Monday, January 01, 2007

Life in a Northern Town

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Why

We spent November 2006 visiting researchers at the University of Edinburgh. I was primarily there to work with Philip Wadler to compare notes between our work on Flapjax and his on Links. If any research ensues from my time here, we'll have to title the paper The Perfect Breakfast: Flapjax with Links. (I was mildly flummoxed, though, to discover that “flapjacks” refers to entirely different food items on the two sides of the pond!)

Even if Wadler weren't there, being in Edinburgh would be a magnificent intellectual experience. We had a right royal bean-feast there. Edinburgh is one of the world's centers of what I call Volume B theory, i.e., material that appears in Volume B of the Handbook of Theoretical Computer Science (to wit, Logic and Semantics). The numerous theoreticians in my own department, singly and jointly, actively ignore the very existence of this half of theory. Indeed, there were more logicians in the hallway of my secondary office there than there are at all of Brown.

This wealth of foci means some adventitious discoveries are almost inevitable. The most exciting will undoubtedly be the work of Keith Stenning, who studies the logics behind human interpretation and understanding as determined by experimental psychologists. This is fascinating work that immediately teaches me many things relevant to our work on security policies and opens up several radical new avenues we may choose to explore.

Why Not?

But being in Edinburgh was about more than just research. It's interesting to be away from Providence; I haven't lived anywhere else since moving there in 2000. Providence is a very pleasant place, and a nice city; but Edinburgh is aggressively a city, and I've missed the bustle where we live, in the quiet parts of Providence. It was also an opportunity to explore Scotland a little, though there was a constant tension between doing that and sampling what Edinburgh itself has to offer.

Food is interesting in Edinburgh. On our first evening, we made a ceremonial visit to Henderson's, one of our favorite veg restaurants there. While returning we stumbled upon an outdoor market with a wide variety of international vendors. Talking to the woman at the baklava stand made clear she was Lebanese; the man at the chocolate stand had come over from Antwerp. So we made purchases at each, and both their products were as good as you would expect. Ah, cities.

An outdoor market in November? It wasn't the only one. One thing immediately apparent is that the natives here take bad weather in their stride. New Englanders do, too, to some extent; but their response seems to be more stoic than graceful—our farmers' market, for instance, shuts down at the height of fall. In Edinburgh they progress on merrily, just changing what they sell.

The market didn't have much to sell by way of produce (it'd be awfully suspicious if it had), but it did have some interesting spirits. I picked up two (relatively) expensive bottles of Black Isle beer (ridiculously expensive, now that I realize those were pounds, not dollars), as well as wines from a regional winery, one as a gift for our dinner hosts. The winery's brand, Cairn O'Mohr (get it? get it?), is an exercise in studied eccentricity, but their product is nevertheless surprisingly good. They make various fruit wines—none, actually, from grape—and we were rather impressed by their elderberry production.

Oats are everywhere: big bags of oats in the supermarket, oat nutrition bars, oat milk as an alternative to rice/soy milk. As an act of solidarity with the Scots, pace Dr. Johnson (or, perhaps, to cock a snook at him), we had a hearty oatmeal porridge at the farmers' market—where else would you expect to find a food truck serving ten different varieties of it? My choice was a cranachan, which is porridge with sweet cream and raspberry. Eating it in the chilly outdoors beside the sheer vertical rock leading up to the Edinburgh Castle, I figure there are not many better urban settings for anything, anywhere. The oat truck eventually became something of a tradition for us (two favorite mixins being whiskey and honey, and a ridiculously slab of sweetness called Border Tablet), and I wish the good folks of Stoats the very best as they try to expand their franchise.

Home

We stayed very near the heart of Edinburgh, in a furnished apartment called the Knight Residence. We couldn't have had a better experience. It was expensive, so staying for a month was about all we could reasonably afford. But the money bought you something. It was outstanding, managed with extreme professionalism and furnished just right: everything solid, but nothing so expensive that you're afraid of breaking it. (Be all that as it may, they persist in the European tradition of failing to use shower curtains.) The complex has a collection of videotapes, DVDs and books (a very nice touch), of which each apartment has a small initial set. Our very first night we watched Local Hero, a 1980s movie set in Scotland's oil boom; because it contrasts (utter caricatures of) Texas oilmen and Scottish village life, it seemed especially apt.

