Tag Archives: Edinburgh

The Olympics have started but I missed the only interesting bit because I was drunk.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to start this post with a sweeping statement that’s completely uncalled for: the Olympics (and all sport in general, pretty much) is a total waste of time. Fact.

(Well, technically that’s not a fact at all, obviously, but this is my blog and I can say what I want. Fact.)

To honour this Couldn’t-Care-Less approach of mine, I have been making a point of not watching, reading about or discussing anything remotely connected with London 2012. But that’s difficult. You see, over here in Britain everyone has gone loopy for the ‘lympics – there are precisely twelve zillion TV channels showing nothing but sweaty humans in lycra; every newspaper and magazine has some sort of athlete on the front page, and every single branded item in the country’s supermarkets has been repackaged with the slogan ‘The Official Washing-Up Liquid of The London Olympics’ (or the equivalent, for whatever product).

I can’t help thinking, ‘What, for the love of god, is the point of all this nonsense?’

It’s not just this year’s Olympics that I’m avoiding, I must add. At the start of the last ones, in Beijing, I was renting a house in Croatia with three American blokes called Alan, Nick and Dave. I’d met them on a bus in Bosnia (of all places), and because I’d not been organised enough to book a hostel in advance, I had no idea where I was going to sleep once the bus reached its destination. It turned out that these three Americans had been equally disorganised, and so when we stepped off the bus we agreed that the quickest and easiest way to find a bed for the night would be to talk to an old Croatian woman at the bus station, negotiate a reasonable renting price for the spare rooms in her house, and go there immediately in the back of her ancient Volkswagen beetle.

It was a good decision – the house was quaint and crumbly, five minutes walk from the beach and two minutes walk from a bakery (we lived off burek for four days), and in the living room there was a gigantic flatscreen television.

Yep. We were five minutes walk from this.

That night the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony was on, and the Americans insisted on watching it. To be fair, this was the only part of the famous sports event that I was vaguely interested in. Mainly because there isn’t usually much actual sport involved. And it was impressive, I remember, but after about twenty minutes the novelty wore off and, bored, I finally managed to convince Alan to go out exploring with me.

And we were so glad we did, because it turned out that that night was not only the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony but also, and much more importantly, it was the Annual Croatian Fish Barbecue Crazy Musical Street Party (not its official name, unfortunately). Alan and I stayed up half the night drinking local beer, eating grilled fish off paper plates and dancing to accordion music with old ladies in traditional costumes. I was drunk and I was happy, and there was nothing Olympian involved.

Four years later and another Olympics opening ceremony was about to start, and this time on home turf. The hype built up about this was nothing short of ridiculous, and, as usual, I had decided in advance that I wasn’t going to give two hoots. So on Friday night I went to the pub with my students.

(Students?! Oh yeah, I haven’t really mentioned this yet. I’ve been teaching English in Edinburgh for a few weeks and it’s been amazingly good fun, and since some of my favourite students were leaving last weekend, we decided to go out together for a farewell pint. Or two.)

Or, erm, six. Before I knew it we’d left the pub and arrived in El Barrio – Edinburgh’s exceedingly un-classy, faux-Latin ‘club’ – and there was a TV screen on one of the walls which was showing something Olympic-y (I couldn’t be too specific due to the volume of Stella Artois in my bloodstream), and the time of half past one in the morning.

‘Hurrah!’ I thought, as I knocked back a bottle of Sol. ‘Yet another Olympics opening ceremony I’ve managed to avoid!’ And then I continued to dance, carefree, to some music which may or may not have been by Shakira. Again, it was a fantastic, happiness-filled, alcohol-fuelled night of hilarity that had nothing whatsoever to do with an overrated sporting event.

Of course I fully intend on being drunk and ignorant four more years from now as well.

The pic is a bit blurry. I think I know why.

Just so you know…

In precisely five weeks and one day I will be going to Inner Mongolia. I’m just reminding you in case, like me, you’d forgotten.

It does seem like a while since I was rambling on about yurts and the Gobi desert and learning Mandarin, and that’s probably because I’ve been quite busy for the last month-and-a-half with all this Glasgow door-knocking nonsense (I mean ‘fieldwork’). And I’m actually even busier now because I’ve also started doing a bit of English teaching in Edinburgh, mainly so that I can remind myself how to teach.

So when I started getting comments and messages saying things along the lines of ‘so, um, I thought you were supposed to be going to “Inner Mongolia.” What happened about all that?’ I thought maybe I should let you know that I still fully intend to go when the time comes.

