Image: Ignacio B. Peña
Greetings from Edinburgh, Scotland.
I’m still under a week away from our first introductory workshop session, but I thought it best to write what it’s been like living in the city for what’s coming up on two weeks now. Arriving in the city still hasn’t proven to be the great big sigh of relief that some might have expected it to be; I have arrived at my destination but I am still on the move. It’s not appropriate to say that I am homeless. Indeed, it would be greatly disrespectful to the large amount of homeless people that sit on the streets here begging for money from the swathe of tourists flooding the Royal Mile. But I can easily say I’m feeling a little weary at the idea of classes coming on soon and still not being terribly sure where it is I’m going to be laying my bags down for the rest of the year. At the moment, it’s looking like I may have found a place for the 1st of October, provided everything gets processed correctly without any red flags being raised along the way.
The city of Edinburgh itself feels stranger than I thought it would. I came once a few months ago during the new year. Edinburgh holds a big street party called Hogmanay, and back then it was packed with tourists in town for the celebrations. Now, the city doesn’t feel quite so full, yet still I feel that half the city is a container for people who are constantly on the move. The buildings are old; Arthur’s Seat rests to the east with rows of brick flats stretching far away from it. It’s rare for me to hear a Scottish accent floating around in the city centre, and most of the postgrads I’ve met during this last week’s orientation events are from other parts of the world. This place will continue to thrive for centuries around its history, and people from all over will continue to filter through it endlessly, but it seems to me a city that exists for those who won’t be staying long. I wonder how these impressions will change as the months go on. So far I feel like it’s a city in hiding, its true face buried under a mountain of old memories that have faded with the rain-soaked cobblestones which line the streets.
Since living in New Zealand, I have had several great opportunities of traveling around the world and meeting strange and wonderful folk along the way. I generally won’t stay in anything that isn’t a hostel; I find staying in a hotel or motel room to be greatly isolating, and I already have a tendency to do that enough in my own day-to-day. It’s a great way to hear stories that people carry with them from their home, from their own travels. Sometimes the stories rest in the body language of the traveler themselves, the way Germans cling to each other like magnets hungry for commonality, or the warm brief mention of a diner in that hometown they haven’t seen in four years. I’ve heard shocking stories of gross misconduct in dormitory rooms and shared public spaces (i.e. showers), that normally end with looks of unmitigated horror from American travelers and loud laughter from everyone else.
My arrival at the hostel in Edinburgh this time has been very different. I found it easier than ever to talk to anyone I wanted when I checked in. Everyone around me had the same sort of look in their eye; they didn’t know anybody in the city and they didn’t have a place to live, just like me. The hostel was filled with international students fresh off the train, having arrived in time for their studies with a mind of finding permanent accommodation. In those first days, the common room was filled with a nervous energy. Everyone was talking to each other, learning about which university they were going to, what they were going to study, and why they each decided to leave their home, wherever that may have been.
As days continue to slip past, I’ve slowly seen the dorm rooms empty as more and more students find a place to live. The beds are replaced once more with the usual travelers passing through. Again they tell me a brief summary of their story, and I, in turn, tell mine. Some of us “regulars” are still here; at this point we don’t say much, but our presence is enough to hold each other up as classes approach. Every time someone finds a flat, there’s genuine excitement for their find. We all want the same thing, and we all want the same thing for each other.
I’ve made a habit of walking through cities alone at night without any real aim. In the last few evenings, I’ve been thinking a lot about the people I’ve met traveling in the last few years, people who, in large part, I haven’t seen since, or will never see again. I won’t ever forget a conversation I had with a Chinese girl I met in Shanghai. I was staying in a hostel called The Blue Mountain at the end of a long train journey on the Trans-Siberian in the winter, with Shanghai as my final port of call. One evening I heard her making several phone calls in the common room while I sat reading at the end of a long day. Each call she made alternated from Mandarin to Japanese and back. I left the room after a while for an evening walk. Upon returning to my dorm room, I saw the same girl sitting on one of the beds, silently crying. I asked her if everything was ok. She didn’t really elaborate, but thanked me for the concern. After some moments of silence, she began speaking to me, saying it was nice to hear someone express concern for her. I told her that I overheard her speaking earlier and was impressed with her fluency. After a bit of chatting, I asked her why she was staying at the hostel.
Emily had moved to Shanghai from her family’s village to find work, and lived in the hostel until something came along. In that time she made many friends. She finally found a job, and soon after found a small one-bedroom apartment to live in. After a few weeks, however, she moved back to the hostel, and began to call it home. She found it incredibly lonely living in her small apartment. Her job was very demanding, and outside of it, never found herself in a community where she felt like she belonged. At the hostel, she found friends who she could always see. She didn’t feel lonely there, and she wasn’t the only one. The most permanent resident of the hostel had been living there for two years. Others, including Emily, had been living there for months.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that night. It’s been over two years since my visit to Shanghai, and I wonder how many of them are still there. It was such a strange place to have come upon, some strange hotel for people who need a home away from the world. Last week I was in the common room late one night writing to someone I miss back home. A girl was sleeping with her luggage nearby on one of the benches, probably because she either couldn’t get a bed that night or couldn’t afford it. There are a lot of people these last two weeks who have done this, and I always wonder where it is they’ve come from, and where they’re going to next. Everyone is passing through in this place, in this world. I think more and more of just how lucky people are when they find someone they can cut through the world with, even if it’s just for a little bit, just for a little while.
Every day now I see the dorm room filled with bright new faces, and every few days we go through the same dance. Each day I feel a little more sick when I stop to look around, reeling from all the movement around me. I become aware of every new face I’ll never see again, and I keep wishing for an anchor through it all. I know this is something that will probably go away once the workshop sessions begin and I’m left with little time to think of much else. I think.
We met with our program director on Wednesday, and all week it’s been stressed to us just how quickly the year is going to speed by. Will the year fly past me before I get to see what the city looks like underneath the river of travelers moving to their next destination? Am I always going to feel this way, no matter where I am? I’m not all that sure.
My last night in Wellington, after packing up my bags for my flight the next day, I went to a bar alone, just to have one more drink in the city. I should have asked someone to come with me, anyone really; I had also been invited to go to someone’s flat-warming that night. I regret not having done either for so many reasons I can’t begin to list. But I was at the bar alone and I asked for a Monteith’s Golden. Someone next to me heard my American accent, and asked if I was new in town. I told them I was passing through. I lied to them, and I’m still not sure why I did it. Or maybe I was actually telling the truth. I’m still unclear.