Letters from Edinburgh: Return to Sender

In the final installment of her letters from Scotland, our writer returns home with a heart full of remembrance for the experiences she’s had, as well as for friends she’s made in her time abroad.

As luck would have it, my finals are dotted across May and June, giving me ample time to study and, more importantly, travel. Since I can’t bear the thought of leaving Britain without another trip to London, that is exactly where I hope to go, and thanks to my friend’s mom in Shepherd’s Bush, I can. She blesses me with a free couch and endless cups of tea—even when I tack three more days onto my stay. If there is a heaven, she is assured a spot in it.

London is the greatest city in the world. I say this as someone who has yet to see most of the world, but nevertheless I can’t imagine a more exciting place exists. Small, distinctive communities make London exceptional; you get off the tube a few stops from where you got on and it not only looks but feels like you’re in an entirely different place. I never feel as engaged with the world as I do when I am in London, and I think this sense is particular to the city as a whole.

My week in the city is perfect. I bag-lunch in Hyde Park, study in Kew Gardens, scour specialty shops, and practically walk from one end of the city to the other. The uncontested highlight of my week is Trevor Nunn’s production of Hamlet at The Old Vic. I never knew theater could be so affecting: As a kid, my mother took me to every show that came through wherever we lived; in southern Indiana or central Pennsylvania, however, this meant my Fiddler on the Roof was dressed in a felt hat with glued-on coiled pipe cleaners.

My Restricted ticket lands me in the nosebleed balcony; the metal railings that keep me from toppling into the audience below demand I either stretch forward or sink down in order to see the stage. I think even Tom Stoppard would applaud the cast, excepting the overwrought Ophelia. Not until the curtain falls do I realize how uncomfortable I’ve been for the past four and a half hours. And not until the standing ovation dies away do I even care.


* * *

After my finals I must return to the States. But there is no way I can let myself leave until I see Francis Bacon’s reconstructed, relocated studio at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin. So, a few hours after my last exam and a week before my lease expires I board a small plane to Ireland.

The streets leading to the gallery are more residential than in central Dublin, and I enjoy seeing people carrying laundry, a briefcase, or groceries in and out of their red-brick flats with cheerfully colored doors. Outside the gallery there’s not much going on, and I pray there’s no one inside either, so I can float around invisibly, pretending I am in postwar London at 7 Reece Mews watching Francis test paint on a patch of wall.

In a way my prayer is answered; there’s nobody there—not even the staff. The doors are locked. I search out a pay phone.

“Hi. Are you open?”

“Not at the moment. We closed a week ago for refurbishment and will open again in October.”

No no no no: In October I’ll be shelving books about Francis Bacon. Please, I emptied out my bank account to be here. Please? You won’t even see me.

“OK, thanks. Bye.”

I pout for a few minutes outside the gallery before walking next door to the Dublin Writers Museum to putter around James Joyce’s piano and Samuel Beckett’s phone, and grumble that there ought to be more about Seamus Heaney.

After a cup of tea in an adorable used bookstore near the Quay, I snap out of it and begin taking notes from my city guides. Francis Bacon’s studio was my greatest reason for coming to Ireland—but it wasn’t my only one. It’s a wonderful time to be here: The ReJoyce Festival is in full swing; Bloomsday is in just a few days, so all the nutty Ulysses enthusiasts who are not in Dublin already soon will be. Not to mention it’s warm and breezy and lots of pubs have outdoor seating. Joy returns.

A few days later I’m in the coastal community of Dun Laoghaire, sprawled out on a cool patch grass, and surrounded by piles of the Sunday papers. There is a market in the park and from it I have assembled a lovely picnic lunch of cheese, bread, olives, and anchovies. I see a little boy playing maracas out of his mother’s fresh artichokes, two in each hand. Carefully sculpting pieces of blue stilton around quince paste, I gaze out at the sea on the horizon; I can’t believe that in three days I will be on the other side of it.


* * *

Back in Edinburgh, it’s our final night in the flat so Miya and I buy some wine, call a few friends, and cook up everything left in the kitchen. Dishes heaped full of god-knows-what line the table like a block-party potluck. We make lavish plans to visit each other next year, vowing to have a big reunion in Rio de Janeiro after graduation to dance, drink, and eat spicy food. My face may be flush, my hugs may be sloppy, and I may be telling everyone I love them in Italian over and over again, but I mean every word I say tonight: I am coming back to Britain, perhaps for good.

The next morning Miya and my friend Simon pick up coffee and croissants before I catch the bus to the airport. As I board the bus they present me with a new notebook from the Design Museum in London, along with a picture of Nigel Slater reading Nigella Lawson. Of all the things I will miss in Edinburgh, I will miss my friends the most.

My flight to Heathrow almost leaves without me, thanks to a traffic-halting lorry parade down Princes Street. It occurs to me that the first thing I might do in the States is get hit by a car, me caught looking the wrong way for traffic. After all, it almost happened in my first minutes in Edinburgh. I imagine there are a few things that I will have to relearn once I arrive in the U.S., but even more so, I bet there are lessons that, until now, I simply did not have the ability to see.