I lean against the cool glass, watching people rushing through the streets. My gaze shifts from one shop sign to the next and I make a mental note of any place that catches my fancy. There’s a new coffee shop I’d like to try, plus two second-hand bookshops that I have yet to raid. The bus turns sharply into Princes Street, almost hitting a seagull in the process. The castle comes into view, and my heart gives a little leap. It feels as though I am taking in the staggering sight for the first time.
I’ve been in Edinburgh for six months now and I still make a beeline for the front seat on the top deck of the bus. I still get that sudden rush of adrenaline when I disembark at Princes Street and start weaving my way through the crowds. I must have heard the same bagpipe tunes floating through the air umpteen times by now, and yet the music still fills me with joy.
I have spent many afternoons sitting on the grass in Princes Street Gardens, listening to the gentle rumble of trains pulling out of Waverley Station as I munch on a cold sausage roll from Greggs. And every time I think to myself;
This is bliss.
When I first visited Edinburgh six years ago, I made a wee wish at the top of Arthur’s Seat. Back then, I was a 21-year-old undergrad who had a thing for men in kilts and harboured a fascination with all things weird, witchy and exotic – an interest that has since progressed into a collection of books on witchcraft and a place on master’s programme in anthropology. As for my soft spot for Scottish men… well, I’m getting married to one next year.
As I sit in my usual spot on the bus, trying to curb a bout of motion sickness whilst praying for a break in the clouds, I realise that I’ve been growing fonder of Edinburgh with each passing day. My mind travels back to that cold April morning in 2011, when I had stood on the edge of Arthur’s Seat and hoped that one day I’d return to Edinburgh as an expat.
Six years later, I no longer have to wonder what it would be like to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I can finally call Edinburgh home.
Fishing and wedding-planning in the Highlands
Douglas throws the fishing line into the murky waters of the loch. He spends the next ten minutes waiting for a sign, under the watchful gaze of a hopeful seagull and a cynical girlfriend. Opposite us, dark clouds are moving fast across the rugged mountains of the Isle of Skye, matching the speed of currents that ripple the vast surface of Loch Alsh.
Something tugs at the hook.
“I think we’ve got something here,” Douglas says excitedly as he starts rolling back the fishing line.
Suspense hangs in the air. From the corner of my eye, I catch the seagull taking a couple of surreptitious steps towards us. The reel buzzes, then stops turning. A fight ensues between Douglas and whatever’s on the other side of the fishing rod.
“Come on ye wee bugger!”
So this is where I start my new chapter as an expat in Scotland, on a beach right at the heart of the magical Highlands, watching my husband-to-be swearing at a defiant loch creature that turns out to be a big lump of seaweed.
We spent our three weeks in Kyle of Lochalsh, the gateway to the Isle of Skye and the town where Douglas grew up, trying to plan a smooth move to Edinburgh – and a wedding. The incessant rain boosted our productivity. We picked a date, chose a venue, drafted the guest list and found the perfect (burger) caterer, only to end up scratching our wedding plans a month later.
Our December wedding in a remote hotel on the Isle of Skye has been replaced by a weddingmoon in Cuba.
Although we didn’t get to do a lot of exploring whilst we were in Kyle (mainly due to the weather), we did have a wee culinary adventure. On an unusually beautiful day, we took a trip to Broadford on the Isle of Skye, where we spent an hour or so foraging for mussels while the tide was out. At first I was a bit worried that the seagulls would gang up on us for pilfering their food, but they were too busy enjoying the sun to notice our presence on their domain.
The rocks on the bay were studded with mussels. We plucked them out one by one, their barnacles leaving small cuts on our hands. Within the first half an hour, we already had a bag full of mussels. We filled a second bag, and would have happily continued collecting more mussels were it not for the fact that we had to get a bus back home.
Before heading back to Kyle, we stopped for a coffee at the market square in Broadford; a small area on the shore with colourful cabins selling antiques, books and clothes. Everyone at the market, from the chatty coffee vendors to the bookshop’s black cat, could guess what we were having for lunch.
We left a trail of fishy odor wherever we went, and I felt truly sorry for the people who were on the bus with us on our way home.Two hours later, we were digging into a large bowl of mussels cooked in white wine and spitting out tiny pearls. A true taste of Scotland.
I always feel a twinge of sadness when I leave the Highlands to travel back south. As much as I love Edinburgh, the Highlands is where I truly belong. The day we left Kyle with eight bulky bags, I spent the entire train journey going over the same question in my head: Will we be OK in Edinburgh?
Well, I’ve had my share of ups and downs in the last six months. But whenever I feel a bit low, I like to go up Calton Hill – or anywhere else in the city where I can get a good view of the Firth of Forth – and remind myself that a wild, rugged place awaits me on the other side of the water.
Learning the local lingo
“Scotland?! But it’s so cold there!”
That was the most common reaction I got when I told people I was moving to Scotland, followed by “It’s so far away from home.” They made it sound like I was heading to some remote island in the Antarctic. The truth is, the weather here isn’t that bad, although I have yet to experience my first Scottish winter (I’ll let you know how that goes!). And neither is Scotland that far from home. It’s actually quicker to get to Malta from Edinburgh than it is to Kyle.
