Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On Edinburgh and graveyards

Edinburgh when I arrived was quite the mise-en-scene. Too cinematic, too atmospheric for real life that it might have been funny, if it wasn't so eerie.

It was the stroke of midnight. The bus had made its last stop. The final handful of passengers got out, and I was among them.

The rest of them quickly disappeared from view, darting purposefully into this corner or that alleyway. The bus had gone as well, also turning a corner into obscurity.

Before I knew it, I was completely alone. The streets were empty and silent, framed by silhouettes of leafless trees and dark buildings. The only illumination came from the dim streetlamps and the moon, which was obscured by clouds. The wind whistled, and the chill defiantly ignored the layers of clothes I had on and settled in my bones. 

Everything seemed to be conspiring to scare me but I took it as a challenge, fighting the creeping fear that threatened to overtake my gut by walking, false confidence and authentic defiance in each step. Never mind that I had no idea where I was going.

By sheer luck, I eventually landed on the first sign that I was still in the real world and had not by some magic entered an Alfred Hitchcock film: the bright, backlit sign of a KFC outlet.

After a quick but eventful detour there (in which a kind stranger treated me to dinner and helped me ward off a drunken reveler's indecent proposal--a different story), I set out again into the night, and when I turned the corner on Princes Street, I beheld, for the first time in all its glory, what I only had a preview of earlier when I alighted the bus: Edinburgh's creepiness, in full blast.

Across the street from where I stood, a magnificent scene: in the foreground, statues of men I didn't know -- but their noble poses told me they were somebody's heroes. Behind them, a gate with sharp ends pointed to the sky. Much further behind that, rendered in silhouette, a skyline of buildings with chimneys and spires and only a few lights glinting like the few golden teeth in a pirate's tar-stained mouth.

At the edge of the skyline, a jagged cliff. On top of it, a castle. To top it all off, a full, white-yellow moon, wearing clouds like a gossamer cape, hanging dangerously low on the horizon as if it had grown too heavy to stay at a height.

Before Edinburgh, I had been surrounded by charming Devon countryside. Its cheery, bright-colored flowers, lush green trees, and quaint thatched roof cottages made up the landscape I had been surrounded with for a good two weeks.

Perhaps because of what immediately preceded it, Edinburgh was jarringly sombre. Like sipping black coffee to down a sweet piece of cake.

Even with the lively buskers along the Royal Mile, or the chatty teenagers shopping on Princes Street, even when the sun shone bright--sometimes even brighter than it had when I was in London or Devon--Edinburgh to me maintained a mournful air that manifested in everything: from the shadow of the Edinburgh castle, to the light rains that fell every few hours, to the mournful song of the bagpipes played by expressionless men in kilts at every other corner, down to the park benches dedicated to the memory of dead husbands, wives, friends, and comrades, the names of the fallen etched on golden plaques on the bench backs.

Even the items on my itinerary were some kind of tribute to the dead: the Museum of Childhood with its galleries full of nightmarish dolls and actual children's clothes from the Victorian era; the Edinburgh Castle with its dog cemetery and old dungeons; the Tartan Mill, where the warring clans are remembered in colorful checks and plaids.

As if keeping in theme, I even wound up in a graveyard when I got lost on the way back to my hostel. On a street not far from the graveyard, I saw a notice for a missing cat.

Come to think of it, all of Edinburgh had the air of a graveyard, and perhaps that's what it is--a place that remembers those who have gone more intensely and more deeply than any other city I've been to, a place that doesn't attempt to mask loss but wears it like a badge of honor.

When I tell people this, they wrinkle their noses, let out a deflated "Oh" and proceed to ask me about some other place I've been to. I rarely get the chance to tell them that when I say Edinburgh felt like graveyard, I always mean it in a wonderful way.

After all, graveyards are not so much places of death, as they are places of memory, and, I think, of love.

Graveyards are about loving someone so much that you etch their name in stone, or on a plaque just to keep a part of them around even when they're gone, or carve out a statue of them and mount it in the places where they lived, or keep the toys they tinkered with and hold on to their favorite clothes.

Graveyards are about loving someone so much that even when you know they're gone, you keep waiting for them to turn up. They're about loving someone so much that even in their absence, you tell their stories over and over again. They're about laughing, a place where life always coincides with the reality of death, making it ever sweeter. As in Edinburgh.

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