It’s 5pm and windy and overcast in Edinburgh. I’ve just clambered my way out of Waverly station, and the map on my phone tells me that it’s only a ten minute walk to my hostel, which is right near Edinburgh Castle.
If I squint, I can just make out the castle in the distance, and it looks kind of high up, but I figure it can’t be that hard a walk. I know I should be feeling more exhilarated at being in a new city (again), but I just feel a bit anxious about how much data my phone is using on maps, and tired from lugging my suitcase around.
I start wheeling it behind me as I trudge through the standing crowds outside the station, muttering ‘excuse me’s and ‘sorry’s as I go. The wind pulls at my scarf and coat, and I try to clutch them with one hand, the other dragging my suitcase.
I manage to weave my way to Market Street, and start walking up it when I see the blue dot slide past the next turn on my phone screen. I hadn’t noticed a street, but I turn back, and then sigh in a short blast when I see what’s in front of me. The News Steps, the sign reads, and towering above it in a steep, teetering pile are dozens of steps. They are not the wide, shallow, easy kind either. They would be a challenge even if I were dressed in exercise gear with nothing to carry. With my 20kg suitcase, they will be torture.
I start struggling up them, trying alternately to drag my suitcase behind me, and lift it up in front of me. After two flights, I pause, my breathing ragged. I am NOT an unfit person, I think to myself. I go running! I go to the gym! Ok, so I can’t really lift over 30 pounds, but still!
A guy bounds down the steps in the opposite direction, and pauses to look at me.
‘There’s a lot of steps,’ he points out unnecessarily.
‘I know,’ I say back.
I keep going, and eventually a girl stops next to me. ‘Do you need a hand?’ She says.
I glance at her out of the side of my eye, and shake my head.
‘I’m ok,’ I try to say lightly, but my voice is shaky and my breathing is shallow.
‘Oh, please let me help,’ she insists. ‘I’ll just take one end and you can take the other.’
I sigh again, this time in relief.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
We manage to haul the case to the top of the stairs, and then I lug it the rest of the way to my hostel to check in.
Handing me my key, the receptionist nods at the stairs behind me.
‘You’re room is up two flights,’ she says.
I nod, and steel myself. By the time I get to my room at last, my hands are shaking, I’m exhausted, and I slam the door behind me just in time before I burst into tears.
I sit on the edge of the bed in the dank, tiny hostel room and cry with an open mouth, tears and snot streaming, my sweaty clothes sticking to my back.
Travelling alone is not what I thought it would be like.
When I set off for my trip, I relished my solitude at the airport. I had this idea of being alone somehow healing me, giving me clarity on what really matters in my life.
I was setting off for a month after spending the prior three months working manically on a number of projects around my full-time job. Each evening, I would stagger home from work, allow myself a twenty minute break to eat cheese and pat my cat, and then would crack open my laptop for another three or four hours of work on the website I run, a grant application, the festival I was working on, the novella I was editing, etc etc.
Each night, my boyfriend would make me a cup of tea, which he’d place silently beside me on the coffee table, and I wouldn’t even notice it until hours later, when it was stone cold. He would watch me pour it down the sink while I said guilty ‘thank you’s.
It wasn’t working.
When a number of my projects finished at once, I was ready to set off overseas, to take a proper break and reassess. I knew something had to give, but I didn’t know what I wanted to focus on, what direction I needed to take.
I had never travelled alone before, but everyone kept telling me I’d love it. Foolishly, I believed them.
I wake up in Edinburgh exhausted and hungry. I can hear people walking around the hallways behind me, and I sit up and wait until there is silence before I brave opening the door of my private room and scurrying to the bathroom.
I’m not really a ‘hostel person’, I’ve realised. Mostly because I don’t like meeting and engaging with strangers, and I’m not looking for a hook up. The anxiety of being anti-social in a very social space is relentless.
I leave the hostel after a shower, and decide to wander around until I find somewhere decent for breakfast. A friend of mine who lived here recommended a cafe to me, so I set off in its direction.
It’s a beautiful morning – clear and crisp, and chilly with the promise of warmth later. The city is just waking up, and in an objective sense, I know I’m lucky to be here, lucky to see all of this.