The location was half the joy. We were south and just a bit west of the castle complex, so every direction from where we lived was up, though that suited me just fine. To get to the New Town we could either walk around the castle on west on Lothian Road and Princes Street, or around it through the Princes Street Gardens during the daytime, or up to the Castlehill part of the Royal Mile, then back down to the Mound or one of the bridges crossing the Gardens; no route took no more than fifteen minutes.

Our apartment was, curiously for such a nice spot, right next to the red-light district in town. This proved to be a bit of a surprise to most of the locals, who didn't know Edinburgh had such an area (or a few who emphatically insisted it didn't). It's only a handful of shops, coincidentally arranged in a configuration that Ezra Cooper memorably called the “pubic triangle”. Either November is a low season (which it probably is), or they're just awfully well-behaved folks, but the area was almost disappointingly quiet. The one thing that was hard to miss is that the dancers seem to be awfully prolific smokers. Given that smoking is forbidden indoors, walking past any of these establishments meant having to contend with the smoke-screens manufactured by the talent.

Rugby

Our first weekend, we attended a rugby game, Scotland taking on Romania. Buying the ticket proved to be a minor adventure in itself. For some strange reason, they demanded to have our home address and telephone number even though we were paying for the tickets in full with cash. Is this just England's rampant surveilance culture? Were they afraid we were giving them bad bills (and if so, why wouldn't we lie about the address?)? Or is this, I wondered, a yob-control mechanism—find out where everyone lives so that you can later on track down the trouble-makers? I was preparing for the worst, and secretly relishing it just a little. (Oh, of course, we didn't know any of the contact information they asked for, but it was so immediately clear to the sales agent that we were clueless non-locals that he soon sighed and stopped asking questions.)

For the first five minutes it looked like it could be a tense match, but thereafter the game was so obviously was Scotland's (the final margin was 48-6) that any observations about the crowd may have to be discounted. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a more polite audience at a national sporting event, a claim that locals later confirmed was true of all rugby, not just this match. They clapped when the opponents scored, and were scarcely more partisan when their own team did (which it did with almost boring regularity). It was outright disappointing: I had gone prepared for the worst yobbish behavior, but it was like attending a bankers convention. (Kipling is reported to have said that soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, while rugby is vice versa.)

The only moment of local color was when the announcer came over the tannoy at the end to read out scores for the other matches that had been played that day. The crowd was in an orderly procession out of the stadium (no pushing or shoving). When the announcer said “Argentina-England”, though, the entire stadium came to a collective halt. With scarcely contained excitement, he read, “25-18”. The crowd let out a huge, passionate cheer...and then resumed walking out.

The game was on November 11, which meant there was a little extra ceremony for veterans. It's not difficult to imagine the outpouring of patriotism and prayer that would attend such a commemoration in an American stadium. In Scotland, however, they simply asked for a moment of silence—and that was that. No gospel singers, no deities, nothing. On the other hand, one of the more surreal experiences was coming into the stadium just after the half to Sweet Home Alabama. The incongruity of location and climate was balanced by the Saltire's similarity to (and possible influence on) the Confederate flag.

The one other notable experience was what came after the game. As we began walking up Roseburn back to the center of town, I soon became aware of literally hundreds, then perhaps thousands of people doing the same. It was, again, a most calm, orderly procession, though the sheer volume of people meant that by the time we'd gotten to Wester Coates a good number kept spilling out onto the road, particularly into the bus lane at the edge. It was as if the whole town were walking back in to downtown. I was also struck by how fast they walked: I'm no slouch once I get into my stride, but I was having to walk at a speed I would rate brisk just to keep with the rest of the crowd, including people of all ages. It is, clearly, still a culture accustomed to walking, and it was a wonderful sight to see.

This was, incidentally, my first attempt at trying to really understand rugby (with some help, the previous day, from the Links graduate students and post-docs), and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. What makes it fun is that, unlike in American football, play in rugby does not stop at the first “down”; it just keeps going. This of course makes it utterly unsuitable for American TV, seeing as the sport is not structured as a series of ad breaks with bits of play interspersed, but it makes for some mighty enjoyable spectacle.

