A Story from Edinburgh, Scotland
Mums is well-lit, full of cheerful Scots, downing healthy portions of affordable comfort food. This is the spot I have chosen for my initial meal in Edinburgh, the location of my first foray into solo traveling. I hesitate at the door as I gaze into Mums. I notice there is no bar, only tables. As a party of one, this is not ideal. What is ideal is a scene I can recall countless times from TV shows and movies. A suited, dapper man strides confidently into a restaurant and saddles up to the bar for a drink and possibly some food. It is clear to the audience that there is mysterious and important business that awaits him on the other side of this solitary meal. The man leans into the bar and orders his Man drink of choice (a neat scotch, a “shaken not stirred” martini, or — bonus mystery points for this order— a tonic water with no ice). In most cases, before the man even gets a chance to look at the menu, an attractive, equally mysterious woman slides in beside him at the bar, lights a cigarette, and proceeds to engage the man in highly intelligent and flirtatious banter. This woman, defying all odds, is actually not a prostitute, and it soon becomes clear to the audience, has some very important business that awaits her on the other side of the inevitable lovemaking in which she and the man will take part after a few more minutes of witty banter.
“No, Mums will not do, Mums will not do at all,” I think as I take in the family-friendly scene from the street, where it is clear that each and every person is genuinely enjoying the food and having human conversations that actually happen in real life. “No, what we need is something…different. A place with a bar that I can just…saddle up to.” Images of the solo man traveller compel me onward, and I move away from Mums with a newfound confident yet mysterious hitch in my gait.
In less than a block, I find myself outside of Doctors, a Scottish pub that offers the ideal bar-side eating option. A quick flip through the TripAdvisor reviews for Doctors confirms that eight completely random people of unknown degrees of intelligence, taste, and class have given the spot at least 4 stars (which is dwarfed by the number of exclamation points contained in each review). The only negative review is the last one — from a man furious that Doctors had the guts to not only list a relatively high price on their menu for a cheeseburger but also charge this price after he had eaten the burger which confirmed that the price did not meet the quality. I am able to disregard this last review and let the effusiveness of the first eight propel me forward through the doors of Doctors.
Immediately, I am struck both by the high proportion of men and the lack of a stool at the bar. However, I do my best to convey the aura that important business awaits me in Edinburgh as I try to the avoid the envious eyes that — must be — inevitably gazing my way. I take a seat to the table beside the bar. An empty box of cigarettes has been carelessly left on my table of choice, offering a subtle warning in all caps on the front of the box: “Smoking kills.” I think of the sexy woman smoking a cigarette with the solo man and marvel at her rebellious spirit. I then divert my attention to the laminated menu in front of me on the table. A quick glance through it makes it clear to me that Doctors is no stand-alone pub; rather, the pictures of food and their corresponding descriptions are downright Applebee’s-esque. I overcome the brief wave of disappointment that flows through me and order the lamb stew and a local pint from the cheerful bartender — who is decidedly not the mysterious sexy woman. Instead, the banter comes from another direction.
“You order tha’ stew?” an older, sporadically toothed man says to me through a grin.
“I did. Looks alright. Why do you ask?” I respond.
“18 quid for a-stew ain’t roight! But, the beer here, s’alroight.” I nod my head in agreement, but balk at diving into a conversation that will divert my attention from the highly attractive, highly single, highly intelligent woman that is sure to stride through the pub’s doors any moment. I sip my beer and attempt to develop some interest in the local football teams duking it out on the television screens above the bar. “The green team of white British guys is certainly quicker than this blue team of white British guys. However, the blue team is absolutely doing a better job of controlling the ball, which is why they have a narrow 1-0 lead over the green team.” My imagined commentary behind the muted screens struggles to grab my attention, so I settle on people-watching through the rest of my meal of overpriced lamb stew and not so bad (“alroight”) beer. The crowd is a mostly local-looking bunch of beer and football-inclined males, not so different from sports bars in America. I notice one woman eating alone — the lamb stew (must be the meal of choice for solo’ers) — and consider approaching her. However, my hesitation costs me as she downs her last bite with a swig of beer and then heads for the exit. She, clearly, is not the mysterious woman I am destined for.
