Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Ooh, it has been a long time since I've blogged. Sorry about that. The holidays were fairly uneventful, or at least uneventful enough to not merit a blog post on my part, and I was engaged in writing a paper, anyway, so I was using all my brain cells on academic matters. Now, however, my brain cells are freed up (though soon to be once again occupied with school) and I am here to tell you all about our lovely New Year travels.

Last year, we headed to colder climes than Berlin for the New Year; we went to Poland. This year, we followed the same pattern. We headed north to Scotland, where (I thought) it would be colder than Norwich. It didn't actually turn out to be colder, but it was definitely darker for more of the day. That didn't stop us from seeing as much as we could for the days that we were there, though.

We spent the bulk of our time in Edinburgh. It was, to put it simply, very beautiful. It's not a very large city, as capitol cities go, but it was full of character. The main focal point of the city is Edinburgh Castle, which both of us were very excited to tour. I discovered that I am a huge fan of the guided tour. It's kind of like a field trip, except you don't have to take a test later on what you learned.

Edinburgh Castle from below

In the Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

One of the highest windows in that first picture is looking out from the room in which Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her son, James VI of Scotland, later to become James I of England when Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. It was very strange to breathe in the semi-stale air of that room and think that a king was born in there. The second picture was taken inside the Great Hall of the Castle, which was completely majestic and had a fascinating roof held together by more than 1000 wooden pegs and no nails. If you look closely, you can see that the decorations on the walls are made of guns and swords. It was, all in all, a very awesome castle. In addition, you could see the whole city from that vantage point (which made it a successful castle during times of war), and I have no pictures to document the fact that I have never in my life seen clearer air than I saw up there. The day had been painfully, terribly windy, but the night air made up for it completely.

There was another point that offered a view over the whole city, a gigantic rock (maybe you could call it a hill?) that was created by a glacier thousands of years ago, called Arthur's Seat. Here's me at the bottom:

Parliament / Arthur's Seat

and Brad at the top:

From Arthur's Seat

You can see the Castle way in the background there; from this angle you can easily see that the Castle is situated in a strategically excellent place. We saw at the Castle, incidentally, the Crown Jewels of Scotland, and they were incredible. They were so opulent that I had a hard time conceiving of them as real, and not simply a stage decoration or a prop. Next to the Crown Jewels was something called the Stone of Destiny, which I had never heard of but is at the center of a very dramatic story. It's worth a moment of your time to read about it. The long and complicated relationship between Scotland and England is illustrated in the story of the Stone, and it's fascinating.

There was, of course, a lot to Edinburgh aside from the Castle. The Royal Mile, which is the road that leads to the Castle, is full of historic buildings, and at the end of it opposite the Castle is the Scottish home of Queen Elizabeth II. Her palace, though, is somewhat overshadowed by the amazing new Parliament building built in the city, which is a strangely Gaudi-esque. There were also large and lush Georgian neighborhoods that were (and are) mainly for the rich folks of Edinburgh, funky little neighborhoods full of bookstores and strip joints (reminded me of San Francisco), and whisky. So much whisky. I don't really drink, but I appreciated the way that whisky was looked upon as a national treasure, their most precious and historical export. We did not, unfortunately, get to tour a distillery, though we plan to later in the year. We did, however, do a whisky tasting, and I was so charmed by the culture of it.


Okay, those bottles are full of different kinds of liqueurs and vodkas and generally not whisky, but it's a good example of the esteem afforded to liquor. I found it quite wonderful.

We also visited Stirling, a town only about 30 or 40 miles from Edinburgh. Stirling, too, had a Castle, where we took a very hilarious and animated guided tour. (Did I mention that I love guided tours?) Stirling and the land surrounding it was a very pivotal area during the Scottish wars for independence during the 12th century, so the Castle was quite important for centuries. The aforementioned James VI lived there for quite a while, and apparently the only time Stirling Castle was ever taken was by Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. The Castle itself was not as imposing as the one in Edinburgh, but it was quite beautiful, and set in the middle of some lovely (and misty) countryside.

View over Stirling

Stirling was a fairly small town, but our trip there convinced me that we must go back to Scotland while we are still in the UK, so that we can see the highlands and the islands and all the hidden pockets. Maybe in the spring.

We also took a little trip here in England, to London and Windsor, where we saw - you guessed it! - Windsor Castle. Windsor was the only one we saw which is still a working Castle, and it was amazing. So amazing.

Queen Victoria / Windsor Castle

That's Queen Victoria. I don't know much more about her than that she ruled over England for 64 years. Longest monarch in English history! We couldn't take pictures inside the Castle, which was understandable, but oy, it was incredible in there. What I had a hard time fathoming was that many of the rooms that took my breath away are still used by Queen Elizabeth when she stays at Windsor. To me it's a museum; to her it's real life. Or maybe I should say "real life". To quote Eddie Izzard: " 'God Save the Queen.' Now the Queen lives in a very big house, she has barbed wire outside, and people with guns in front of that. That's one saved f*&!% queen, I'll tell you!" There are still about 260 workers living at Windsor Castle, some of whom have only one job - raising the flag, say - and I'm sure there is a large number of unseen security workers all throughout. And also - it's a fortress!

Windsor Castle - the fancy part

The town of Windsor was very cute, and across the Thames is the town of Eton. Both Prince William and Prince Harry were educated at Eton, and I wonder what it must be like for a) them, and b) their fellow students. The most fame I've ever had at one of my schools was that the girl who played the princess in The Neverending Story went to my junior high several years before I did. How do you deal with sitting behind Prince William?

And finally, we went to London. London is a very big city, and difficult to see all in one go, but we walked for hours, through Soho and Camden and from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalger Square. Also, there were a couple things that we were determined to see during our first excursion to the city. Obviously:

Parliament over the Thames

Parliament as seen over the Thames! Classic! And the other thing:

London Chinatown

London Chinatown. We walked for hours to get to London Chinatown, which is about three square blocks and only restaurants. I suppose I was expecting the weird little knick-knack stores that are so abundant in SF or Oakland Chinatown, or tanks full of living turtles and ducks and chickens with the feathers still attached hanging in the windows. Mostly it was buffet-style Chinese restaurants, but we found a bakery that had excellent cha siu bao and coconut buns, so I was happy. The lady working at the bakery was just as abrupt and rude as the ladies that work the bakeries in Oakland, too, so I felt right at home. There are other things we need to see, of course, like Buckingham Palace and Royal Albert Hall (where we have tickets to see Carmen in March!), so I'm sure we'll go back a few more times.

And now the semester has begun, so I believe we'll be, once again, stationed here in Norwich. There are many places in England that we are determined to visit, though, some of them not too far away, so I hope to be seeing you here on my blog in the extremely near future. Welcome to 2009.