Cycling

I talked myself into not taking my bicycle to Scotland, and spent most of my time there regretting it. It's really not that cold in November but, more to the point, Edinburgh is a great cycling town. To me the most telling metric was the number of not only bikes but road bikes, that too in the winter. It was, admittedly, rather funny to see people fully kitted in team gear, riding rather swank road machines...with fenders. No American stylist would be caught dead looking like that, but I suppose you have to compromise something for the climate.

Our first week in town we caught a bit of a Scottish Film Festival. One of the movies on show was a new flick called The Flying Scotsman, about former world hour record holder Graeme Obree. It's a slightly fictionalized tale of his ascent that also chronicles his mental instability and suicidal tendencies, with good production values. I was somewhat disappointed that a very dark and morbid person's life had been turned into a feel-good picture, and was full of righteous indignation about it until, after the screening, the director pointed out that Graeme was unstable enough that he was concerned about the effect the film would have on him as it was. That was a sobering bit of perspective.

Anyway, a film about an obscure guy who rides a bicycle really fast in circles? Yawn—at least tickets weren't a problem. Or so we thought. We got to the theater to find that the film was being shown in the largest auditorium but, twenty minutes before the show, they were not only sold out, the queue for extra tickets was already beginning to snake out of the room. Figuring we had nothing to lose we got in line, and were lucky to be the last two people to get tickets. That's the kind of biking city Edinburgh is.

Running

If you don't bike, at least you can run. We were just about five minutes from the Meadows, which not only has lots of criss-crossing paths but also a measured mile. It's hard to match the setting: sun setting through the trees with Arthur's Seat looming up ahead. Even more fun was running through the Royal Mile itself, dodging traffic and pedestrians while taking in the wynds and closes. Most entertaining of all was trying to run up the Salisbury Crags that overlook town from next to Holyrood Palace. The Crags are not very tall, but they do leave town very steeply. Worse, on a windy day, the gusts are so hard that I was frequently stopped dead in my tracks. It's also a route filled with false hope. As you run into the wind you see the road turning up ahead and expect that's where the wind will subside, only to find it's even stronger: the gust that was blowing you off the edge was only tangential.

Travel

One of the most wonderful things about flying into Scotland from the US is the view out of the windows as you cross land. The flights (at least the Continental flights) approach Glasgow and Edinburgh in the early morning, just as the sun is rising over the Scottish Highlands. The scenery is exquisite, and it's hard to resist the urge to rent a car and just drive directly into them.

That said, we were enjoying living in Edinburgh so much we really didn't want to leave town, but it did seem a pity to not to sample the Highlands in the low season. It seems common for tourism operators to do a day-long trip through the Highlands, and we'd planned to roughly mirror their route. But then Peter Buneman caught wind of our plans and insisted that we would be insane to not spend at least a night there—and he was right.

Our trip's highlight was Glen Coe (or Glencoe). It's a name burned deep into Scottish history, an infamous massacre with elements of rebellion, treachery, and numerous other vices. Whatever the circumstances, a great tragedy occurred here, and it scarred the Scottish nation. But Glen Coe is also a spectacle of nature, as perfect an example of glacial forces and geological collapse as you can hope to see. To their great credit, the visitor center at the glen focuses primarily on the geology, preserving one black corner of the small museum to the massacre—suitably poignant without overwhelming the great sense of nature here. Glen Coe is at once a tiny and a huge place: small enough that you could walk across the Glen in a day, but deep and hollow enough to give a sense of great vastness and remove. It was haunting.

We also got to visit our old friends, Margaret and Paul, in Glasgow. Though both cities are proclaimed as vibrant, there's just something darker about Glasgow—but also something more working-class, more real. Certainly, as we strolled through the Barras, the rough-hewn market just east of the center of town, I couldn't think of anything comparable in Edinburgh. There are other differences, too:

It was wanny they days you get in Edinburgh but hardly ever in Glesga; bright blue sky wi white puffy clouds and a sharp breeze blawin.

