Friday, 25 June 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland, Day 2: Ugh

In case you wondered why this blog was named “The Pocahontas Files,” let me explain. As I described in her brief bio at the top of the main page, Pocahontas died of a mysterious illness after living in England for about a year. There have been several guesses as to the exact nature of her ailment (smallpox, pneumonia, TB), but the important detail is that her immune system was not ready for New World threats, causing her to succumb while everyone around her remained healthy. I sympathize with poor Pocahontas, because I, too, seem to get sick from everything here in the UK. This is made even worse by the fact that my husband gets sick from almost nothing; he is a great carrier of vectors but not a sufferer, so I am not even aware that I am in danger until I wake up with a stuffy nose or a fever or nausea or whatever other fun symptoms get thrown my way. I have already vomited in our apartment more than in either of my last two apartments combined. I have had two of the worst colds of my entire life; if there were a Guinness World Record for tissue and/or cold medicine use, I surely would be a contender. I also happen to have a bit of Native American ancestry, so between my health, my location (coming from Pocahontas’ hometown, moving to England), and my heritage, I quickly earned the nickname of “Pocahontas.”

I mention this now because I seem to have caught a 24-hour stomach flu for the second time this year. My first evening in Edinburgh was so lovely, and I was so excited about heading out the next day to walk to the top of Arthur’s Seat, or perhaps looking at the Dutch landscapes at the Queen’s Gallery, or any number of other entertaining diversions, but instead I spent the entire day in our hotel room, barely able to crawl out of bed. As my husband pointed out, at least it was a nice hotel room to get stuck in, and, thankfully, they had room service. This was a life-saver, because I did not realize how ill I was until my husband had already left for his conference; not only could I not make it to a store to buy food, I didn’t have anyone to send in my place.

Room service always seems like such a fun thing, but the two times I have indulged, it has been in very dire circumstances. The first was in New Orleans, when I went for an American Ornithologists’ Union conference as an undergraduate. I flew in just as a major hurricane was making its way up the coast, and as everyone now knows, New Orleans is not a city built to withstand hurricanes. When I headed out for dinner, it was pouring rain and all the streets were beginning to fill up with water because the storm drains were full. I rolled up my jeans since the water was up to my ankles, and trudged around trying to find a restaurant –any restaurant would do—that was open. Unfortunately, nothing was, so I eventually had to squelch back to the hotel and head to my room to dry off. While contemplating what I could eat from the vending machine, my eye fell on the room service menu, and I knew my problems were solved. The food, of course, was hideously expensive, but I ordered the decently-priced appetizer sampler because it had, among other things, hummus, which I had just recently started eating for the first time. It also had pâté, which I accidentally ate before realizing what it was (I’m rather opposed to pâté, not only because it comes from a part of the body that is clearly not meant to be eaten, but also because of the inhumanity of force-feeding animals in order to produce it).

My second experience with room service, here in Edinburgh, was much more pleasant (although even more expensive, thanks to the exchange rate). Given the state of my stomach, there were really only two things in the world I could imagine eating, and the room service menu had them both—what luck! The first was a fruit salad with cantaloupe and berries; this really was worth whatever I paid, because the fruit tasted as though it had been freshly picked in a garden out back. The second was chicken/vegetable broth with a few noodles, served with a side of plain toast. As miserable as I was, I could still get a bit of enjoyment out of the luxury of perching on a down comforter, wearing a giant bathrobe, eating food that had been wheeled to my room on a cart:

(I particularly liked the flower in the little glass bowl--classy! And, yes, that is real silver.)

My sick day gave me time to do three major things. First, explore the room a bit more. Not to harp on about the quality of the facilities, but I noticed several more aspects of our room that make me question this whole five-star business. In the bathroom, there is a water stain on the ceiling above the sink, mildew in the grout of the bathtub, a yellow discoloration around the base of the toilet, and cracks in some of the tiles on the floor:

(Exhibit A: Water stains above the (expansive) bathroom sink.)

In the bedroom, there are several red stains on the carpet:

(Exhibit B: Mysterious stains. These were clearly footprint stains; what on earth do you track in that is the color of sweet and sour sauce?)

