06 March 2010

Navigating Edinburgh

Slate.com has an interesting article up about the difficulties of navigating in London. These difficulties arise from the fact that London isn't really one city--it's a bunch of medieval-era villages that over the centuries grew together into one massive, lumpy blob.

Many of the article's insights apply to Edinburgh, as well, since Scotland's capital is also made up of dozens of discrete (and unplanned, with a few exceptions, such as New Town) old neighborhoods that have grown together over the course of hundreds of years. For example: Londoners rarely refer to "blocks," which is much too regular for the odd shapes created by the city's haphazard road network, but instead navigate by prominent landmarks and major intersections.

In Edinburgh, folks do the same thing, but in many cases take it one step further by giving each little stretch of a major road an entirely new name. Our apartment, for instance, sits between two main routes into Old Town--to the west, there's Causewayside, and to the east, there's Newington Road. That's almost all you'd need to find our place, because about 100 yards to the north, Newington Road becomes South Clerk Street, and about 20 yards to the south, it becomes Minto. It's the same on the other side: if you head north, Causewayside becomes Summerhall becomes Buccleuch becomes Potterow . . . all within about a 10-minute walk.

This system has its advantages, but it also has its headaches, as people will often use the name of any well-known stretch of a route as shorthand for the whole route. You need to hold in your head, for instance, that North Bridge, South Bridge, Nicolson, Clerk, Newington, and Minto are all essentially the same street; by the same token, Canongate, High St, the Lawnmarket, and Castle Hill are all referred to as the Royal Mile.

Things are easier in New Town, which is laid out as a grid, but for the most part we here in Edinburgh are in the same boat as those in London: the kind of have to get lost a bit in order to learn your way around.

02 March 2010

Operation Verne: Phase 1

For those of you who don't already know this, Justin and I have signed a contract to teach next year at Fukuoka International School in Fukuoka, Japan. We are colossally excited. But, as with everything Justin and I attempt, it's a real goatrope of a process. (Note: I don't know the etymology of "goatrope." It's just a word my boss in the Navy used to use for a disorganized mess. Actually, it's one of two words he used to use, but the other is unprintable. It's true, what they say about sailors and swearing, you know.)

Welcome now to the TOP-SECRET planning facility for Operation Verne: Our Move to Japan!

Phase 1: complete online courses via the University of Phoenix
Phase 2: Obtain PA teacher certification (necessary for visas)
Phase 3: Obtain work visas
Phase 4: Physical move to Japan

And as of this moment, all of our coursework is submitted!

I'm not quite willing to call Phase 1 complete, because we have neither grades nor transcripts yet, but we're clearly moving in the right direction. Maybe this was Phase 1A, and we're waiting on Phase 1B. Maybe I should have made more phases.

I've actually had a pretty good experience with Phoenix (bar the aggravating pedagogical habits of one instructor) but I am sooooo ready for this to be over. With my two Phoenix courses, I've been enrolled in six classes for the last three weeks. A full-time postgrad load is three. I'm sitting here with ThermaCare heatwraps on my neck and shoulders from typing-induced cramping, sore, and frozen upper back muscles. (I know, this is the lamest injury ever... tough tooties, it still hurts like whoa). So it will be with great pleasure that I observe Phase 1 fading into the horizon in the rearview mirror of my life.

Stand by as we move on to Phase 2, which depends on the PA state government. This is always a dicey proposition (in fact, depending on the PA government was what necessitated Phase 1 in the first place... but let's not go there). Please, keep us in your thoughts. Light candles. Recite the President's speech from Independence Day. Whatever it takes to get that bureaucracy bureauing, because baby, I want to go to the Japan!

P.S. Why Operation Verne, you might ask? Well, Justin and I will be moving to Japan from Edinburgh, not from the US. We've gone from the U.S. as far East as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (which to my surprise, is farther east than Xi'an). Westward, we petered out in Germany. So there's a whole stretch of world we've never crossed.

But when we pass the 101' latitude line, flying from Europe over Russia, Justin and I will have circumnavigated the globe! Yes, it will have taken us significantly longer than 80 days, but be fair: we don't have a hot-air balloon. We will also be taking a lot more than one carpetbag, and a lot less than 20,000 pounds cash.

P.P.S. Why Operation Verne and not Operation Magellan? Because Justin and I might go to the Philippines next year and have no intention of finishing our time there performing the charades for "shish kebab." Also, Magellan didn't actually finish the circumnavigation, as a result of said shish kebabing. So I'll try for a better-omened operational code name, thank you very much.

The Surveillance State in Scotland?

There's an interesting piece up over at Reason.com about the growing use of classical music as a form of "social control" in the UK. In recent years, the UK has been making a name for itself as a wacky surveillance state: CCTV on every corner, broad-brush campaigns against young people in public spaces, heavy-handed policing of photographers, etc.

However, from what I've read, and what I've seen, it seems like the heaviest surveillance is reserved for south of the border. Sure, we have the occasional CCTV camera here in Edinburgh, but the police are anything but omnipresent, and despite my incessant shutter-bugging, I've never been stopped by police, and I've never heard of anyone else here being stopped, either.