Buddha Da, p. 267

Driving

I left India when I was eighteen, before I learned to drive, so I'd never driven on the left side of the road. Kathi hadn't enjoyed her experience of it too much, but I was eager to give it a try—how bad could it be? The first hour was, in fact, terrifying. It wasn't the wrong side of the road as much as contending with Edinburgh traffic: narrow lanes, speeding cameras, lurching buses and manic taxis. When we did get out of town I began to relax until, just past Stirling, we got onto the desperately narrow “highways” leading north. Driving 60mph, on a twisty, winding route, in the dark, on roads barely wide enough for two cars—that took a little getting used to. I remember thinking to myself that this is what highways in India must feel like, but the Indian highways appear to actually be wider (though they present their own unique set of obstacles).

Within an hour, though, I felt entirely at home. The cars we rented were Peugeot 307's: automatic transmissions with manual overrides (precisely the configuration I use at home). The one thing that did not feel odd, even for an instant, was shifting from the left rather than the right: it was as if my left hand had always expected to man the gears. Whether this is because I'm left-handed, or something else, I don't know. (One really dumb bit of design in the Peugeot: the RPM and mileage scales use the same numbers: 10, 20, .... So at a quick glance you might think you're doing about 25mph, just under the speed limit, when in fact you're at 2500rpm, but in fact doing just over 30. Who uses a x100 scale for RPM?)

Peter Buneman had given us a useful strategy for driving on the left: try to keep a vehicle ahead of you. He pointed out that in the cities there was no real danger of ending up on the wrong side of the street, but on the open road it was possible to get confused. This never really proved to be a problem for us. What did, however, every single time, was the parking lots: I simply could not figure out how to drive through them and, worse, where to emerge from one. Fortunately the only lots we dealt with were in the Highlands, and in the low season; otherwise, we would almost certainly have come to grief.

The nicest thing about driving in the UK is that the road signs acknowledge physical reality. At a roundabout, for instance, you will see not only how many roads fork off, but the angles at which they depart, and with different thickness to indicate the size of the road. America has a tendency to reduce roads to geometric abstractions, which is fine in a museum of modern art but not so helpful to a traveler.

Speaking of the infamous roundabouts, I've always thought they were a pretty good idea from the perspective of traffic flow. As a driver, they took all of about half a day to get used to; by my third day behind the wheel, I was becoming dangerously cavalier about them. On returning to the US I read that parts of Canada are experimenting with replacing traffic signals with roundabouts. Chapeau!

Lifestyle

While walking around town we noticed a surprising number of fireworks sales. This seemed out of character, until they started to go off on Saturday, November 4. Of course: Nov 5 is Guy Fawkes Day! The Scots, sadly, don't go in for the kind of unbridled mayhem that makes Diwali such a fabulous (and mildly dangerous) time in India. I imagine that there is actually a complex relationship with the Guy Fawkes phenomenon here, given how deeply Scotland has been shaped by (a) Catholicism versus Protestantism, (b) the competing English Royal Families, and (c) England herself. I'll have to find a Scot to learn more.

During our perambulation we stopped by one of the city's malls, which had an “everything one pound” store. I find these stores intensely fascinating for about the two minutes it take me to scan them. I don't ever buy anything, but it feels like a good way to get a pulse of what people do buy. I hoped to find products twice as good as at an American dollar-store (given that a pound is twice as dear), but sadly you just get twice as much of the same products. It was curious to see what variations of popular brands were unpopular. Visiting in the vicinity of Halloween (which is apparently now big in Britain) and Christmas means, unfortunately, that you find the same generic material as you would at an American store, so our visit wasn't very revealing unlike the store I saw in Japan.

Religion

As in the rest of Europe, but perhaps even more so, religion is a muted experience here. Indeed, it felt like even more than in England, there was an accommodation of apostates. Every chaplain's notice I saw at the University of Edinburgh, for instance, said their services were open to people of “all faiths or none”. Even on the hyper-liberal American campuses, that “or none” is not routinely present and accounted for. But where I was truly shocked to see this same phrase was at St. Mungo's in Glasgow—a Musem of Religious Life and Art that is, as far as I can tell, owned by a church! It was quite a lovely museum, really, covering a broad spectrum of religious traditions across both space and time. (I was pleasantly surprised to see them take even the Greek traditions seriously, so accustomed have we become to thinking of those as “myths” alone. Not to mention their main photo exhibit was of Haitian voodo.)

