“This is the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen.”
I guess it helps that I’ve never really been to an old city. I’ve only ever lived in the Midwest and West Coast of one of the newest countries in the world. The only time I’ve been to the East Coast was to Washington D.C., and while those monuments and buildings were beautifully constructed, they were built yesterday compared to the churches and palaces and shops of Great Britain.
The bus station in Edinburgh was down below the city. To get to the Royal Mile, Koh and I had to travel up through narrow passages, winding streets walled in by old stone buildings. All I had was a little map that hinted we were going the correct direction, but we had no way of knowing.
We mounted a few more steps and we suddenly emerged onto the Royal Mile where at one end, up a hill, is Edinburgh Castle and down at the other in a valley is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official Scottish residence. Risiding the middle are the Cathedral of St. Giles, the Parliament building, John Knox’s home, and an old man wearing a kilt yelling at tourists.
I could just feel the history closing in on me like a mighty rush, voices clamoring to tell me tales. Every element of Edinburgh breathes out the past, and I loved to hear it. It was magical and romantic and everything I dreamed it would be.
And it wasn’t just that things were old. It’s that things were beautiful. The shops were housed in buildings that had seen many shops before and would see many shops after. In America, we make any space work for us and our intentions. In Scotland and other places I saw in Great Britain, there’s this overriding sense of understanding that humanity’s current whims ought to be secondary to what is already. It’s more of a lifestyle, a value placed on what has come before, shifting it to make room for the new instead of demolishing it entirely.
Koh and I walked all day, up and down the Royal Mile, putting up our hoods when it started sprinkling, pulling them down and opening our jackets when the sun warmed our backs. We mastered the art of the audio tour guide, walking into each room of the palace. We got scones at The Elephant Café, where J. K. Rowling dreamed up a land of magic. And we walked and walked, up and down the cobblestone streets.
I wanted to get a little something from every place I visited. I’m a big collector (some might say “pre-hoarder”), and so it could have been as little as a map or a napkin of a meaningful place. I wanted to capture the wonder and the beauty that I experienced that first moment I stepped onto the Royal Mile and actually felt like I was in Scotland.
There are two problems with buying things while on vacation, or vacation as I was doing it. 1) My luggage was an already stuffed–to-the-brim hiking backpack. There was no room for anything big, bulky, breakable, or expensive. 2) I have major buyer’s anxiety. I can never decide what to get and when and if this is the best thing or if I’ll find something I like better tomorrow.
Edinburgh is a lovely old city, but it’s got some funky undertones. It’s artsy and cutting edge in certain ways, especially artistically, so it had to have some fun shops, right? Luckily, I had the right book: Let’s Go, written especially for students so it has the cheapest restaurants, the most fun you can have without paying too much, and thrift stores.
One such thrift store was called Armstrong and Sons Vintage Emporium, and walking in, I felt completely out of my depth. It was more of a costume shop, with crazy mannequins and outfits hanging from the ceiling: sparkling, vintage, specialty outfits. It was a bit too much, too stylized and not cheap enough for me. Mostly, I just felt overwhelmed. The employees looked like cool Scots who looked disdainfully at my day-pack and half-wet hair, mussed from the day of sightseeing. I wanted to say, Yeah, I’m a tourist. So what? We can’t all live in the most beautiful city in the world! Some of us have to travel thousands of miles, okay?
I’m sure I was mentally overreacting.
Nothing spoke to me in that shop, but I wasn’t expecting to find anything. I was actually looking for a book or something intellectual to mark my time in Scotland. Something unique.
We were about to head up one of those quaint Scottish side streets that rise at a steep incline while parked cars line the narrow streets and no one know where it leads. I had read in my book that there would be a bookstore up there. Suddenly, Koh stops and says, “Oh! Look! A charity shop.”
She was pointing to a very inconspicuous shop that had the name of a saint on it or something. A charity shop is a thrift store, but for a good cause. We ducked inside, just to check it out.
This shop was teeny, like most Scottish stores. It was manned by a bored-looking young man and woman. They said an impassive “Hiya” as we entered. Compared to the last store, things were a little dingier, not as impressive. A little more my style.
And then I saw something purple and floral out of the corner of my eye. I think purple and floral is my love language. So of course, I gravitated toward it. It was a dress, a dark fuchsia with small lilac and red-orange flowers and blue-grey leaves. The yellowed tag marked the garment as obviously vintage, a yellowed tag displaying a size that means nothing and huge letters that boast it was “MADE IN ENGLAND” and “100% POLYESTER.” The dress was short-sleeved and scoop-necked, boxy and long with matching string-belt and a large ruffle on the bottom. I thought I’d try it on for fun.
And it was great. It fit like a polyester glove, once sinched in at the waist with the little belt. It made me feel hip and old and vintage and fun all at the same time. I tortured over it for a few moments, but the price was right – only 15 quid ($23). I knew I’d never find anything else like it.
Now it hangs in my closet. My grandmother, the expert seamstress who saves rock star’s pants and also helps me out, took it up a bit so it hits me right at the knee.
It is my Scottish dress, made in England, bought in a charity shop.
For me, it reflects the uniqueness of Edinburgh, the people there, the tie to the past and the tie to the future. It speaks to the relationship with England, and the need for having old things in our lives.
It also reminds me of the beauty and strength I felt while traveling in Edinburgh, especially the second day when I was by myself. When I wear this dress, I feel notable, I feel off-kilter, I feel different and I feel beautiful.
I feel old and stately and small and large and new and messy and unpredictable. I think I feel Scottish.
5/10/11 (Day 4) – Edinburgh, Scotland, Great Britain
Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011