A Leisurely Hike Up Ben Lomond

WARNING: Extreme sarcasm and/or sass ahead. Proceed with caution.

Okay, so, if you know me at all, you know that I’m not exactly the poster girl for physical fitness. Once or twice a decade I get motivated to go for a run, but that’s about as far as it goes. And by that, I mean it stops at the I Should Really Go For A Run stage… I haven’t actually progressed to the Getting Up Off My Ass To Actually Go Run stage in an embarrassingly long time (we’re talking years, people). But the hike(s!) up Arthur’s Seat were so much fun and the view was so rewarding that when my friends found out about an organized trip to Ben Lomond, I didn’t hesitate to sign up with them. A hike up a mountain in the Highlands that, according to my Google Image search, has a view that makes Arthur’s Seat look like Detroit? No-brainer. I will admit that I was unaware of its 3200 ft elevation. Small detail, though, right?! My friends even asked if it was a difficult hike, and were told that it required only a “minimal level of fitness”.

Well, let me tell you something. I have a minimal level of fitness. And they lied. They lied hard.

We arrived at Loch Lomond (a two-hour bus ride from Edinburgh) around noon, and were told that the bus would leave for Edinburgh at 5 PM, giving us “ample time” to hike the mountain. In fact, they (the organizers of the trip) went so far as to tell us that it should take a mere three hours, four if we went slowly. An extremely accurate estimation, that was in no way misleading, as I’m sure you can guess. So we set off at a sprightly pace, excited and blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. And at first, it all seemed to be going so well! The incline was steady, but not terribly steep. Various thoughts ran through my head:

“I can so do this!”

“This isn’t even that hard!”

“Look at me go, I’m practically an adventurer!”

About 45 minutes in, we reached a gate. And on that gate was a sign. And the sign said something along the lines of “Welcome to Ben Lomond”.

That was our first clue.

From then on, the steepness of the mountain increased about 200%, my breathing got about eight times as heavy and I started sweating from pores I didn’t even know I had. Suffice it to say that my moderately asthmatic lungs were less than pleased with me. Death (or at the very least, a coma) seemed imminent.

Okay, I might be exaggerating a little. It wasn’t that bad. Except that it totally was. But if anything could get my shamefully out-of-shape body to keep going, it was the breathtaking view unfolding behind us with each step.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler Alfred (Pennyworth, apparently, thank you, IMDB) says: “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Well, if Ben Lomond was a person, it would be one of those men. The next couple hours of hiking revealed three or four fake peaks, testing my sanity in ways it has never been tested before. The final stretch (the real one, not the three teasers before it) actually turned out to be the easiest parts of the hike, and by far the most beautiful (and that’s saying a lot). A nearly flat ridge wound around the mountain, allowing for a stunning view of the loch minus the heavy breathing. Finally, finally, we reached the top, and oh my goodness was it ever worth it. It was 360 degrees of sheer beauty. Just as with Arthur’s Seat, I won’t even bother trying to describe it with some clumsy combination of adjectives and nouns, instead I’ll just leave these pictures here to do the talking for me.

Now, I feel it’s important to mention that getting up to the summit took probably a little over three hours (factoring in about 20 minutes of rest time, including a lunch break). Let me remind you that we were told that the hike would take three hours total. TOTAL. I don’t know what kind of hiking enthusiasts/demi-gods provided that statistic, but I have some questions for them (including – but not limited to – how and where they acquired their superhuman powers). Hiking down was of course much faster than going up, but surprisingly more painful. Turns out rocky terrain and steep inclines don’t get along well with feet, knees, or body parts in general. The walk down also included a strange, wonderful and terrifying encounter with a cow, pictured below. As we were walking, we noticed a cow hanging out just next to the trail. Just as we got within 5 meters of her, she walked directly onto the path in front of us, and she wasn’t exactly in a huge rush to leave. Finally, she crossed over to the other side of the trail, only to turn back and watch us as we walked by. I, being the brilliant soul that I am, tried to pose for a picture with our new bovine friend, but just as I leaned in for the photo, she viciously attacked breathed on me, causing me to jump away in fear (all perfectly captured in the picture below). I’m aware that this post has been 96.4% sarcastic, but I swear with every fibre of my being that the past five sentences are completely serious.

All in all, the hike up Ben Lomond was anything but leisurely, but it was so, so worth it. Sarcasm aside, it was an incredibly fun and adventurous day, which is exactly what I had hoped for in signing up. Would I have enjoyed it more had I been in better shape? Perhaps, but perhaps not, especially considering that had that been the case, there would have been so much less room for sarcasm in this post, and God knows we couldn’t have that.