[By the way, can I just say how much I like it when you, my dear readers, write Inner Mongolia in inverted commas, as if it’s some kind of magical fantasy land that only exists in my imagination. I assure you that it’s a real place. You can read about it on Wikipedia.]

Anyway, if you still don’t believe me, just take a look at what came in the post the other day:

No, it’s not just a picture of a very athletic Chinese man jumping over the globe – it’s the envelope containing my work permit and invitation letter. From “Inner Mongolia”! See:

It’s starting to feel more real now, the fact that in five weeks I’ll be setting off to one of the most obscure parts of the world, and living and working there for a year. I really should start practising my Chinese.

How do you like your froyo in the morning? I like mine with granola.

Frozen yoghurt is basically ice cream for healthy people, isn’t it? Ice cream without the ‘guilt’. Not that I’m the kind of person who feels guilty about eating ice cream. Please don’t start imagining me as one of those women who sit in their pyjamas watching Love Actually, shovelling Haagen Dazs down their throats and snivelling about being dumped, or whatever.

(I mean, I’ve shovelled down entire tubs of Haagen Dazs in one sitting before, and I may have been wearing pyjamas at the time, but it certainly wasn’t because I’d been dumped, and I absolutely, definitely wasn’t watching anything with Hugh Grant in it – he makes me feel sick, and I can’t eat ice cream when I feel sick.)

Anyway. What I’m trying to get round to saying is that there’s a snazzy new frozen yoghurt joint in town, and I went there the other day and it was good.

My wonderful friend Miriam – Canadian writer, Glasgow enthusiast and recent corporate convert (who blogs here, by the way) – was on a flying visit to Scotland and we realised, with much excitement, that for the first time in three years we’d actually be in the same country at the same time, and able to meet up. But it would have to be at the inhuman hour of nine in the morning because that was the only time we were both free. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s hard work being an international social butterfly.

So we thought it would be nice to have breakfast in Edinburgh before getting the bus to Glasgow together, where I’d go to work and Miriam would rake through boxes of vintage underpants in Mr Ben.

Frisky, on Lothian Road, is Edinburgh’s (and Scotland’s) first ever frozen yoghurt cafe. Or ‘froyo’ as the kids (apparently) call it these days. I stepped out of the early morning rain and into the shop, which is bright and white with multicoloured plastic chairs and strange pink pictures on the walls. Miriam was already there, sipping a mysterious green liquid.

“It’s spinach” she said, defiantly. “With mint, almond and froyo. And it actually tastes nice.”

I was impressed by the exotic health smoothie. And even more impressed at how natural and unpretentious she sounded when she said ‘froyo’.

I went up to the counter and had a look at what else was on offer. There were four types of froyo to choose from, and lots and lots of toppings, including healthy-looking, breakfast-y things like granola and fruit, and then some ‘guilt’-inducing chocolate chip-type things, brownie pieces and (hurrah!) popping candy. There was also fresh coffee, thank goodness.

Not wanting to be outdone by Miriam I ordered some green tea flavoured froyo with fresh blueberries and strawberries, and it was very tasty indeed. I’m not sure how different it tasted to ice cream, but I did enjoy the feeling of smugness it gave me. Maybe I should be a health freak more often.

The staff were lovely – one lady had the snazziest glasses I’d ever seen, and a friendly man told me  that the green tea froyo is made of real, actual Japanese matcha tea powder, which is the same stuff that’s used in those fancy Japanese tea ceremonies. “I need to remember that for my blog post,” I told the man. So I wrote it on a post-it.

What a nice way to spend the morning. And I’ll definitely be going back to Frisky again – froyo is totally the new Haagen Dazs. Especially because you don’t need to wear pyjamas, watch Hugh Grant and feel guilty to enjoy it.

Chai O’clock in Edinburgh

Although it’s not difficult to find Indian food in here in Edinburgh, getting something that’s both authentic and affordable is a completely different story. Last month I went out for a tasty meal at a local Indian restaurant but was horrified at the prices: £2.15 for ONE tandoori roti? A fiver for a side portion of dal? It was absolute madness. But to be fair, the restaurant was one of the city’s posher ones; the kind with that velvety wallpaper and fancy lampshades, and waiters in waistcoats.

