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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Fringe Diaries

Edinburgh. Scotland. Land of bagpipes, kilts, thistles, haggis, the Picts, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and all manner of absurd stereotypes. And also, incidentally, of an enormous festival (several, actually) that takes over the city every summer. The original International Festival has been overshadowed by the Fringe Festival, mostly composed of theater and comedy, that grew up on the fringe (hence the name) of the original.

I was expecting something like a perpetual Cologne during Karneval: ankle-deep drifts of broken beer bottles, drunk people dressed up in inexplicable clothing staggering down the streets at midday, loud singing, and total chaos.

Hmm, well, not exactly...

Day 1: True to one particular stereotype, it was drizzling as I arrived in Edinburgh. I dumped my stuff at the hostel, checked my email (free WiFi, w00t!) and headed out to explore. Shannon had told me to look for the Walter Scott monument, which I promptly found: it's an enormous black Gothic spire in the middle of Princes Street Park. The Scottish really love this guy.

I wandered past the half-price booth and watched a Polish fire juggler's show before continuing up the hill to the Royal Mile. The center of the city is this stretch of road, actually a bit longer than a mile, defined by the castle on its volcanic-rock cliff at the top and Holyroodhouse Palace at the bottom. In between are pubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, historic buildings, theaters, houses, museums, and far too many tourist shops. Despite the overdose of national stereotypes spewing out of stores all too eager to sell you a kilt in "your family's" colors or salt and pepper shakers shaped like bagpipers (I seriously saw people buy these), a walk down the Mile is truly delightful--especially during the Festival, when parts of it are pedestrianized to allow for craft sellers' booths, flyerers, and street performers.

Just trying to take in the scenery and the feel of this place, I was nevertheless stopped by a street performance. The guy's entire routine consisted of interacting with his audience: mocking them, imitating people going by, digging through women's bags, and pretending to be in love. After his show, I wandered a bit more, but felt somewhat aimless; I didn't have anywhere to be, and in a busy city and busy festival where everyone else was going somewhere, it was a bit depressing. I ended up in a cafe run by a local church, which was offering free tea. Mm, tea. Coffee makes me confident and ready to go; tea makes me comfortable and calm. After I had drunk my tea and chatted with the staff a bit, I went back to the hostel to use my computer. I ended up in a conversation with two drunk Brits and two Canadians who were trying to play chess in the hostel bar. They were all very nice, but when they left to play pool, I headed off to bed.

Day 2: I started the day off with a "free" walking tour around the city, which took a staggering 3 1/2 hours--usually such tours are about 2 hours long. It was worth it, though, and very thorough. If you would like to know what I know about Edinburgh now, I suggest you go there and take the tour, because I'm not going to take the time to repeat what little of the tour I've retained. We talked about the castle, Greyfriar's Bobby, Harry Potter, and the Queen. It was great.

Afterward, our guide offered to take us to a pub where we could try fairly good haggis. A group of us from the tour decided to give it a shot, and I ordered the first plate of it, which all of us tried. To my utter astonishment, it was delicious. We hung out in the pub chatting for a while, then dispersed to go our separate ways; I stuck with a German girl who'd offered to show me where the university's offices were, and after getting lost a couple times, we finally found them. I got far more information about the university than I'll ever need and found out that there's a campus tour--something to file away.

I split up with the nice German girl and went to check out St. Giles' Cathedral on the Mile. The cathedral (which isn't technically a cathedral, but whatever, right?) sports some lovely stained glass and a very macho organ, but the best bit is the Thistle Chapel, where the Knights of the Thistle are inducted (or whatever they do to knights). For example, Sean Connery was knighted here. The chapel's itty bitty but very beautifully decorated, and there is a cherub playing the bagpipes. I love Scotland.

I got some dinner and headed to my first "real" show: a drama called 2020 vision, which turned out to be in the basement of a church. The play revolved around the idea of a future where everyone is microchipped and dependent upon technology for everything when a huge natural disaster strikes. It was very interestingly done and I was still packing up and thinking when the actors came back out to clean up and ask me what I thought. This is the thing that I love most about the Fringe--the opportunity, not just to see interesting shows, but to talk to the people who made them.

Day 3: I'd intended to spend the morning at the castle, but it took me too long to get going in the morning, and then the lure of the festival was too strong. I saw a free stand-up show in a somewhat dodgy bar and then headed back to the hostel to reserve tickets for the castle the next day and a show the day after. I'd intended to go to another show at 4, but I didn't have enough time, so I went to an improv musical at 5:30 instead.