Arthur’s Seat (Twice!), The Elephant House, and Other Miscellaneous Activities

So, to pick up where I left off in my last post, I’ll start this entry by telling you about my first hike up Arthur’s Seat, the dormant volcano that overlooks Edinburgh. Hiking it is a must for anyone who visits the city. My dad flew over with me to help me get settled and naturally wanted to get a good taste of Edinburgh before heading back to the Great White North. So, on Wednesday morning of my first week, I strapped on my Converse extremely professional hiking gear and we set off for Arthur’s seat, a whopping 251 m hike (basically a casual stroll in the park for a fitness guru like me). While it’s no Everest, the hike was surprisingly steep and rather precarious near the top, but well worth it for the incredible view of the city. Half the struggle came from forcing myself to look where I was going rather than at the sprawling landscape behind me. While I am many things, a hiking expert is not one of them, but even I can tell you that climbing a steep mountain with your head turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction is a bad idea. Finally, just as my breathing was getting embarrassingly heavy, we reached the peak. Rather than trying and failing to articulately describe the breathtaking view from the top, I’ve included some pictures below:

While the city is beautiful in any conditions, we were definitely blessed with a perfect day weather-wise. All-in-all, a successful hike followed by an even more successful nap.

The next few days consisted of some casual pub nights with new friends (definitely my type of night out, which makes my choice of city an extremely appropriate one), another hike up Arthur’s Seat, this time with the aforementioned friends (yes, I really did it twice in one week, and I’m just as surprised as you are), and a lot of significantly less fun but albeit necessary logistical errands like setting up a UK bank account and phone.

Needless to say my initial nerves had more than worn off by the end of the week. Every day this city feels more and more like home, and the more I explore the more I fall in love with it. Edinburgh has so much to offer, from Princes Street to Calton Hill to Victoria Street (all pictured below!). The Harry Potter nerd in me couldn’t be happier to be living in a city where, not only does every other street look like Diagon Alley, but where J.K. Rowling actually wrote the first novel (in a now famous café called The Elephant House, which of course I visited).

I’ve been writing this post from an equally adorable and similarly named café called Elephants and Bagels (which, as a Montrealer, I was inevitably drawn to), where I think I have far overstayed my welcome. So, I’m signing off for now, but stay tuned for my next entry which will include the trials and tribulations of another (much more challenging) hike, and is therefore guaranteed include far too much sarcasm about my [lack of] fitness and unadulterated hatred love for exercise.

Do They Have Maple Syrup In Scotland?

Hello! If you’re reading this, chances are you’re either a family member or a friend and you’re already well-acquainted with my weirdness, but in case you’re a stranger who somehow stumbled upon this blog, I’ll introduce myself before getting into the nitty gritty details of the blood, sweat and tears I have endured in the first week of my exchange (okay, you caught me, mostly tears). I’m a 20-year-old born-and-raised Montrealer, and yes, everything you’ve heard is true. As a Canadian, I do in fact ride my polar bear from my igloo to school every morning, but not before I drink maple syrup straight from the bottle and eat salmon that I personally ice-fished. Okay, confession time: Canadians don’t actually drink maple syrup straight from the bottle. We pour it into glasses first. We’re not savages.

All kidding aside, I am a proud Canadian, fluent in English, French and Sarcasm, an undeniable nerd (see my Harry Potter book collection and/or superhero-themed suitcase for reference), a foodie, a secret musical theatre junkie, and of course, a hockey fan (as is my birthright).

For the sake of being honest, I have to say that this week has been overwhelming, particularly the first few days. In the months leading up to my departure, I had experienced increasingly frequent bouts of anxiety over matters that ranged in importance from “what if they don’t have maple syrup in Scotland?” to “what if I don’t make any friends?” Despite the nerves, I was obviously excited beyond belief for my year abroad, but I left Montreal stuck in a weird and exhausting middle ground between the two emotions. The terrifying reality of moving halfway across the world to a new country of which I had no knowledge and in which I had no friends only truly hit me about four steps into my new dorm room. I won’t say I cried, but I also won’t say that I didn’t. Needless to say, nearly a day of travelling takes a toll on you, and arriving late in the evening on Saturday, hearing dozens of kids in the halls who seemed to already be best friends certainly didn’t help. My mom may have been 5000 kilometers, 5 times zones, and one ocean away, but her voice rang clear in my head telling me to get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning. And of course, even the imagined version of my mother was right. I woke up the next morning ready to move in and start meeting people. My lack of life skills worked in my favour here, as I made my first friends due to my inability to put a duvet inside a duvet cover. Once I had met a few people, my anxiety subsided and excitement took it’s place instead. After a night out with the first-years in my dorm, I decided that I needed to make some sort of effort to orient myself in this beautiful but confusing city. I’m not shy to admit that I have a comedically bad sense of direction, which, combined with far too much self-confidence and/or pride in my ability to get around has made for some very interesting (and incredibly embarrassing) detours in the past. As fate would have it, I happen to have chosen a city that is not only full of winding roads and a plethora of tiny side streets, but where even the main streets change names four or five times along the way (I almost believe that the city planners have done it on purpose to confuse tourists… Almost). In fact, if it weren’t for Google Maps, I have no doubt that I’d be in Glasgow by now, if not further. So on Monday morning I joined a tour of the city organized by the university, on which I learned nothing but more importantly met some fellow exchange students who’ve become my closest friends thus far.