To be honest, it took me a while to get used to the fact that spring in Scotland is actually colder than winter in Malta. I spent my first three months in Edinburgh walking around the city in three layers of clothing and taking refuge from the rain in coffee shops. June brought a glimmer of hope. Summer was finally around the corner. Or so I thought.
So, let me try to paint an accurate picture of summer in Scotland. You wake up in the morning and there’s a narrow beam of sunshine peeking through the curtains. For a moment, you think you’ve overslept, or that you got so drunk the night before you have somehow woken up in the Canary Islands. You check your phone. It’s 8.30am. Facebook advises you to stay dry. OK, you’re still in Scotland.
As you draw back the curtains, sunlight floods the room.
“Ah, it’s a beautiful day.”
So you dig out some summer clothes and try to assess whether they need a bit of ironing. Nah, a wee shake will do the trick. Then, you put the kettle on and go for a quick shower. But when you come back out, something doesn’t feel right. It’s so dark you have to turn the lights on.
Then you hear it. Rain hitting the windows. Despondently, you throw your summer clothes back into the abyss of your wardrobe (but at least you’re glad that you didn’t iron them) and sit down with your cup of coffee. Denial starts setting in.
“Oh it’s just a wee cloud. It’ll stop raining in ten minutes.”
Two hours later, the clouds finally break up. The downpour has receded to a drizzle. And then, through some divine intervention, it stops raining. So you decide to head out for lunch, taking a waterproof jacket as a precaution. You sit at your favourite cafe, listening to people discussing the weather and other pressing issues. Meanwhile, it’s getting brighter out there, so you down the rest of your coffee and leap out into the sunshine.
Suddenly, it gets too warm. It’s 17 degrees and there’s not a single cloud in the sky. This is what local newspapers would call a heatwave. In fact, they did say that Scotland was set for the hottest summer ever recorded. Hotter than North Africa, they said. And it bloody feels it.
Since you can’t remember how to get to the nearest beach (because you’ve never actually been there) and where you’ve put your swimwear (or if you own any), you head to the park instead.
You join the troops of sunbathers in the park, wishing you hadn’t put on your warmest hoodie – and that stripping down to your underwear in public was legal. And whilst you’re basking in the sun, trying to convince yourself that the ground is comfier than your mattress (in my case I don’t have to try very hard), you decide to message your better half, who’s on the other side of the city.
Summer is finally here 🙂
To which your better half replies:
Um, it’s actually Baltic out there.
Your (censored) reply to that cryptic message is:
Baltic? What the hell is that?
But before you have time to figure out what your significant other is on about, it suddenly turns very dark. You look up, hoping it’s just a couple of obese seagulls flying past.
The first one lands in your eye. You scramble off the ground and dash across the park through a barrage of ice bullets. As you try to make your way home in the blinding hailstorm, you completely forget that there’s a waterproof jacket in your bag.
You get home, turn on the heating and drown your sorrows with a cup of tea. A few hours later, your better half arrives home, jolly as ever.
“Is it still raining?” You ask.
“Aye, it’s fine rain though. We call it ‘misty rain’ in Scotland.”
“And what’s the local word for the heavy downpour we had earlier?”
While my family and friends in Malta were worried that I might freeze to death in Scotland or that it would take me three weeks to sail from Edinburgh to Malta for Christmas, I was distressed about something completely different. The Scottish accent.
You would think that having dated a Scot for the last five years I’d have no difficulty understanding the locals. However, I’ve found myself in a few awkward situations in the last six months, like that time a waitress had to ask me four times if I wanted to pay in cash or by card until I finally understood what she was saying (and I felt like a downright idiot when I did), or that time when my listening skills were put to the ultimate test by the perspex between me and the customer service assistant at the post office.
Well, I am getting better at it, slowly but surely. Binge-watching Outlander has definitely served as a crash course into the local lingo. So has going to the pub (and riding the bus back home) on a Friday night – although perhaps this is more what I would call ‘a cultural immersion’.
Visiting crime scenes (ie. flat-hunting)
Our first place in Edinburgh was in what used to be one of the roughest areas in the city. Leith. Nowadays, it is the most hipster neighbourhood in Edinburgh, with many cool cafes and bars lining the waterfront. Leith is also home to a colony of seagulls with odd antics, such as spending all night making all sorts of imaginable noises outside our window.
When we first visited Leith in 2012, Douglas had warned me to put my camera away and guard my kidneys. But we spent three months living in Leith and we never really had any problems, bar that one frightening encounter with a drunk man in front of our house. We had just walked out of the door when this highly intoxicated man staggered towards us, babbling incoherently. He stopped right at our side, his aggressive behaviour sending me into panic mode. I clutched at the only thing I could use as a weapon; my SLR camera, and tried to channel my inner ninja. Then, he just walked away.
I know, a bit anti-climatic, right?