Now, I am not saying that any of these things really detracts from my enjoyment of my stay here—I can find stains, mildew, discolorations, and cracks in various places in my own apartment, and I like it there just fine. However, I can’t help but think that if I’d wanted stains and cracks, I could have stayed at any hotel; don’t you expect a bit more out of a place with so many stars? Something else that bothers me is the pretentiousness associated with places like these. For instance, do I really need my bedside lamp to have a (faux) leather-covered post? Do I really want to look at myself in a (faux) gold-framed mirror? What is up with these bizarre light fixtures?:

(These look a little more ridiculous in person, but trust me, they are unnecessarily weird. However, if someone were to break into my room, I'm confident I could grab one of these fixtures off the wall and defend myself quite successfully.)

More importantly, could I honestly live with myself if I ordered a £20 “bath ritual” from the menu in the bathroom (to translate: bubble bath, shower gels, body oils), or a “revitiliser” (wine, champagne, chocolate, canapés) for as much as £85? It’s not that I don’t like indulging every now and then, I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with the scale of the excess, which to me seems unnecessary and thoughtless. After all, we are in a country where it was just announced that the retirement age is going to be raised to 66, and then eventually 70, in order to allow the government to pay for rising pension costs. Kind of puts things into perspective.

But before I get too harsh, I will commend the hotel on the complimentary toiletries in the room, which were quite plush, and the people at the front desk who agreed to let us have a later-than-normal check-out time so that I could maximize the amount of recovery I got before attempting to rejoin the real world. Additionally, while I was holed up in the room all day, housekeeping came and left two notes in response to our “Do not disturb” sign on the door. Because they were not able to “refresh” the room either in the morning or during the evening turn-down time, they gave us a number to call to arrange an alternative, if we wanted to. They were extremely helpful and accommodating, but without being obsequious or fawning--not an easy line to walk.

The second thing I did all day was read, to the point of finishing my current book. I am in the middle of reading everything written by Bill Bryson. After I first moved to the UK, I discovered my husband’s copy of A Brief History of Nearly Everything, which I have always wanted to read, and I made my way through that quite quickly. Recently, I thought it might be nice to read Bryson’s thoughts on England, so I purchased Notes From a Small Island. When I was in the book store, I also picked up Down Under, since we are about to go to Australia ourselves, and I thought that Bryson might have some helpful pointers (indeed, I read about two places that I want to go while we are in Perth). I tend to be rather loyal, so after finishing that book I hatched my plan to read my way through the rest of Bryson’s works (luckily I’ve already read two or three, so I won’t be entirely overwhelmed). For the Edinburgh trip, I brought Notes From a Big Country, which is a series of newspaper articles that Bryson wrote for a British publication after returning to live in the USA with his family. One of the reasons that I like Bill Bryson’s work, besides the fact that it is informative and funny, is that we have some things in common and I like to compare my perspective with his. Do we notice the same differences between the British and American cultures? Do we miss the same things when we’re in one country or the other? Do the same things frustrate us? It is nice to find a kindred spirit who sometimes validates you, and other times opens your eyes to new things. I just wish I’d packed my next book, Neither Here Nor There, which I never dreamed I’d get to so soon. Luckily, the hotel left a little light reading in our room:

(Come to think of it, perhaps this was more anti-attacker defense. Should I fail to impale him on the light fixture, I could smack him over the head with this brick, or possibly bore him to death by reading a few pages out loud. No offense to the Queen, but I read a comprehensive biography of the first Elizabeth and it was only about half as long despite the fact that she changed the course of English history on a much larger scale. I'm just saying.)

Luckily, I had the third thing on my list, which is World Cup soccer (aka “football” or “footie”). Boy, do I love soccer. I first started playing soccer when, as a sophomore in high school, I rashly signed up for indoor soccer even though I knew absolutely nothing about the sport. To be honest, I still have no idea why I did that, but I’m glad I did. I have never been all that great at the sport—I don’t disgrace myself, but it certainly would be useful if I were better at the ball-handling portion, as opposed to just the running portion of the game—but I do love to watch it. In the US, this is not something you can do all that much unless you purchase special sports packages for your television, or go to bars. I didn’t even have regular cable half the time, and I certainly never went to bars, so I rarely watched soccer in the US. My husband, on the other hand, is a huge sports fan, and so we have a wealth of soccer games to choose from (along with rugby, cricket, Formula 1, golf, tennis…but this is beside the point). He’s a Liverpool fan, and so I have also become a Liverpool fan by default:

(The Liverpool crest. How can you not like a team whose fans sing excerpts of a Pink Floyd song at games?)