As overwhelmed I was by the daunting move overseas, I was equally if not more overwhelmed by how beautiful this city is. Between the old intricate architecture that lines the city, the castle that sits in the city’s centre, and Arthur’s Seat overlooking it all, every angle offers a unique and equally stunning view. Princes Street in particular offers a gorgeous combination of old and new, with a range of modern stores and shops on one side of the street, and the castle on the other. I have so much exploring left to do but what little I’ve seen of the city thus far has already made me begin to fall in love with it.

I haven’t even gotten to my hike up Arthur’s Seat yet, but I think that’s more than enough rambling for my first post, so I’ll leave you here for now (on the edge of your seat, I have no doubt) and pick back up in a few days.

From Beaches to Bagpipes

Well, I’m here! A hop across the pond and I’m in the sitting room of some old family friends in Edinburgh. The weather is a little gloomy, as expected, but not bad at all. I’ve been informed it’s actually rather warm today, which is just slightly frightening, but I’m sure I’ll adjust.

The flight wasn’t as awful as it could’ve been– the packing, however, is a whole other story. The flurried madness increased in velocity until we were up to our ears in clothes and had both bags teetering on the brim of the weight restrictions. Fifty pounds, contrary to popular belief, is not quite as large a number as it initially seemed. But after some shuffling around, a few tears, and several last-minute eliminations, the suitcase was thrown into the car along with my family and we were off to SFO.

My dog was more focused on his peanut butter treats than his bawling owner (me) during a heartbreaking good-bye, but I’m sure I’ll recover from that trauma some day. An endless stream of photos and farewells saw me through security and soon, boarding the plane, where everything was terribly, wonderfully British. “Flavour” and “colour” were no longer what they once were. I’ll add those (and “pants”) to the list of things I need to get used to.

The flight was smooth, or as smooth as a 12-hour transatlantic flight can be. I had to awkwardly inform a non-English speaking couple that they were sitting in my reserved seat, a decision I regretted as soon as the little boy sitting behind me starting kicking. Ten minutes into the flight, the person in front reclined their seat into my lap. The lady to my left kept me alert with gentle snores. Despite all of this, I was optimistic– the flight to Heathrow would only last so long, and then a second one would take me to Edinburgh.

Upon landing, the stomach of the little boy behind me seemed to reject the plane food– all over the back of my seat. My equally disturbed neighbors made quick work of unloading and then I was free! Well, kind of.

If you have never been to Heathrow airport, you don’t understand just how terribly confusing it is. Amidst loading zones and upstairs departures and oddly-ordered gates I wandered until I racked up the nerve to ask another woman for directions. I scraped into the gate with fifteen minutes to spare and managed to order a latte (with only a little difficulty with the new currency). I sat next to a spare seat on the flight and was met by family friends, Imogen and Trona, on the other side.

Which brings us back to me in their living room.

Tomorrow I’m hopping on a train to Darlington to see my cousins and their 6-year-old son and will be moving between relatives once in England. I was only here in Edinburgh for a day, but considering I have the whole upcoming year I’m not too torn up.

Till next time!

When Acquaintances Feel Like Old Friends

This afternoon I had the privilege of wandering Edinburgh with a new friend, Lizzie, searching around for cafés to use for study spots. Indulgent, we walked through the streets around campus smushing around exasperated people into secondhand bookshops, scouting out restaurants and coffee shops, and finding nooks in a city that’s beginning to feel like mine.

Lizzie is actually documenting her own stay in Edinburgh for a video diary and posted about our day, so in lieu of my terrible iphone camera photos, I thought I’d throw in her lovely video, as it captures the spirit of our mini-adventure this afternoon. (Yes, that’s me talking to the camera!)