There are cheaper places, though, like 10 to 10 in Delhi, with its embroidered floor cushions, Rajasthani wall hangings and pictures of Aishwarya Rai (before she got too fat, obviously). It’s a nice, cozy place, and the food, chai and lassis are great, but with menus stapled into empty Bollywood DVD cases and ‘Teach Yourself Hindi’ books on the shelves, it’s just a bit too wannabe-desi for its own good. Plus it’s always filled with the kind of people who start every sentence with, ‘When I was backpacking in India…’ Groan.

A tad OTT, maybe

Even the Mosque Kitchen, which used to be one of my absolute favourite places in Edinburgh, has gone downhill in taste and uphill in price. They have an indoor space now, with an espresso machine, and it’s just not the same as when you used to sit outside in the freezing cold at long, folding tables, trying to stop the hungry pigeons flapping off with your naan.

But just when I was starting to lose hope of ever finding a decent place to soothe my India woes, I discovered Bollywood: The Coffee Box, in the vaguely trendy suburb of Bruntsfield. Jai Hind!

Best box in town

It’s probably the closest you’ll get to Indian street eating without forking out for a plane ticket and visa, and right now, in the middle of the Scottish heatwave, there’s nothing better than enjoying your samosas in the sunshine. Nutan (who’s the friendliest woman ever, and is from Delhi!) has turned one of Edinburgh’s defunct blue Police boxes into a tiny kitchen, where she prepares fresh veg and non-veg dishes, snacks like pakoda, and all kinds of coffee. She makes chai too, of course, and we chat in a mixture of Hindi and English as she adds millions of spices to a pot of milk and stirs a pan of sizzling tomatoes with the other hand. The Coffee Box has been going for six months, she says, and has become really popular, even being featured on the local BBC news.

I stay and drink my spicy chai with Nutan, and we talk about Delhi summers, Indian families and learning Hindi. And it reminds me of the culture of street food in India. Over there people don’t grab their takeaway cups and paper-wrapped snacks and eat them as they tear down the street, the way they do here. Food and chai, even water, should be respected, given time, savoured slowly. I learned in Delhi that even the busiest people in the biggest rush still manage to find five minutes to stop and eat or drink a cup of tea. I like that. “Come back soon!” says Nutan, and bursts out laughing.

She makes a mean cup of chai

Breaking news: it’s “hot”!

Proof!

Yes, after all that complaining it looks like summer might finally have arrived in Edinburgh, and it’s driving the locals wild. Strappy tops and hotpants have been excavated from the backs of wardrobes; sunglasses are firmly attached to faces, and bingo wings are flapping without a care in the world. Every square inch of grass in the city’s parks has become a sunbathing hotspot for students, pensioners, the unemployed and other general skivers, all hoping to transform their pasty Scottish complexions into beaming beacons of bronzed beauty. It’s nineteen degrees.

For goodness’ sake, people of Edinburgh, it’s not that hot!

I find the whole thing quite hilarious. Right now in Delhi I know the mercury will be creeping up to almost 45, a temperature that would probably render your average Scot unconscious, if not dead. When I mentioned our local ‘heatwave’ on Facebook I ended up triggering a long chain of comments from friends getting grilled in Delhi, roasted in Chennai, and boiled everywhere in between. All except my Dilli saheli, Anu, who’s currently in Sweden. “It’s SO COLD,” she said. “Like Delhi winter. I am drowned in wool.” The temperature in Stockholm? A bone-chilling twenty one.

I suppose it’s all relative. I remember reading this headline in the Hindu in January and laughing so much I almost choked on my CCD cappuccino. If somebody used to the Indian climate rocked up for Christmas in Edinburgh they probably wouldn’t stand a chance. Well, unless they’d come from Ladakh.

The weirdest thing about Edinburgh, though, is that the weather seems to be completely schizophrenic. This time last week I walking to meet a friend for lunch, wearing thermals, boots, a winter coat and wooly hat. It was raining in that famous Sottish way – horizontally – and you could barely see anything through the fog. And now, as if by magic, the sky is as blue and dry as my jeans hanging out on the washing line. It’s like that joke, that if you come to Edinburgh you need to have a massive handbag so you can carry all the essentials for every type of weather (an umbrella, a raincoat (for when it’s too windy to open the umbrella), a scarf, gloves, sunglasses, sunblock…), because it’s quite possible you’ll experience them all in one day.

So us Scots have learned that when the sun shines we have to make the most of it. In the past two days I’ve seen several men out in their kilts, enjoying that special summer breeze that only kilt-wearers can. In a park, one man in a yellow sarong was lost in concentration making a daisy chain, completely oblivious to the outside world. And everyone else, it seems, is lounging about at pavement cafes, sipping coffee and trying to look all European-chic, pretending they are sur le Continent.