I consider my next move as Doctors is not panning out as hoped. I had read about a local Scottish folk bar, Sandy Bell’s, that offers traditional folk music across the street from Mums (the bar I had eliminated visiting earlier due to its overwhelmingly high emphasis on reality). I flip through TripAdvisor to read some reviews and am, once again, overwhelmed by effusiveness: “OMG, this place is ADORABLE and AMAZING and YOU HAVE TO GO THERE. I came with some of my girlfriends…”, “Nice spot for a toddy and a dram of the ole stuff!” “Make sure you go when Bobby Neil and the Highland Boys are playing. Your ears will be overcome with the heights of melodic bliss,” “They have some good whiskeys that can GET YOU DRUNK! U-S-A! U-S-A!” This mishmash of positive reviews convinces me that at least some people who were living at some point enjoyed Sandy Bell’s for some reasons that they have attempted to explain on a website (to various levels of success). This was enough to inform my next move: to Sandy Bell’s.
I arrive at Sandy Bell’s to a crowd at the door and have to push my way to the bar. This lively bar has a decidedly upbeat feel as dozens of conversations fill the air with a pleasant buzz. I don’t see any signs of music yet, but, after I order a Scotch (“neat” — in case anyone is holding a manliness contest that I have unwittingly entered and this is the first test and there are millions of dollars on the line), a woman with blue hair begins to chat with me. This woman is certainly mysterious (she has purple hair) and — within a few seconds I realize — she is certainly not a woman (he is a cross-dresser) and she/he is friendly. She/he soon informs me that there is live music in the very back of the bar but there are no speakers, so you need to head that way in order to get the full experience. Before making my moves to the back, he/she then raves about “Whistlebinkies,” a rock music bar not so far away. I thank him/her for the solid advice and move to the back of the bar.
The band at the back has just started playing when I roll up and the first thing I notice — besides the delightful Scottish folk music bursting forth from their various stringed instruments — is how old these guys are. I worry that the concoction of sonorous melodies bouncing off the walls in the back of the bar are the only thing keeping these ancient Scots alive and upright. However, my worries abate when they finish a song, and, defying all odds, do not topple over, but, rather, engage in pleasant conversation with one another and the surrounding listeners. After some time, the music lulls me into a silent reverie that leads me to consider whether or not I may have just met the mysterious woman I am destined for — in the form of a purple-haired, cross-dressing man. This disturbing thought perks me out of my daydreams and leads me out of Sandy Bell’s and onto my next destination: Whistlebinkies, Edinburgh’s finest Scottish rock music bar.
On my way to “the Binkies” (I had already given this bar an abbreviation in my head in order to save time), I meet an extremely drunk Englishman, asking me where one could find Cowgate. I tell the man I am heading to “the Binkies” and that Cowgate is actually in the opposite direction (I am not exactly sure that it’s in the opposite direction, I am just hoping). The man thanks me but continues to walk alongside me, spewing forth excitement for the night ahead. “This place…this place…is mental! Le’s go to Cowgate, mate!…We’re goin’ to Cowgate, eh?…Le’s get some piiiinntsss in Cowgate, maaatttee!” At this point, I am not concerned, but do wonder what a woman in my position would do. Run? Kick the guy in sensitive regions? Call the Bobbies? Fortunately, I am not a woman and can listen with amusement to my newfound “mate” carry on about how great Cowgate will be as we make a beeline for Whistlebinkies (which I confirm is most certainly not in Cowgate after a quick check of Google maps). However, before we reach the door of our destination, the Englishman abruptly stops and offers his hand out to shake mine,”It’s been….been…a great time! Great meeting you! Chee-yas!” A bit disappointed, I amble on — solo again — to the “Binkies.”
Within moments of entering Whistlebinkies, I realize, I have found my spot. The band onstage is absolutely shredding some Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the dance floor is packed. After taking a brief tour of this spacious, basement venue, I saddle up to the bar where all my notions about exotic foreign solo travel melt away when I spot the Brooklyn Lager — and realize that this is exactly what I want. A few minutes later and I am making my way over to the dance floor, fresh Brooklyn Lager in hand. The band then rolls into a near perfect cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” transporting me to the shores of America where my mysterious solo persona completely evaporates and my true self is revealed — a classic rock junkie who wants nothing more than some space on the dance floor in order to allow the modest buzz of American-brewed lagers to propel my dancing to stratospheric new heights. And suddenly, I am no longer alone but filled with the warmth of familiar music and long-perfected dance moves. The solo artist has had his day, but now, succumbing to the pull of the joyful chorus surrounding him, joins in.