The streets of Edinburgh were bulging with city goers seeking some festive spirit, with crowds of people so thick that it was barely imaginable that a line of a hundred white LED lights could be strung through them. It required a real effort and a measure of ingenuity to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other at any kind of regular pace. There were families exploring the vast Christmas market, whilst couples were walking with their arms linked along the street, their knitted hats and scarves straight out of a page they saw in a catalogue. A pair of large dogs, Great Danes, I think, were striding alongside their owners, each dressed in a red and a green elf costume. Meanwhile, I was on my way to dine alone at a French restaurant I had read about earlier.
Everything about the city was lit up. In the gardens, by the Scott Monument, stood a massive Big Wheel which was flashing a brilliant bright red as it turned. Positioned so close to the Victorian Gothic structure, built in 1844, the scene looked like a Pixar production of Lord of the Rings. On George Street, there were Christmas lights as far as the eye could see, more than any person could reasonably count. In the windows of department stores, there were colourful and joyous displays, depicting all sizes of Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer, and sweet haloed angels. Over on the South Bridge, the neon blue sign of The Church of Scientology was burning in the cold night air, and I thought to myself how nice it was that all of the crazy beliefs were being catered for.
Down a cobbled side street, I found the traditional French restaurant I was searching for. Opened two years ago and run by a French couple, the restaurant was small and intimate, housing only six tables and seating a maximum of four parties at any time. At the door, I was greeted by the wife of the couple, whose role in the partnership seemed to be to act as the most diminutive French waitress I have ever seen. She led me to a table at the back of the room, taking me past a long table in the centre of the dining area which was showcasing a range of Christmas figurines arranged into a festive scene. When seated I became aware of the fact that the woman was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of her footwear, which was a pale colour. Once I had seen it I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was wondering if she knew. Soon it was as distracting as the waitresses’ habit of approaching my table as I was deep in contemplation, and I never did get to finish my thought.
After a short while, the waitress – no taller than a mid-size Christmas tree with a star on top – presented me with two menus: one was the dinner selection and the other a seven course Christmas menu. I perused the festive feast on offer, considering whether the duck foie gras would be like the French Christmas dinner equivalent of a pig in a blanket. Seven courses seemed like five too many for someone who has never dined in a French restaurant, however, and after a quick consultation with Google to pinpoint which dishes on the menu might contain mushrooms, I ordered from the regular evening selection.
Along with my Venison Parmentier, I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was the only words I understood the waitress say. She returned from the wine rack with an ice bucket and the bottle of my choosing, in a presentation which seemed much too elaborate for a single man who was really only wanting to get drunk. She opened the bottle, the glass dripping with an enticing condensation, and asked me if I would like to taste it. I have never known anyone to say no in such a scenario, though a panic streaked through my mind as I considered how awkward it would be if I tried the wine and found it was disgusting. Would I have the guts to turn it away after she had gone to all the trouble of opening the bottle and resting it in a chilled silver bucket?
The waitress poured a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc into my glass, and I raised it slowly to my mouth, pausing to take an exaggerated inhale. I wasn’t sure what I was sniffing for, but it seemed like something a person would do when tasting wine. “That’s acceptable,” I said, in the most ridiculous manner possible, after drinking the fruity white.
I was reveling in the adventure of trying French cuisine for the first time. It was in contrast to my dining experience earlier in the day, on the train from Oban to Glasgow, when I was forced into eating an entire mango on the journey – rather than saving some for the later leg to Edinburgh – after forgetting to pack my tangerines. I had never before eaten so much mango in a single sitting, and the thought crossed my mind that there could be some kind of unexpected side effect, the way children become hyper on too much sugar, or I transform into a bumbling buffoon around women after a certain amount of beer and Jameson.
