall we?
In the Grassmarket, at the end of my street, there were two pubs my group of friends and I used to frequent with an enthusiasm only reserved for Americans studying abroad. First, there was our favorite, Finnegan’s Wake, which featured our favorite band, the Roots, who played such familiar pub tunes as “Irish Rover” like clockwork and never seemed to grow bored with the task.
Just down the winding way, in the heart of the Grassmarket, was (yet another) Irish pub, Biddy Mulligans, which was the root of my 15-pound weight gain during my time living in Edinburgh. Hard cider, people; it’s evil in more ways than one.
Well, cider and the Baked Potato Shoppe on Cockburn Street, where I dragged my sister for another snack and ate the very meal that was my lunch (and often) dinner daily for a handful of months! A tattie with cheese, pineapple and onion….yummmm. You really mustn’t go to Edinburgh without trying it.
Our bellies full, we meandered down the Cowgate, where we saw Opium, a trendy—or is it trashy? your perception as a student differs greatly than from what it is 10 years later, I’ve come to find—bar that I used to visit on the odd occasion that they were promoting drink specials just outside my flat.
We also spied the Three Sisters, which was a pretty popular pub among the student crowd and where I “shot the three sisters” with my friend Kate, taking all 10 of the required shots on the list that night and getting a “free” (yeah, free after you’ve already bought 10 shots!) T-shirt. I remember my bounty well: It was fire engine red with two targets strategically placed over my girls and likely two sizes too large. You can see why it never got worn.
Espionage was our more regular haunt—well, Francie, Evan’s and mine, that is; I can’t speak for all my Edinburgh compadres—when we were looking to truly “let loose” (i.e. drink way more than any 20 year old should while shaking our collective moneymakers).
Just down from Espionage is my old flat: Kincaid’s Court. The majority of my Edinburgh memories took place within these wall’s confines. I even got to slip through the gated entry—much to the dismay of the student who gave me an overly skeptical look when I told him I used to live there and just wanted to take a wee peek—and a wave of nostalgia engulfed me. (Or maybe it was merely the unwelcome aftermath of that baked potato.)
Right behind Kincaid’s was a steep set of stairs that led up the beginnings of the University of Edinburgh; the “campus” had changed a bit since I was there, but I still could point out a few landmarks (though I’d be lying if I said I spent a whole lot of time “studying” abroad…it was more like “everything but studying,” a fact I still like to keep from my parents, though I still made all As so everybody wins, right?).
We cut over to Nicholson Street and headed south away from the city center, where I spotted the façade of Elephants & Bagels, one of my very favorite spots I had forgotten existed. Even though we hadn’t eaten all that long ago, we stopped for a bite and a latte (tea for Mom).
This pattern continued for a couple hours. When there was no place left to show them—“I had coffee there once!” and “that’s the Moroccan hooka joint we used to love!” only interests your family for so long—so we headed back to New Town, where we spotted another “familiar”: an American Candy Store. I mean, who needs deep fried Mars bars when you can get your Pop-Tarts and Snickers fix right here?
My Mom felt even more at home within Edinburgh’s confines: After all, her name was plastered everywhere. (Her nickname has always been “Sweeney,” a pet name we have called her since I was a child—you call your mom “Mother?” well, mine’s “the Sween!”—due to the fact that a Joe Sweeney was always in love with her in their teens and she worried, what if I don’t find anyone else to marry—then, I’ll be Jeanie Sweeney!?! (Thanks, Dad. Luna was marginally better.) Plus, her mother’s family name is Watts, which is what my cousins have always referred to her as and that of which seems to be a Scottish clan if all the tourist kitsch is to be believed.)
But Edinburgh took in one step further: In case we weren’t feeling enough at home just yet, it went and threw in a Jack Daniels sign on every block. (We grew up 10 miles from the distillery.)
Not to mention, it disseminated errant reminders of my husband around every corner.
At least SVV needn’t worry about me forgetting about him, not even for a second.
Ella either. This is her Scottish twin, Millie. And yes, we are totally that creepy family who approaches you on the street and asks if we can take photos of your dog. Cue: three iPhones and a couple dozen shutter clicks. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when next our paths cross. Guard your canines—and your children. Sweeney is particularly avid in her photographing of other people’s kids.
But of course, the one factor that makes a place feel like home more than anything is good friends with whom you have kept up all these years (and who tolerate your presence even though you closely resemble Satan, red jacket, glowing eyes and all). My favorite saying, told to me time and again by one of my dearest friends, is that “the people make the city,” and even though a number of my “people” have since scattered across the globe like a game of jacks, there are subtle reminders of every one of them lingering around each turn.