Products

One of the joys of visiting foreign climes is the opportunity to try out the local produce. I don't just mean the fruits and vegetables (though those do get much more interesting as you approach the tropics), but also the products on the shelves of the grocery stores. Partly to save weight, but mostly for fun, we therefore brought a minimal supply of toiletries on this trip, intending to stock up at the local Boots.

You wouldn't think it, but Edinburgh is a kind of veggie haven. One of its better veggie restaurants, Henderson's—which actually has two outlets, one a fancier bistro and the other a more earthy heaped-food counter—has, in the past few years, gone massively into packaged foods. Numerous stores now have Henderson's pasties (which seem about as popular in Scotland as sandwiches are in England), and they're actually quite good.

The find of the trip, though, was a mouthwash called Dentyl. Being already in a enfeebled state, because I was virtually inviting a gimmick to grab me, I couldn't help but pick up a product that had the following characteristics:

  • the liquid in the bottle (in one of the three standard mouthwash colors: blue, green, or orange) was two-tone;
  • the name had a subscript of pH, immediately suggesting advanced science;
  • a label on the bottle, surrounded by semi-circular arrows and bubbles, said “Shake to Activate”, thereby immediately promising endless hours of fun;
  • another label promised “You Can See it Works” (I couldn't wait!); and,
  • the more formal label on the back said that it offered a Triple Defense which it explicated (using non-parallel syntax), the first of which was inhibiting the production of VSCs.
Those would be Volatile Sulphur Compounds. The science was so tangible, I could almost see the lab-coats.

You Shake the bottle Vigorously until the two liquids mix—you have to do this each time you want to use it, a stark reminder that you are about to engage in a scientific activity; and no, I haven't yet sampled the two liquids independently—forming a murky, frothy suspension of intermediate hue (“It is normal for the product to turn cloudy”). This, presumably, is how one tells that the wash has been Activated. Rinse for thirty seconds and the resulting output contains little strands and globs of the same color family as the wash. The user Sees this, one presumes, and instantly realizes That it Works. It is truly a wondrous product, so full of pseudo-science that I expect it sells like roast pig on a cold Edinburgh afternoon.

While we're at it, I'm rather startled to find that the skin cream we bought came with labels in English, Swedish and Greek—but nothing as mainstream as French or German. What kind of market product is that?

Language

We did, to be sure, have some linguistic difficulties. Our very first day, fresh off the flight, we had to ask for directions from the apartment to our offices in Buccleuch Place. Let's just say that I wish our offices had been in the Appleton Towers instead. (For the record: buh-KLEEUW.) Even mastery can be ephemeral: just as I thought I had the Scottish syllabic emphasis down, the vendor of my cranachan pronounced it oddly, emphasizing the first syllable, thereby upsetting my understanding.

When we had difficulty using the WiFi in our apartment, the staff were almost embarassingly helpful in trying to figure out the problem. When I went by one night to report progress towards determining the cause, the concierge said, “Aye, I'll leave a wee little note for Colin”, the manager. I couldn't tell whether he was depreciating our woes, or whether that's merely what the locals call a Post-It note.

Around the corner from our apartment is the Minuteman Press. In America this would, at least in TV shows, be the press that prints second-amendment literature. In the UK, it's a shabby corner shop that promises the get things done in a hurry.

A TV ad for Twinings tea features a...well, it's not an African-American, because it's not America, so I'm not sure what the politically correct term is. Anyway, this person keeps on about how his tea will “put the zing in your ding-a-ling”, a reference that irks the other actor, a very staid, middle-aged white. The latter eventually gets exasperated and exclaims, “I don't have a ding-a-ling—I'm British!” It was a bit of a curious ad, really, with its unstated implication that brothas that got soul aren't British. The same line would create a firestorm in the US.

Library

One of the joys of being at Edinburgh—I suppose this could have been anywhere—has been rediscovering libraries. I've been reading up on Scottish culture, and the university library has an excellent collection of books on the topic, both academic and relatively popular (a few outright cheesy, too). Where else would you find a whole shelf dedicated to David Hume? It's been many years since I immersed myself in a library, and it was a delight to do so, even if I don't think I'm about to continue the habit when I return to Brown.