Our house-share in Leith was just a temporary thing. In May, we started looking for a new place. Our budget limited us to a flatshare. The first room viewing was in a cosy house in Dalkeith. There were just two problems with the place – it was not in Edinburgh, and the owners had two cats. The only cats I ever liked in my life were my own, but then again, I didn’t like all of them. However, I’d happily live in a house full of dogs, or raccoons.
So we loosened our budget by 100 quid and started looking for places that were a bit more central and had no cats. The next one was in an isolated neighbourhood of uniform houses with neat gardens and pruned trees. It was a clear, sunny day, and some of the residents were out mowing the lawn or washing their car. But there was something about the place that just gave me the creeps. For some reason, it reminded me of those horror films in which some clueless couple, whose car has just broken down on a remote highway, stumbles upon some obscure village, where locals seem to be a tad too friendly… well, you know what happens next.
Our prospective flatmate was waiting for us outside, smoking a cigarette. I put down the first ‘minus’ on my mental list. We walked up a narrow flight of stairs that was covered in at least five years’ worth of dust. The place itself was quite bare, with cracks stretching across the walls and ceiling. I added a minus for each crack. The furniture in the bathroom and kitchen was rustier than my French and German combined, and the sofa looked like it had been attacked by an angry badger.
Douglas decided to ease the tense atmosphere in the room, while I just stood there like a deer in headlights, too shocked to move or speak.
“So where are you from?” He asked the (no longer prospective) flatmate.
“Italy,” he replied, in a deep smoker’s voice, “And you?”
I finally found the strength to say something.
The Italian shot me a blank stare.
So I tried again, pronouncing it the way Italians do and drawing out the vowels, although I may have exaggerated the last ‘a’. I was met with another blank look. At that point, I just wanted to bang my head against the wall in despair, but I was worried it would bring the whole place down.
Once again, Douglas broke the awkward silence with a question.
“So, what do you do?” He asked.
“I’m a filmmaker.”
I spotted a camera and tripod tucked away in a corner. Oh, and a Moroccan lamp hanging from the ceiling (a ‘plus’ for that).
“What kind of films do you make?”
The Italian stalled a little bit, looking suddenly uncomfortable.
And then it all started to make sense. The cracks in the walls, the bareness of the place, the tears in the sofa…
Please, Douglas, no more questions. Let’s just get out of here. NOW.
And he must have read my mind, for five minutes later we were walking back through the cloud of dust in the stairwell. By then, I had lost count of all the ‘minuses’ on my list.
Our budget got a bit bigger after that weird experience, but it wasn’t enough to spare us further horrors. A few days later, we had another room viewing in a house in Dalry. We were greeted by the owner, who shared the house with two other people. That meant that if we had to move in, there would be five people in total and one bathroom. There’s no way I could live in a place like that with my chronic stomach problems. But that wasn’t the only scary thing about the house.
The owner herself was a bit creepy. The type that would be up all night concocting potions and shapeshifting into evil creatures, such as cats. No, I’m not kidding. The fitted carpets and sofas were covered in animal hair, but there were no pets in the house.
Things got a bit spookier when we went down to the basement to check out the vacant bedroom. I can’t find the right words to describe the room, but let’s just say that it wouldn’t look out of place in one of the Italian filmmaker’s experimental films.
And after that second weird experience, we decided to ditch our budget and start looking for a one-bedroom flat instead, even if it meant having beans on toast for dinner for the next couple of months. Little did I know that finding a decent flat would be so bloody difficult – not only because there’s a lack of decent flats in Edinburgh, but also for the very fact that attending a flat viewing is like going for a job interview.
The first flat we saw conjured to mind scenes from The Exorcist. It was a gloomy place with old-fashioned furniture and was located right next to a big cemetery. But we decided to go for it anyway. We told the agent that we wanted it and he gave us a form to fill out. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones interested in the flat, so the landowner would have to review all applications and choose the best candidate/s according to the following criteria:
Profession, annual income and references from previous landowners.
We went through the same process with two other flats and every time I was tempted to write down my mum’s number in the References section. The only thing that held me back was the high likelihood that they would ask her some questions about my housekeeping efforts. I didn’t want to risk having my name included in a register of blacklisted tenants, if such a thing exists.
And finally, we got lucky
Yep, we eventually found a flat whose owner doesn’t really care whether we work for the secret service or if we know how to use a toilet brush. And the place is pretty decent, too. We’ve got our own wee garden, which has all kinds of exotic weeds growing in it (not the recreational ones) and a bent tree. We also live right next to a huge park that is perfect for evening jogs, a cheap gym that also offers high intensity workouts, and a Chinese takeaway. No prizes for guessing which one we go to.
So here I am now, sitting at our small table/makeshift desk by the window, trying not to get distracted by all the adorable dogs stopping for a poo in front of our garden. The sun has come out and I suppose I should be at the park enjoying this rare phenomenon rather than sitting here writing about it. In my next blog post about living in Scotland, I’ll tell you all about our initiation into a religious cult and the many other perks of living in Edinburgh.
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