I embarked upon my first train adventure last week. A family friend whom I had never met before conversed with me via email and invited me to spend time with her and her family in their Scottish town of North Berwick. Nat and I purchased tickets and successfully navigated the giant Waverly station in Edinburgh to find the little train shuttling passengers to the wee town.
Jana and her family call New York home, but are currently spending a year in North Berwick while her husband works on a new business. They have lived there before and are old hands at understanding Scottish brogue and knowing where to find fried chicken.
Nat and I arrived in North Berwick around 3:15 PM on Wednesday afternoon and followed our ears to the ocean immediately. Jana had told me to email her when and where we were ready to be picked up that evening, but I never found WiFi again after disembarking the train in Edinburgh. Nat and I wandered the beach for an hour, marveling at the foamy waves and a picturesque sunset. Recognizing our WiFi dilemma, we sat on a bench for a few minutes near the Seabird center watching for Jana's car in hopes that she could read our location if we concentrated hard enough. A few raindrops started to fall so we wound our way back through the tiny streets, on the lookout for a payphone. Trust me, if you're looking for a payphone, you won't find one. But if you don't need one, you'll run into them every few feet. It's the law of traveling abroad.
We ended up back at the train station and I finagled enough change to dial Jana and give her our location. That angel immediately came to fetch us from the station and offered us a beer as soon as we walked into her home. We met Kate (8) and Joe (10) while we sat at the kitchen counter and talked. She treated us to a lovely supper a few blocks up the street where Nat and I both chose the Cajun chicken sandwich and tasted Irn Bru, a soft-drink in Scoltand as popular as Coca-Cola in the States. We were not impressed. I had the urge to dial poison control as the concoction tasted akin to swallowing children's toothpaste.
Kate gave up her room for the night so Nat and I had our very first sleepover in Kate's twin beds (#milestone). I wasn't even mad to hear my alarm go off in the morning because I got to step into a mammoth shower. In comparison to my 2x2 cubicle in Dundee, the shower in North Berwick was an utter spa.
Jana served up a feast of a breakfast, bacon, eggs, and croissants, which we devoured while feasting our eyes on her incredible North Sea view. The kids in Scotland attend school from 7AM to 7PM (nightmare!) so Jana has most of her days free. She offered to drive us to the nearby castles of Dirleton and Tantallon. Dirleton was breathtaking. There were countless staircases and chambers, a riveting maze of history. Before ushering us to Tantallon, Jana drove us down to Sea Cliff, the most beautiful beach I've ever seen. From the shore, I could see Tantallon pristinely positioned on the edge of a cliff, ruling over the waves bowing down below. We climbed upon the giant rocks and struggled against the wind to stay upright, mesmerized by the coast of Fife in the distance. We tore ourselves away in order to have enough time for Tantallon. The sacrifice was worth it. Tantallon is my castle. If I were royal in the 1400s, I would choose Tantallon as my home. The winding stairs never seemed to end and the top of the castle boasted views of lush farmland and merry surf. We paid a visit to the small gift shop where I picked up a refrigerator magnet. When I have a kitchen of my own, I can see the castle every time I approach the appliance for some bacon.
Jana picked us up outside the castle grounds with boxes of chicken for the train. I could have kissed her. The smell alone was enough to satisfy me, but we were lucky enough to get to eat the fried goodness. We spent the entire train ride to Edinburgh discussing how wonderfully hospitable Jana is to total strangers. I hope to be her when I grow up.
We arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland's capital city, at 2:00PM and headed straight to the castle. It is bigger and older than the ones we saw in the morning, but it was packed with tourists. Its redeeming qualities were the crown jewels and the room where Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James, the first monarch of both England and Scotland.
We hurried to make our scotch whisky experience tour at 4PM and tasted whisky from the Highlands and Speyside. I was not impressed with either, but I was in awe of the largest whisky collection in the world.
I bought a ring from a street vendor in Edinburgh so I consider myself married to Scotland now. The design is a variation of the traditional Claddagh ring, with Celtic knots on either side of the heart and crown instead of hands. The ring will become a symbol of all the memories I am making this semester and, once I'm back in the States, I will only need to glance at my right hand to remember the roots I put down in Europe.
I snapped photo after photo, desperate to capture the essence of what I felt at every moment during this adventure. I experience Scotland with all five of my senses, but the camera only captures sight. The camera doesn't taste the whisky chocolates from Musselburgh, the chocolate chip shortbread cookies, or the long-missed succulent fried chicken, the crispiness almost enough to bring tears to my eyes. The camera doesn't feel the biting wind, working as well as a pinch to remind me that I am not dreaming: this IS my life. The camera doesn't smell the salty ocean air, the stillness of castles haunted with odors from hundreds of years ago. The camera doesn't hear the waves, the seagulls, the voices of people I never would have met without this program. The camera doesn't understand the imposing silence of Scotland underneath the chatter, my exclamations at every castle, and the traffic noise. Scotland has something to say. A Very Lucky Girl is listening.