They are a good team to support because they’re talented enough to win a good portion of their games, thus leaving you feeling triumphant, but not so good that people might think you support them just because they’re likely to win the championship. Also, their team colors are white and red, the color of the jerseys for my first soccer team, so I’ll take that as a sign that I was born to support Liverpool.

Another reason why I like Liverpool is their captain, Steven Gerrard. He is so…earnest. He is not one of those rock star athletes that drives an Escalade and wears a big gold chain and gets caught with prostitutes and drugs. Gerrard really does seem as though he cares, about his teammates and the game. He’s just a nice guy. I hate seeing him give press conferences after a mistake has been made on the field, because he looks like he’s in great pain, and possibly as though he might go have a cry afterward:

(Steven Gerrard. See that pained expression on his face? He's probably feeling guilty for a mistake he hasn't even made yet. What a sensitive guy.)

Despite my adoration of Gerrard, my favourite player is Wayne Rooney, from Manchester United. I am not alone in this, since probably half the country follows Manchester United, and since Rooney is considered maybe the best current player in English football. I don’t really care about statistics, though. I like Rooney because he looks and moves just like someone I once dated in college, and he even kind of acts like him, too. I find the resemblance so remarkable that I feel compelled to be a loyal fan:

(Exhibit A: Wayne Rooney, striker for Manchester United.)

(Exhibit B: Dr. Matt Rivenburgh, former sprinter on the Haverford College track team, my ex-boyfriend. I have pictures that better portray the similarity between Matt and Wayne, but unfortunately they are sitting with the rest of my shipment on a dock in Felixstowe, which, as we all know, is another story.)

Rooney is often described as a thug, which is probably fair enough, but he also truly cares about the game, and obviously feels the pressure of the millions of fans whose expectations he must live up to each week. Another sensitive guy.

All of this brings us back to the World Cup. In the Premier League, Rooney and Gerrard are on different teams that battle each other for the championship. But in the World Cup, they’re on the same team, along with other incredible players who suddenly go from being competitors to partners. It’s a crazy dynamic; what’s even crazier is how good they are despite the fact that they spend most of their year playing against each other rather than with each other. England won the World Cup in 1966 and haven’t since; to say there is tremendous pressure to right this wrong is to indulge in serious understatement. The World Cup build-up began once the Premier League games ended in early May. Since then, there have been steadily more World Cup-oriented commercials and TV specials and songs—yes, World Cup-themed songs, played on the radio. People have hung English flags from the windows of their apartments and businesses, they have attached flags and magnets and stickers to their cars, they have started wearing English jerseys on an everyday basis. Just to be clear, I did mean to say English flag, rather than British flag. It looks like this:

(The English flag. It doesn't actually have "England" written across the middle, but most of the footie-related flags do, for some reason. This is different from the Union Jack, although you can see how this design was incorporated into the British flag.)

Stores here are selling English flag jewelry, decorative lights (as in, soccer-ball shaped Christmas tree lights with English flags on them), mugs, place mats…you name it, you can buy it somewhere right now. This is a big deal. This is such a big deal that the World Cup is getting more press than Wimbledon, even on days when the English team have no games.

My sickness corresponded with the last group stage qualifying game for England—their make-or-break game against Slovenia, after their draws against the USA and Algeria. I felt confident that England would win, but other people weren’t so sure, so it was a very tense and exciting atmosphere. Needless to say, this would have been quite the match to have seen in a pub, surrounded by other soccer fans. However, given my state, I was quite happy to see it in my hotel room. I was so excited by Jermain Defoe’s (game-defining) goal that I jumped up and shouted before remembering that I was sick. I was also pleased to hear that the US managed a late-game goal against Algeria and that they, too, made it through to the knock-out round—if my adopted country can’t win, I might as well support my home country. These were just the afternoon games, of course; there were two more in the evening, and I watched these as well, sending text message updates to my husband, who was attending yet another banquet.

I have definitely had more exciting, and more comfortable, vacation days, but one can never complain too much about the chance to eat a meal in bed, watch four exciting footie games on television, finish a book, and play computer games, all in one day. Compared to what I would be doing if I were at home--editing, editing, editing--this is an improvement. All the same, I have my fingers crossed that I will be able to enjoy Edinburgh a bit more thoroughly on my final day...

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