I’d prefer a café au lait…

I can’t mock this, though. I’m too busy enjoying wearing my sandals and short sleeves. And while I have been sniggering at the locals’ rising hemlines, bare shoulders and desperate attempts to get a tan, you can’t really blame people for being optimistic. Especially when it’ll probably snow next week.

Summer in the City: How my new part-time job (and R.K. Narayan) made me love Scotland (and want to write about it) again

I’ve been back in Scotland for three weeks now, and I’ve spent quite a large portion of that time feeling guilty about not writing anything for this blog. Yes, I do realise how unproductive that sounds, and I know that in three weeks I could have easily written pages and pages of stuff (instead of sitting on my backside at home, which is what I was actually doing), but finding time wasn’t the problem. I’ve just had absolutely no inspiration.

(I believe the term for this is ‘writer’s block’, but we all know that that’s just a clever way of making ‘laziness’ sound a bit more professional.)

To be honest, I used to be of the opinion that the only point of ‘blogging’ was to help boring and deeply narcissistic people while away their long and meaningless days by spewing pages of pointless information out into the depths of the internet. Why would I want to read a detailed description of what someone I’d never met had just had for lunch, for example? But obviously all this changed last year when the blogs editor from the Times of India got in touch. Of course I would write for them, I gushed, I love blogging! Such a fabulous opportunity! Bloggy-bloggy-bloggy-bloggy-blog!

And I quickly realised that this ‘little and often’ style of writing was fun! And that people were actually reading the stuff I’d written, and saying (mostly) nice things about it! And that, out there in the depths of the internet, there were zillions of really interesting, good, funny blogs and bloggers that I’d never known about. And what I admire most about these people is that, unlike me, they always seem to be able to think of something to say…

How do they do that? I mean, in Delhi I never ran out of material. And I know I’ll have endless things to write about when I’m trying to get my head round China. But here in Scotland? It’s cold, it’s grey, it’s wet, and I just can’t see why anyone would want to read about it.

Well, I couldn’t until recently.

I’ve found out that my future employer, aka the school in Inner Mongolia (actually, it’s a college, but anyway) doesn’t need me until the end of August, which means I’ll be spending the summer here in Edinburgh. And that means I have to find myself some work in the meantime. Skip forward through some internet job searching, and the long and short of it is that I’m going to be a tour guide for a new company, right here in the Scottish capital. Wheee!

Appropriately, and perhaps what sparked the urge to apply for the job in the first place, was that I’d just finished reading ‘The Guide’ by R.K. Narayan. If you haven’t read it (and you really should, because Mr Narayanji is amazing), it’s about a guy called Raju who spent many years of his life working as a tourist guide in his hometown. The story, which is told via a massive flashback, describes the succession of strange events which caused Raju to become rich and famous, then to get locked up in jail, and then later to accidentally turn into a sort of holy local celebrity.

Of course I wasn’t imagining myself getting famous, or, come to think of it, imprisoned, but Raju’s tour guide life did sound pretty good. I liked the idea of showing people the best parts of my city, and getting paid to be out all day in the fresh air.

So, to prepare for this job, I’ve been busy walking all over Edinburgh and learning about its history. And it’s as if a light has suddenly been switched on over the dark clouds. There are buildings here that have been standing for five hundred years! There are tombs of famous writers and philosophers; old stables, mills, factories, and their workers’ housing, now converted into swish flats and offices; bridges built over valleys to link ancient villages together – villages that grew and joined and finally became the city I live in now. And then there are the ghost stories; tales of witches and plagues and public hangings; of body snatchers; of things so dark and gruesome that we can’t help but be fascinated by them.

Only, I didn’t really care about all that. I was too busy waiting to go back to India, to Delhi, to a city whose history was actually worth learning about!

Why is it that we never pay attention to what’s right under our noses?

Scotland + Bollywood = err, this, apparently!

So yes. I’m going to stop avoiding this blog and start writing about Scotland while I’m here. One reader (and new friend!) told me that I really should be blogging about this aspect of my life, that it would be interesting for people in India in other countries to read, and she’s (hopefully!) right. I spent the first twenty two years of my life in this strange little country and I’ve never bothered to write anything about it, and it’s only now that I realise how obscenely unpatriotic of me that is.

So please watch this space. I might even put on a kilt for you.