When I see Edinburgh in the distance for the first time, it’s like a fairy tale city: ancient domes, kirk spires, and rooftops with stone chimneys fill the skyline, bathed in the light of dawn, forming the painting of a fantastical land.
My taxi soars down wide avenues, carrying me and another friend from Vancouver, and suddenly–we’re inside the city, rushing through winding paths lined with rugged buildings in various shades of brown and charcoal:
A gray church with half-open gates. A charity shop located in a petite two-storey building that looks three-hundred-years-old. Tiny, shadowy closes that remind me of Knockturn Alley.
I’m in Edinburgh. Edinburgh! EDINBURGH!
The taxi driver turns through several streets, into an alley, and tells us that we’ve arrived at East Newington Place, one of University of Edinburgh’s housing offices.
~ ~ ~
After picking up my keys and dragging my suitcase up a flight of stairs, I head back outside to meet my friend. As soon as I leave my residence to cross the street, I’m forced to stop. Cars are driving on the left side of the street, as they do in the UK. There’s no lines marking the crosswalk.
How do I cross the street? I laugh, a little stunned that a task so simple, which has long turned into a daily routine, has sudden become an alien activity.
Two figures around me look at the zigzagging street briefly and cut across, dodging a car that comes running down. I frown, stand by the street, and wait. The light for cars remain green. Another figure crosses the street leisurely, and I follow, hesitating and glancing around fiercely, expecting a car to appear at any moment.
When I reach the sidewalk again, I let out a breath of relief. I head towards South Clerk Street, following the map of Edinburgh on my iTouch, searching for East Newington Place, where my friend and I agreed to meet.
The street is lovely, filled with stone buildings, along with an occasional church or monument. The stone walls are dark and unpolished, worn by wind and time and secrets. I long to stop and take out my camera, to begin snapping photos of every building, but l’m running late.
Pacing down the street, I look for the tiny alley that towards the housing office, but can’t find it. I’m sure it’s on this street… Did I miss it? I head back in the opposite direction, searching again.
Ten minutes later, and I’m still on the street, unable to find the office. I glance around and approach a woman walking in my direction. ”Excuse me, do you know where East Newington Place is?”
“Um, that way…” she says, pointing at the direction I had just come from. “I think.”
Thanking her, I walk down another few steps and pause in front of another young woman, asking a second time just in case.
She glances at both ends of the street. ”Sorry, I don’t know,” she says. “I’m new to the city too.”
“It’s okay,” I reply. Neither woman has been able to offer a firm answer, but it’s comforting that I’m not the only one who don’t know my way around Edinburgh.
A middle-aged gentleman crosses the street. He’s wearing the long black coat worn by many Scotsmen, walking quickly and purposefully, as if he knows exactly where he’s headed.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where East Newington Place is?” I ask for the third time. Characters in fairy tales often make multiple attempts at solving a problem and succeed on the third try, so maybe I’ll get lucky this time.
He jerks to a stop, as if suddenly interrupted while in deep thought. I step back and wait. He looks at me for a moment and mutters something inaudibly.
“Pardon me?” I ask.
His mouth moves again and I can’t understand a single word he says. I’m not sure if he’s speaking in another language, or with a thick accent, or is simply mumbling. Before I can ask for clarification, he turns towards a side alley and disappears, leaving me even more confused than before.
I return to wandering down clerk street once more, slowly and carefully searching for the housing office.
“Yilin!” A familiar voice calls out.
I turn around and grin at the sight of my friend. “Oh my god, I finally found you.”
“I can’t find the housing office,” she says, a little out of breath.
We laugh, our worry giving way to relief and amusement. It turns out that both of us had trouble finding the housing office. But somehow, whether as the result of luck, simple coincidence, or walking along the same street, we found each other among the chaos of Edinburgh.
~ ~ ~
The first week goes by with the speed of the rapid, bone-chilling Edinburgh wind: checking in with the International Office, meeting with my personal tutor (similar to an academic advisor), taking the “Not Your Average campus tour”, which turns out to be a disappointment but gives me the chance to make awesome new friends, opening a bank account, registering with a doctor, attending mandatory induction, doing grocery shopping, figuring out how to turn on the heater, learning to use UK currency (way too many coins, especially 1p and 2p coins), adjusting to the cooler weather and various accents…
Many of these are the typical, beginning of school year errands, making the experience seem almost normal. Mundane.
But it’s everything except boring. The routine tasks all take on a different meaning in this city. A simple visit to the grocery evolves into a half-day trip of getting lost, finding stores, learning new names for certain food items, using unfamiliar currency. The most boring task becomes a first experience, an exotic adventure.
Among the crazy winds, there’s the bursting excitement of living a new city that I’ve longed to visit.
From Sept 2013 to May 2014, I’m studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland as an exchange student. I’m also representing World Poetry as its official Ambassador to Scotland. While abroad, I hope to challenge myself academically, learn about a new culture, and chase my travelling dreams, all with a pen and camera in hand. Please follow my blog for stories and photos of my time abroad.