On an immediate level though, I’m homesick and tired, yearning for a morning in my own kitchen with my boyfriend and our cat. I’d even go to work without complaints, I think with surprise. I’m aching for normalcy.
I feel like this regularly, but interspersed with long bursts of exhilaration and excitement at being amongst the unknown. I tell my boyfriend over email that it’s been all ‘dizzying heights and crumbling lows’ so far, in almost equal proportions.
I finally reach Broughton St, and find myself in front of a cafe called Artisan Roast. There is a red door, and spidery handwriting on the chalkboard outside. There’s a shared bookshelf, high tables, and bags of organic fair trade coffee on the shelves. I feel an unclenching in my spine, in my bones. I’m finally home.
Hipster cafes have become my haven.
Any cafe, really, but preferably the kind of self-indulgent, overly indie cafe that has a record player in the corner, and uses the word ‘bespoke’ incorrectly about various drink options.
I realised this on my first day in London, when I was stumbling around in a jet-lagged haze. I had arrived at 5am that morning, and wasn’t able to check into my hostel room. I left my bags and headed out, sure I could find somewhere to sit and eat, and maybe gather some energy for touristy things.
I have been to London twice before, so I knew exactly what I wanted, and where to get it. I caught the tube to Leicester Square, and stood opposite the Patisserie Valerie with an expression on my face a bit like a religious person confronting their holiest place of worship.
Patisserie Valerie isn’t that hipster. It’s a chain of French-style bakery cafes that serve fancy and expensive versions of normal food. I ordered the sunflower and poppyseed porridge with maple syrup, and ensconced myself for a comfortable morning of reading and slurping, finally relaxing after a gruelling 26 hours of travel.
From this first moment, I have found myself scanning for a cafe as soon as I feel the lurch of oncoming homesickness, or the need to escape the endless stream of strangers on various city streets.
In Edinburgh, Artisan Roast bolstered me that morning. The next day, I holed up in a very hipster cafe called Lovecrumbs, that serves only delicious drinks and cakes.
As I sat there with my rosewater coffee cake and tea, I glanced around and looked at the hordes of young, bookish people. Everyone wore navy or maroon or tan coloured clothes, and we all had dishevelled hair and hunched shoulders.
This was my tribe. These were my people. I didn’t need to talk to them to find that out.
In Glasgow, I walked down a street in search of food and saw a sign saying ‘The Project Cafe – secondhand books, poetry readings’ and immediately abandoned my search.
Inside, I had that same sense of homecoming, an unclenching of my anxiety again.
I ate soup, and read my book, and shared my table amiably with a couple who looked and talked like me.
The irony is that I left Australia thinking that I would challenge myself and in the process find out more about the kind of person I am, the kind of person I want to be.
And there has been some of that – there have been moments where I have stood staring at Ben Nevis, the biggest mountain in the Scottish Highlands, and realised that I need to try harder to be actively kind in my relationships.
Afternoons where I have walked through city streets realising that I am burning with anger at my mother, but that she is fragile too, that our relationship will crumble without my attention.
There has been moments where I have looked out the window at a path or a trail and realised I want to learn to hike, to immerse myself in nature more often.
There have been conversations with strangers where I’ve realised with sudden and embarrassing alacrity that I don’t know nearly enough about my own country. There are people who have travelled to more places in Australia who live half the world away, than I have.
There has been clarity.
But really, the thing I’ve found out about myself that sticks more than any other is that I like who I am. And I like the comfort of familiarity.
I don’t need to drastically change myself, so much as I need to actively nurture the bits of my life that I love, that don’t need changing at all.
I feel such empathy for your words – I felt the same in my own travels.
I realised that it’s actually exciting to have your own comfort zones – to know what makes you happy. And it isn’t a cop out to enjoy these comforts.
Getting out of your comfort zone is of course fantastic – but being IN your comfort zone – well, it’s pretty fantastic too.
Patisserie Valerie is the bomb.
And you can take me any time you want to go coffee/bookshopping – every time I travel, the bookshop is the first thing I seek out, even if the language isn’t one I understand. Book people are universal.
Loved this piece! Also, talk to Hannah Gissane if you want to get into hiking 🙂
I really needed this today – have been feeling pretty overworked myself, and looking for words of wisdom. I hope you find the peace you’re looking for. Thanks for sharing.