I wonder why this is. It's possible that, because Nana and I both live and work in one of the nicer parts of town, we just don't spend a lot of time in the areas at which surveillance measures are usually targeted. And Edinburgh as a whole is pretty tame: Glasgow is really the only Scottish city with a population--and a crime rate--similar to the big cities in England where most of these surveillance stories originate. We haven't been to Glasgow yet, so I don't know what it's like there.

Then again, I haven't been to London in years, so I can't vouch for Big Brother's influence there, either. It's possible the surveillance stories are overblown, just as its possible that our little slice of the UK just happens to be one of the least-surveilled.

28 February 2010

Ski Scotland? You Bet!

So yesterday, I took a day trip with the Edinburgh University Snow Sports Club to Glencoe, one of Scotland's five ski areas.

The Glencoe ski area is located on a peak bordering Rannoch Moor, just outside Glen Coe proper. The area is understandably more famous for its hiking (and its massacre) than its skiing. But this weekend, the Glencoe ski area had more fresh snow than anywhere in Europe--and as you can see, the avalanche risk was high.

(In fact, there was an avalanche in an uncontrolled area on the peak--we saw the rescue helicopter come in. Both skiers involved survived. I stuck to the controlled areas, thank you very much!)

Overall, I would rate the experience of skiing in Scotland as odd, but intriguing. First, I had never known there were parts of Scotland that looked like this.
That's just below the peak, looking across at Glen Coe proper, Glen Nevis, and Ben Nevis (the highest mountain in the British Isles) in the background. If, before yesterday, you had shown me that photo and told me it was Colorado, I would have believed you. You see, the tree line in Scotland is much lower than elsewhere, which makes everything look like it's at a much higher altitude than it really is. There are a number of reasons for this--wind; the high latitude, which makes the valleys that much darker and colder in the winter; prehistoric deforestation, which caused soil erosion and removed the woods that acted as windbreaks (for those curious about climate change, look no further than Scotland for evidence of one of the world's earliest man-made ecological disasters).

But the eye is also tricked in the photos above by problems of scale. It looks like Colorado, on the slope as well as off, but everything's actually a little bit smaller. Very disorienting.

Unfortunately, these scale problems apply to the snow, as well. Despite its being one of the snowiest winters on record here in the UK, there simply wasn't all that much of it on the slopes. It certainly wasn't enough to make up for the lack of snow-making and grooming equipment: you'd frequently find yourself in knee-deep snow one minute, then dodging bare spots the next. It's no wonder Glencoe has a reputation for being kind of dangerous!

You can see it in these two photos: tons of snow, but bare spots visible even from the bottom of the hill.
The lift system was also . . . vintage. Glencoe has two chairlifts--one two-seater access chair from the valley floor to the plateau, one one-seater from the plateau halfway up the remainder of the peak. The rest of the lifts are poma lifts or t-bars, which in my experience are almost entirely extinct in North America. These lifts basically hook in behind you so you can hold on as they drag you up the hill. They're exhausting: not only do your arms tire out from all the clinging-for-dear-life, they also mean you spend every minute of your time on the slopes on your feet, so you never get to rest your legs.

All of this is a bit strange to me, because there's not much keeping the Glencoe hill from being a great (and challenging!) little ski area. The same goes for Scottish skiing in general: Scotland definitely has a wealth of skiable terrain, plus enough snow and enough cold weather to support a New-England-style resort (ie, mostly groomed trails on largely man-made snow), with the added wrinkle of being entirely above the tree line.

So why isn't there more skiing in Scotland? Part of it has to do with location: the Scottish Highlands are tough to get to in the winter, even from the Scottish Lowlands. For most people in the UK, it's easier to hop on a plane to France and ski the French Alps. As a result, the Scottish resorts have to keep things cheap to attract skiers--but because of the lack of infrastructure in the Highlands, most basic goods and services are more expensive in the Highlands than in the Alps. This is probably part of the reason why all the facilities at Glencoe date from the 70s.

The same geographical concerns that keep UK skiers out of the Highlands also discourage European skiers. But here the problem is worse: Scottish skiing can't undersell Poland and Bulgaria, and isn't any easier to get to for most Europeans. The unpredictability of the weather in the Highlands is also a problem--without artificial snow-making and extensive grooming, the Scottish resorts are frequently closed for long stretches of the season (though this year they've more commonly had to close because of too much snow blocking the roads).

Finally, environmental concerns also limit Scottish skiing. Take another look at that picture from above:

There simply aren't a lot of places in the UK that look like that, so most of them have been protected since the 1970s. I'm not complaining: in Colorado or in the Alps, you can afford to defile a few pretty alpine valleys with massive ski resorts. Here, not so much--and especially because the lack of forestation makes erosion that much more of a problem.

Anyway--that's my Scottish skiing rant. As for the skiing itself, yesterday was a very satisfying day. Certainly better than the alternative, which was not skiing at all this year. And I was completely blown away by just how incredibly beautiful that stretch of the country is in the winter, which is something I might not have known if I hadn't ventured out to Glencoe. But on the whole, Scottish skiing doesn't seem very beginner-friendly--or generally user-friendly for that matter, and I can't really blame British skiers for dashing off to Europe for their fix!

Plus, now I can say I've skied in Scotland.