Across the aisle from my seat was a girl who had olive skin and who was wearing a fluffy red hat. I noticed her staring as I brought another chunk of juicy yellow fleshed mango to my mouth. I couldn’t help but worry that she had seen how much mango I was eating, knowing the crude effect it would have on a person. She had doubtless seen the way that the skin around my nostrils had the appearance of a window which has been decorated with spray-on snow, the aftermath of a cold earlier in the week, and we both knew that I would have been better off eating an orange.
There was no muzak in the background of the restaurant, a feature which I considered would be ideal in the wild event of me dining with a woman on an intimate date, allowing you to really talk to a person. Sitting by myself in the corner, it made things eerily quiet, and I was left to dwell on my own thoughts. Part of me was wanting to create some atmosphere by plugging my earphones into my phone and playing something on Spotify by La Fouine, but I wouldn’t have known where to begin. After finishing my meal, I sat for what felt like at least fifteen minutes trying to catch the attention of the waitress in order to ask for my bill. It was another scenario in which I was left to rue my inability to make eye contact with a woman, and it was only after my second attempt at raising my arm in the air that I was able to draw her to my table.
After eating, I retired to my favourite bar in the city, Brass Monkey, where in contrast to the manic streets outside, I found a surprising solitude. I sank into a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn. On the chalk menu overhead, there was an offer of a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie for £3.25. It seemed appealing, though I decided that it would contradict the fine French wine I had just enjoyed. As I was mulling it all over in my mind, I wondered whether they would use the whole orange, or would they peel it and cut it into pieces first?
I was nearing the last mouthful of my third pint and considering moving on to The Advocate, which wasn’t so far from my hostel and in my thinking would save me a walk later in the night. To my left, there was a man ordering around four or five drinks. He was sitting at a table with a group of friends, and once he had paid for his round he carried three of the drinks over to them. He mentioned to the barmaid that he was doing this, and noticing that the head on his pint was evaporating, she asked him what he was drinking so that she could top it up in the meantime.
“It’s a beer,” he responded, quite matter of fact.
“What kind of beer?” The barmaid enquired. “We sell several of them.”
The man informed her of his tipple and took the rest of his drinks to the table. “It’s amazing the number of people who come in here and ask for ‘a beer’,” the barmaid said to me, standing behind rows of taps. Her voice was sounding faintly Irish to me, and her hair was nearly as dark as the tattoos which were covering the arm she was using to pour pints. My soul was on fire. I was put in mind of McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which to this day only serves two varieties of beer: light and dark. Having made contact with the barmaid, I decided that I would remain seated in Brass Monkey, and I had the perfect line for her.
“Since you brought it up,” I began, leaning forward on the oak surface of the bar, excitedly. “Can I have a beer?”
The barmaid laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time. “What kind of beer?”
I stayed until shortly after midnight, but the barmaid didn’t talk to me again.
Whilst standing at Aulay’s Bar in Oban, thinking about another beer, a quartet of Greeks arrived. They were talking about their travel plans for the following few days, and when they mentioned their intention to drive north to Inverness, I felt that it would be useful for them if I shared my experiences of making the same journey as a child, when we would often take family car trips to visit my mother’s side of the family. The Greeks – two couples – were listening with interest as I enthused about the beautiful scenery they would witness on the drive, which is in excess of three hours long.
“I used to suffer from terrible travel sickness when I was younger, though,” I warned. “There would be many an occasion when mum would have to pull over so that I could be sick at the side of the road.”
“Come to think of it, much of that was probably the Smarties I was eating,” I recalled.
“There was one time I vomited on the banks of Loch Ness. Dad tried to make me feel better about it by convincing me that we had seen the Loch Ness Monster while I was throwing up, but I never believed it.”
“So, if I could offer you one travel tip when you are driving to Inverness, it would be this: don’t eat Smarties. And carry a plastic bag.”
The group was looking at me with their big, dark Mediterranean eyes, expressionless and uncertain. They shuffled off towards a table in the corner of the bar without saying another word. It occurred to me that I should have mentioned the mango.