ROADS & KINGDOMS - 31 MAY 2013
On a cold weekend this winter, I flew to Edinburgh for what turned out to be a more posh wedding than I expected. The bride and groom were diplomats; we’d met them in Riyadh back in 2008, treasuring every chance we had to drink their imported diplomatic hooch, and in general enjoyed their well-informed, widely read companionship. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it was almost too easy to detect class, lumped as we were into a broad category of non-Saudis. But visiting them for nuptials in the United Kingdom, I found such matters to be more finely tuned, at a register I couldn’t handle, and having failed to wear the proper costume, or perhaps to adequately trim my beard, I stood before St. Giles Cathedral—as grand as St. Patrick’s in New York City—while a scowling guard in a skirt blocked my path with a “stop there” gesture. So I stood in the rain, assuring him I was invited, and when he finally relented, I confronted pew after pew of blond hair and blue eyes, men taller than I, all these centuries of nutrition and good breeding, and it became all but certain that I’d drink too much at the 15th-century manor and risk remembering nothing of how I got home.
The hangover the next day was fierce, rivers of scotch preventing me from recalling all but the haziest outline of the reception, the champagne, the toasts, the moon, and with a slim chance I’d make the day-after picnic, I slept past noon for the first time in years, cocooned in a heavy white duvet. When I rose I headed straight for the train station, where I would meet an old friend who had been an expat with me in Cambodia. Jane and I had forged a friendship deep in a jungle, over opium and grilled shark. She was from Scotland and here I was, in Edinburgh. Threading through commuters, looking for a woman I hadn’t seen in a decade, I recalled she had once applied to be a diplomat and even remembered a line from the blandly impersonal form letter that had declined her services while incorrectly guessing at her gender. “Dear Mr. Martin…” I found Jane, and launched into a description of the wedding. She looked exactly the same, long red hair, pale skin, a face dominated by sneering amusement. “Right, Mr. Deuel. Let’s go to Leith.”
We started down Edinburgh’s wide sidewalks, ignoring a light rain and deepening cold, heading toward a district north of town that was declared the city’s official port in 1329, by Robert the First. The south side of Leith long accepted cargo and was poor while the north side was home to fisherman and boat builders, and was comparatively wealthy. In 1561, Mary Queen of Scots arrived here by ship to begin her blighted reign, but found no one there to receive her (“hir cumming was more suddane then many luiked for,” was the official excuse at the time). In the 18th century, a five-hole course devoted to the new game of golf was where the rules to that silly game were established. Whaling was a mainstay here, at least until the last great fish was caught, in the nearby Firth of Forth. To help sailors get Vitamin C, a concern in Leith started selling a concoction called Rose’s Lime Juice. But after World War II, with the commonwealth’s economy in tatters, the area of Leith underwent a steep decline.
After a few miles we began to see things I’d associate more with knife crime than fancy cathedrals: toughs in leather jackets, empty storefronts, various crumbling row houses, harried mothers smoking cigarettes, unkempt yards. Against one leafless tree I saw a door that I think had been blasted through with a shotgun.
When we finally got to the water, however, the sun came out, the day warmed, the avenue opened up, and there stood three of the finest-looking, marine-themed pubs I’d ever seen. Only a few years earlier Leith had closed its final “tolerance zone,” on a nearby street, where prostitution was de facto legal, but today the come hither look came from an actual boat moored along the waterfront, a restaurant to be boarded by gangplank. The true seduction, however, was from The Ship on the Shore across the cobblestone street, a distant relation, at least in appearance, to Manhattan’s Ear Inn, that old sailor’s pub on the far west end of Spring Street.
I was too groggy to commit yet to sitting inside, so we settled into one of the wooden sidewalk booths, where our table was made of old champagne crates. On sun-warmed wooden benches, we sipped ale, and it was hard to imagine either whales or whores. When our insides were sufficiently re-boozed, we pushed through doors to find a massive table in a dark corner of the restaurant. There was something easy about spending strangely colored money, each note emblazoned with a Queen smiling primly, and dispatching with more crowns, we raised several more.
At some point a good-natured barkeep nudged a menu our way. It seemed pretty clear we needed to order the seafood sampler, and when it arrived, I found no other way but to compare it favorably to the only other marine tower I’d ever had—at Balthazar, also on Spring Street.
I’d just recently been nearly disinvited to a wedding, after which I probably behaved as if I should’ve been. But now, as happens on a day in a unfamiliar place, I was allowing myself a new and lovely experience. This “Fruits de Mer” set us back 65 pounds and included a comely little animal called a Scottish Lobster. There were also several langoustines, a hunk of dressed brown crab, and several clams that looked like silky nuggets of sea foam. We fought over massive paddles of deeply orange smoked salmon and took pains to cut exactly in half the shard of tobacco-yellow haddock, called “Arbroath Smokie,” an official designation ratified by the UN. The smokie is made of fish from the northern fishing village of Auchmithie, hard-smoked in a thick and humid fire for an hour. Scallops quivered with the deep cold of wherever they had once lain and the oysters were sharp and nearly translucent. I’ve never had more plump or flavorful mussels, nor have I yet surpassed the thrill of forking out the salty nest of celery bits and crunchy scallion and garlic bits nested in the half-cracked shells. There were also these long shells in which resided some kind of meat. The barkeep called them spoots. You might call them razor clams? In any case, I ate mine clenched between french fries.
Ensconced in dark wood and amidst the carnage of shellfish and empty pint glasses, it was hard to leave, or to even ruminate on the idea of remorse. To Jane, with whom I had as much in common as the day I met her—which is to say, a great appetite, a willingness to go anywhere, and a patience for the unpleasant—I tried to describe how strange it had been to feel so short in the cathedral, so accustomed as I was to towering over the various peoples I’d shared countries with over a peripatetic life. She told me about recent theater pieces she’d written about her time in Afghanistan. We both expressed sadness that my wife was away and agreed she would want us to have another beer.
Growing steadily more over-filled, I suppose I felt a twin sense of ease at work: Very little threat, it seemed, that any of the various people from the wedding would discover me and question my failure to attend the day’s farewell picnic. Likewise, there was a familiar sense that we had earned this meal by walking so far, that rewards came to those who didn’t confuse excellence with proximity to cathedrals.
This piece was published by Roads & Kingdoms. Read the original here.