I do feel like I’m starting to know the city with its character, charm, and all of its vibrancy. And it’s true – I can finally navigate myself to campus, and without a map at that! Still, I don’t know it at all. It would be insane to think that after two weeks here, I could. But it would be a dangerous game to be complaisant in my exploration of this city or this university. It’s important that I continue to get lost – intentionally or otherwise – and that I reach out to try and delve into everything that is at my fingertips right now. I need to remind myself to look up, see the sights, take steps off of the paths that I’m starting to feel comfortable navigating.

Setting aside time this afternoon with the express purpose of wandering was certainly a luxury, in the midst of my growing coursework assignments, cooking nightmares and list of societies I want to join. But moving forward, it’s luxuries like this I’m going to set aside time to afford.

(Many thanks to Lizzie (and her extremely expensive camera) for putting together a much better visual on our afternoon than I could have hoped to capture.)

So it Begins

It has only just now hit me as I sit perched on my bed with my 16-week-old family puppy by my side that I leave for Edinburgh in two weeks. As exciting as it sounds, it’s also unsettling. It’s not that I don’t know what to bring, I already have a few adapters, a raincoat, rain boots, even some A4 paper. I’m excited to have such a wonderful opportunity and this exchange is something I’ve dreamed about since I was in high school. But only today, just now as I sip my chai tea and stare at the laundry that’s cluttering my floor as I Google “Ikea cutlery” instead, that I realize I depart for Edinburgh in less than two weeks. I should be receiving my Visa next week (cutting it close, I know), my flight is booked, and I have the appropriate luggage. But I still lack the drive to figure out when to ship things like blankets, and clothing to my flat. Combating laziness to pack for school and will clearly take some willpower.

But as much as I have the anxiety of travel and the unknown, I’m not too anxious about starting at Edinburgh. Having started my first year in Chicago (hailing from the New York metro area), and transferring to the University of Connecticut, for my second year, having a “first day at school”, is something I’ve done twice. After all, I have spent the last five months talking about going to Edinburgh and researching fun spots to go to in the city to the annoyance and exhaustion of my gracious friends and family. I think at this point, they’re all ready for me to go so they no longer have to listen to me talk about it.

Now all I have left to do is channel my excitement for my next adventure into productive activities like getting boxes, more adapters, figuring out my cellphone plan, and saying goodbye to friends some I won’t see for nine months and others I hope to see while abroad. But now I’m just going to enjoy the time I have left (like my chai before the ice melts!), and get ready for what looks like be the best year of my college career.

From one capital to another

It appears that I was preparing to travel to Edinburgh my whole life, but I never knew it. My whole life I was moving farther and farther away from home, the big move (I thought) moving 3 hours away, but now I’m moving time zones away. Typically, one always hears about adventures once they are finished, and the exciting details of each place visited, not about the preparation for the adventure. Well this is a true story of my preparations for Edinburgh.

Once I informed my friends and family that I was going to Edinburgh for school they were a little more than sceptical that I would ever return, however getting to Edinburgh was testing. First, there was all the paper work. It felt like I was constantly writing to someone or applying for something. Applying for my UK visa was a long, intimate, and intense process.

To ensure I would get the most out of Edinburgh and bring the most of Canada with me, I had to purchase a bigger suitcase. For something that’s nature is to pack things into, deciding on what to fill the suitcase with was hard. Weeks prior to even booking my plane ticket I was scrambling around the house collecting my quirky essentials and practical items so as to not forget them. Items like my knee high, yellow rain boots, travel gnome and electrical current converter. Another essential item is my family’s tartan, the Murray tartan. For Christmas my family bought a scarf in the Murray tartan as motivation to connect with my Scottish roots.

After purchasing travel books about Scotland, specifically Edinburgh, I began making my “to do” list. I purchased the exact same travel book for my mom so she could mark off all the places she wants to go when she comes to visit me. I am especially, interested in seeing the Scottish Parliament buildings since I am moving from Ottawa, where Canada’s Parliament buildings are. I want to compare the two cultures as I move from one capital to the other.

To prepare myself for the cuisine of Scotland I booked a reservation at an authentic Scottish restaurant, The Caledonian. After researching I found that the name ‘Caledonia’ was a name given by the Romans to the Northern area of Scotland. Also, the name had been modernised and has taken on a romantic tone and had been incorporated into many songs. I have yet to attend the reservation, but perused the menu which included such items as haggis fritters, Scotch egg, and sticky toffee pudding.

Even though “goodbyes” made up a large part of my pre-departure, I know they are going to be replaced by many more “hellos”, once I arrive in Edinburgh.

Katie Stanley