If you haven't seen an improv musical, you should. The audience supplies the title of the musical, and with no opportunity to discuss anything, the actors improvise an entire hour-long musical from that single suggestion. Ours was entitled, "There's an Owl in the Shower," and started out as a story about shampoo coming alive and ended up with a ghost siccing a homicidal owl on a witch. Epic, to say the least.

The wet and drizzly weather had turned into a right downpour by the time the show let out, but I wasn't ready to go home, so I got a pizza for dinner from a takeout place and trundled off to the back room of another bar for another free comedy show by three guys I had talked to in the street earlier. It was getting dark when they finished, so I went back to the hostel to make some calls on Skype and eventually sleep.

Day 4: I finally managed to get myself going at a reasonable time and took myself up to the castle. Edinburgh Castle dominates the town's skyline and layout, even though it is (to be quite honest) not as imposing or impressive as other castles I've seen. It seems to important because it's perched on an extinct volcano, high up on sheer black cliffs on three sides, the fourth leading down the Royal Mile. Anyway, in the castle I saw the Honors of Scotland, a big-ass cannon, an interesting museum about Scots in war, and a demonstration about Scottish swordfighting, among other things. I managed to get myself some cream tea at about 4pm, after which I decided that it was high time I walk the whole length of the Royal Mile, since up till then I'd only seen about half of it.

At the bottom of the Mile I found the new Scottish Parliament building, which, while very significant politically and culturally, is kind of ridiculous to look at, all modern-art-y and covered in wooden accents. From there, some jutting hills frown down at the town, so I decided to climb up. A short, steep hike later and I had 360 degree views from Arthur's Seat: the rolling mountains in the distance, the Mile, the Castle, and all of Edinburgh looking very tiny, and the enormous expanse of water all the way to the horizon. It was gorgeous but very cold and windy, so I headed back down and began the trudge back up the Mile. Now, it was Sunday, and while this isn't usually a problem in big cities, that day every pub and restaurant that I poked my head into was either 1) shut or 2) full. Desperate for food--I hadn't eaten since tea, and that had been my whole lunch--I finally relented and got a sandwich at Subway. I watched part of a street show and then staggered back to the hostel.

Day 5: I started off in the National Museum of Scotland, which had a surprisingly interesting collection of artifacts from Scottish history, from ancient magical talismans and jewelry to harps, traditional garb, and some big-ass swords. I sadly only got through the first two floors (of six!) before I had to leave to go to another show.

This time it was more improv with a group called the Oxford Imps; they did many of the games that I've seen the Dead Parrots do at WWU, so it was quite fun, although I think the Parrots are better. (Uni loyalty and all that...) The best bit that they did was an improvised Shakespearean play about a foot doctor. After the show, I was right near the university, so I went on a walking tour around the university grounds. Although largely unhelpful in itself, the tour did give me a chance to talk to a U of Edinburgh graduate about life at the university and get some ideas with how to proceed. Accordingly, after the tour, I hunted down a linguistics professor to ask some more questions about applying. I also found Professor Pullum's office to take a picture (since he wasn't there...sadface), which was my one concession to my linguistic geekiness.

After some dinner, I had another show to go to. This was the only big-name show I'd chosen to see, mostly because it'd been recommended to be by the receptionist at the hostel, who said this guy was brilliant. It was a one-man stand-up show by a guy named Danny Bhoy, and his show was wonderfully hilarious and far too short. He's cute, too. All told, very good.

Day 6: I decided that I needed something a little different, so instead of heading straight for the Mile like usual, I went the other way and wandered into Edinburgh's Georgian New Town. The New Town is street after street of dignified, bay-windowed, grey-brown Georgian buildings, pretty but monotonous, but soon I came across a beautiful church to look around, so then I was happy. From there I headed back to the Mile and ended up seeing a half-price show called "Of People and Not Things", which, while touching, was essentially two half-hour monologues about losing the one you love being the end of the world. From there, I went on to a free show that had been recommended to me, but it ended up being so raunchy that I left early and went instead to another show that I'd been wanting to see: a showcase of comedians who were required to give a completely clean show. After what I'd just seen, that sounded very good to me.

The clean show was a big improvement, and I left feeling much better. Outside the door, I got into a conversation with a girl doing flyering for a show by Kev Orkian. We chatted for a while and she invited me to go to the show with her and a friend, so I agreed--why not? On our way to get tickets, I took some of the flyers and tried my hand at flyering, something I'd wanted to try ever since I'd started talking to flyerers on the street.

