Wednesday 26 November 2014

Embra is Beautiful

mbra, apparently pronounced AIM-brah, is a local word for the city of Edinburgh. I would never dare call it that myself.  I stick to "ED-in-bur-ah." Only tourists call it ED-in-BURG, as if it were next door to Pittsburgh, PA. In Polish class we call it ED-in-boorg (or Edinboorgu, Edinboorga, Edinburgi-eh, depending on the case.)

Edinburgh is a beautiful European city.

I am Toronto born and bred, and I confess there are moments when I find my very 20th century, very North American birthplace beautiful. These are always in winter when it has been buried in snow. On visits home, I enjoy tramping about the older downtown neighbourhoods with my friend Trisha, getting a hipster vibe from whichever pre-1950 shopfronts allowed to survive. The University of Toronto has some delightful Victorian Gothic vistas, also improved by the snow. Toronto has a population of 2.5 million.

Montréal is a bit more European in feel, in large part because of all the French, but it still strikes me as 20th century North American, with some 19th century hangovers.  I love to wander down the rue St-Denis, looking in the shop windows, buying a notebook, sitting down for the cup of coffee I  order, heart thumping, en francais. And my brother's and belle-soeur's old neighbourhood, with its amazing pastry shop, was very handsome though also improved by snow. Montréal has a population of 1.6 million.

Glasgow is not exactly beautiful, but it is a hoot. No Edinburgher worth the name ever praises Glasgow, but I am quite fond of Glasgow. Glasgow looks like Toronto with the skyscrapers and almost all the post-WWI immigrants thrown out.  Glasgow is a Toronto stuffed under a force field and forced to continue being British. It has the same Victorian Gothic buildings and the same crumbling mid-century buildings. I suspect that whoever designed Toronto up until 1962 designed Glasgow, too (or vice versa). It kind of plays to Edinburgh what Toronto plays to Ottawa. Yeah, it's not a capital city, but there's a lot more going on. Glasgow has a population of just under 600,000, and wouldn't be improved by snow: anything weatherish in Glasgow is sheer misery.

Edinburgh has a population of just under 500,000, except in August, Festival month, when it almost doubles. And it is absolutely beautiful--at least in the parts that the Festival visitors see. It is so beautiful that after the bus take me through various slums, I forget all about them as soon as I see the Royal Mile, or Arthur's Seat, or the Old Town from Princes Street, or find a crumbling-yet-charming street of Victorian tenements huddled below St. Anthony's Chapel.

There are so many wonderful walks in Edinburgh. There's the promenade along Portobello beach between lovely Georgian houses and the Firth of Forth. There's the paths beside Georgian and Victorian building and parks at the University of Edinburgh. There's the stately, planned, Georgian avenues of the New Town, culminating in the Stockbridge streets of shops and cafés. There's the hike up the hill known as Arthur's Seat which makes you forget you're in a city at all. There's the long ravine in which you can follow the Water of Leith, or drown fictional characters from time to time. There's cheerfully chic Morningside and shabbier chic Dalry. There's smart Dean Cemetery with its carefully tended rows of the respectable dead, and there's forgotten Dalry Necropolis with its ruins hiding the names of the lowly. There's the mediaeval riotousness of the cobblestoned Royal Mile: down through Canongate towards Holyrood Palace, up the High Street towards Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh was built on seven hills, and depending where you are, you can see higher hills--the Salisbury Craigs, the Pentlands, Berwick Law--and the Firth of Forth stretching out towards the North Sea. When I go for a walk in the fields behind the Historical House, I can see the Firth, with the Kingdom of Fife on the other shore, villages, planted fields, fallow fields, and prehistoric Arthur's Seat.  When I wait for the bus home across the street from the Waitrose in Morningside, I can see the Penland Hills in the distance to my right. There is just so much variety in the landscape: town, fields, hills, forest, sea.

"I'm so glad you married me so that I get to live here," I often say to B.A. as our bus rattles above Canongate Kirkyard. And this needs to be said because I also moan about the public behaviour of various Edinburghers, particularly on the bus although--so far--not on that particular bus.  The truth is that the young foreign traveller who sticks to the Old Town and the New Town, to Morningside and to Stockbridge, to the University and Portobello (if they take a cab to Portobello) is unlikely to see any trouble.

I am sure that Edinburgh is ONE of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but I am not as confident that it is THE most beautiful city in Europe, for I have seen Kraków and Kraków is very, VERY beautiful, crumbly bits and all. And Wrocław deserves a mention, too, despite having been bombed to smithereens during WW2, just for Ostrów Tumski. But those are cities deserving of blog posts of their own.

Meanwhile I regret to say that Edinburgh is not at all improved by snow. Snow is, of course, very beautiful in itself, but Edinburghers do not know how to drive in it. They don't know how to walk in it. They don't know how to shovel it. They don't know how to dress for it. In all my life, I have never come across a people so ignorant of the ways of snow. Knowing what I know now, I would never wish a White Christmas on poor Edinburgh. I just look forward to seeing the stuff when I go to Canada in February.


  1. I live in the US in the state of Indiana. We also have an Edinburgh, home of a giant outlet mall, but we pronounce it "Ed-in-burg." Of course, we also pronounce the local towns of Versailles and Milan as "Ver-sails" and "Mye-lin." We're very cosmopolitan here in Indiana!

  2. I love Indiana! Do you know LaPorte? I know LaPorte. Also Rolling Prairie (a lot) and South Bend (a teeny bit). LaPorte is definitely La Port.

    Meanwhile, I have been in Scotland so long I have stopped bothering to read French words properly. B.A. was shocked and appalled when I referred to Chenet wine as Chinette.

    1. I don't have a lot of occasion to get up to the northern part of the state, though I have been up to Indiana Dunes State Park in that area. I didn't know that the pronunciation of LaPorte was in contention, though!

  3. In Ottawa (Ontario, not Kansas), we pronounce New Edinburgh as New Ed'nb'rra. On the other hand, we pronounce Dalhousie as Dalhoozie, so what do we know? What's more, we're very insistent on the latter, in the face of corrections from scandalized Brits. It's probably a gallicism...

    p.s. It is 12:26 a.m. and I cannot sleep, which is why I'm up to no good here on your blog.


  4. Oooh, you get Edinburgh right. A family member went to Dal U, so what do I call it? Let me see. Dal-houz-ie. For sleep and general relaxation and tranquility, I recommend Pinterest. It is my new favourite toy.

  5. Pinterest is lovely, but I find it hard to navigate. Also, it makes me feel as if I'm poaching from other people's collections in order to make my own, so though I have several collections there I always get my materials from other sites - mostly from 1st Dibs, whose items are rare, exquisite and beyond the dreams of avarice. Etsy has various "favorite" options that allow one to create imaginary collections from their wildly varied selection of clothing, furniture, textiles, jewelry and works of art.

    Perhaps you've noticed that one nice counter-intuitive side effect of this hobby is that it discourages one from spending money, because the real items available in shops simply do not live up to those in one's fantasy collections. However, I don't really find this activity conducive to sleep...


  6. I, on the other hand, re-pin without a qualm. For one thing, I don't know how to "Pin" unless there's a handy "Pin" button in the corner.

    Yes, I see it as a wonderful shopping substitute! But it's also a kind of self-analysis. And I do get decorating ideas which so far have led merely to moving scarves and cushions around, so no money has changed hands!

  7. Now you have made me feel all nostalgic. :-)


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