Outside the main library are student groups trying to talk you into something or another, often with baked goods or hot drinks. One of the ones I routinely passed had the banner, "Evolution: a Theory in Crisis?" I did think the producers deserved a bit of credit for putting the question-mark at the end: in the US that would be considered downright ungodly subtlety, though this could also just be British reticence (perhaps the Brits consider the banner intolerably pushy). The person manning the desk usually looked more hopeful than skeptical, and seemed to get no custom that I ever saw. (Once in a while a person would swoop by, then see what the desk was about a beat a retreat.)

Weather

I admit that I expected to be prattling on about the cold here, and I'm rather surprised that I haven't had reason to. Partly, it's because we've apparently had a somewhat unseasonably warm November. In reality, though, I've come to not trust the Edinbourgeoise on this topic. I've now collectively spent a month and a half in the city; each time I was warned about the weather, and each time it's proven to be quite lovely. In fact, I didn't use half the cold-weather clothing I brought from the US (and I certainly wasn't about to deploy any of it in India!). I've come to suspect this is just a ploy to keep people away and retain the city's character. Can't say as I dislike the idea. (What they should tell you, but don't, is that the city is windy beyond imagination. Never mind running: there were times when, walking up the stairs to Castlehill, I had to balance myself to avoid being tipped over.)

Scotch

My real surprise this trip was acquiring a taste for genuine scotch: not just the single malt part, but also the peat. I've never been one for the smell and taste of the sea—growing up in the middle of a peninsula can do that, I guess—and I actively dislike seaweed in my food, as well as related smoky flavors. Given that, my first reaction to peaty scotch was...well, surprising. I didn't mind it at all. And after I'd tried three or four varieties, I found myself actively liking the smell, taste and aftertaste, to the point where, just before leaving, I tried a non-peaty variety and disliked it.

A related tourist tip. There are obviously lots of stores that sell scotch, including little 5ml samplers. The one store to obviously avoid is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, on the Castlehill segment of the Royal Mile, right outside the Castle. Mistake. With the professionalism that accompanies a group of people taking pride in their product, the Centre proved to be one of the very best stores of its ilk. The staff are friendly and aren't pushy (they needn't be, with the traffic they get); the display is excellent, and labeled well; and the variety is as good as I found in most any other store. I wish I'd gone in there at the very beginning.

Coda

Our stay was grand. The Scots were warm, open and welcoming (something I wish I could say about some British academics—though not the ones we visited). The difference between Scotland and England was palpable. Our last day in town was the St. Andrew's Day; though the winds put paid to most of the outdoor celebrations, we attended the céilidh that had moved indoors. The dancing was not much more than ritualized jumping, but the energy was genuine. How can you not love a nation with the combination of spirit and modesty to boast of being the Best Small Country in the World? And Edinburgh itself, international, worldly, and hip, was a delight. Returning from Edinburgh directly to Providence would have been awfully hard; returning via Bangalore, well...that was simply strange and distracting.

Auld Reikie, wale o'ilka town
—Robert Ferguson (1750-1774)

4 comments:

Aakruti said...

Shriram,

Enjoyed your blog. Regarding the Twining ad. You're reading a race issue in the ad, where there's none. The joke is (intended to be) more on personality / class.

The white person you're referring to is Stephen Fry. He is typified in (some of his) films etc. as quintessentially English ("propah"). He has also hosted various TV programmes and authored books. His knowledge of the English language is astonishing (pronounciation, vocabulary and its history), certainly unparalleled by any other British celebrity.

So he isn't expected (in this advert) to say groovy things like "ding-a-ling" ... until he tastes the tea of course.

- R

Pete said...

Thanks for posting such a detailed account. It was fun to read, and reminded me of my visit to Scotland.

Did you have any chance to try the Scottish soda IRN BRU? (Though I can't for certain say it would be unfortunate if you hadn't... acquired taste doesn't begin to describe it.)

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

I love IRN BRU. That is, I love one small bottle about once every two years, and make sure I have a swig every time I visit. That probably handles my iron (and sugar) needs for the rest of the year.

Shriram Krishnamurthi said...

Thanks for the clarification about Stephen Fry. Makes perfect sense now!