Kev's show was one of the best I'd seen. He impersonated Elton John and made jokes about being an immigrant from Armenia, complete with linguistic jokes (hooray!). I even got a hug from him after the show. I walked around for a bit with my new acquaintance, Naomi, and her friend, then I split off to get a late dinner at a pub before bed.

Day 7: Whew, last day. Through chatting with a flyerer, I ended up at an American's stand-up show that was just short of painfully bad, so after I escaped I decided to take a break and enjoy the sunshine a bit. I therefore headed to Calton Park to have a picnic lunch and enjoy the view of the city center and Arthur's Seat. Wandering back into the city, I stopped to watch a street magician and got selected as the "volunteer" assistant to help the magician in his death-defying stunts. That's never happened to me before, so I'm still smiling about it.

I'd been wanting to go to a show called "I bought Richard Hammond's underpants on eBay", which is how I found myself sitting in the dark in a musty cellar with about ten other people, singing along and playing a paper drum with a plastic spoon. The show was very cute, and I got some pin badges with the show's name on them that I shall wear proudly. I'd heard about another free show that happened to be just up the street, so I popped in just in time. The pirate-themed show, entitled "Jollyboat", was definitely the best free show I'd seen and included a Darren-Brown-type act by a kid bearing a remarkable resemblance to Ron Weasley. I thought that I should just go home after than and end on a high note, but it felt too early to go home, so I got a ginger beer at a bar and saw a final free show that was mediocre at best. I trundled back to the hostel and watched White Collar until a ridiculous time in the morning.

Day 8: I left my stuff at the hostel and headed back to the National Museum to see some of the stuff I'd missed, but I couldn't really make myself concentrate. After lingering on the Mile for a while, I finally picked up my bags on hopped on the train to Glasgow.

Now I know that was detail-less and boring, so if you're still reading, congrats and here's why. Edinburgh was something of a turbulent and weird week for me. Everyone I'd talked to about Edinburgh was rapturous about how wonderful it is, so my expectations were already sky-high. Besides that, every day I was there I was in a constant state of agonizing indecision: should I stay the full week? Could my time be better spent somewhere else? How many shows did I want to see? Whenever I was in a show, I felt guilty for spending the money to see another show, and whenever I didn't go to a show, I felt guilty for wasting time that I could've spent doing something more fun. No matter what I did, I simply couldn't get myself to relax. Add to this that two months of travel are starting to wear on me and the whole thing felt like going to a beautiful venue for a concert of Beethoven's 9th by a master musician playing the kazoo. Almost all the ingredients were right, but there was always something buzzing in the back of my head.

That said, I really did like Edinburgh. least, I've thoroughly convinced myself that I did, and there's no reason not to. First of all, the idea of city with a castle right smack in the middle always makes me smile, and Edinburgh is kind of shockingly beautiful, with the imposing buildings of the Mile, the New Town, and all the monuments and parks and such. I met many nice people there, and I do quite love Scotland. But because of everything I said in the last paragraph, I don't love it as much as I might've under other circumstances. There's something standoffish about it, something a little bit off. I can't describe it, but having visited a few different cities this summer, I have a pretty good sense of which cities I like--Dublin, London, Venice, and Salzburg, for instance--and which I don't. And Edinburgh is somewhere in the no man's land in the middle.

So, if you ask me whether I had a good time in Edinburgh, whether I liked it there, I honestly don't know. It's weird, I know. Sorry.

Anyway, by far the most interesting thing I did during my week in Edinburgh was talk to the flyerers. The top half of the Mile during the day is a guantlet of people--either the performers themselves or people paid a pittance to stand in the street for five hours--handing out flyers for shows of all kinds. I took every flyer offered to me and requested quite a few as well--for some reason, I often wasn't offered one--and ended up throwing away a stack of paper several inches tall when I left. The great thing is, though, that the flyerers are there to talk to passersby and convince them to come to the show. They have to be friendly or they risk you walking away. This means you can have some really interesting conversations with flyerers, especially paid ones, since they don't have the vested interested in getting as many people as possible to come. The performers doing their own flyering were also very interesting, too--you really just get to chat with them about their show, why they've come to the festival, where they're from, etc. I had some really nice conversation with some very interesting flyerers and ended up going to a lot of the shows when the flyerer took the time to talk to me. Since I was so interested in this, it was really cool that I got to try flyering myself with Naomi.

So, come time to apply for grad schools, I will definitely be applying in Edinburgh. It seems like a great place to live and a very good university. There're tons of the things to do and the people tend to be fantastic, as well as having a perfectly delightful dialect. In my head, Edinburgh was everything it should've been, for some unfathomable reason, it didn't capture my heart.

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