All the way back in 2009 we spent one day in Scotland and I have wanted to go back ever since.  This was an impromptu trip to the U.K. brought about by a random airline price mistake - $250 for a nonstop roundtrip from Chicago to London in the spring.  Even back then, this was 2-3 times cheaper than the usual price.  We quickly bought two tickets and anxiously waited for the airline to cancel.  Even all of these years later, I vividly remember boarding that flight, gingerly showing my pass to the flight attendant, half-expecting to be laughed out of the airport, walking onto the plane like an uninvited guest, trying my best to blend in with the “full-price-paying” customers.  As soon as I took my seat, a middle-aged man in a Bears t-shirt jumped in the aisle, screaming, “Two-hundred-fifty-dollar flight!  Can you believe it?!” and the whole airplane cheered.  There was no need to blend in, we were all here on the mistake price fare.  It was the merriest flight I have ever been on with many passengers spending the money they saved on the ticket on mini bottles of booze.

After a few days exploring London, we got on a late-night train to Edinburgh, eager to visit Scotland.  We didn’t have time to search Loch Ness Lake for the monster or roam the countryside with the long-haired Highland cattle sporting cute bangs, but we did have exactly one day in the capital of Scotland to wander the medieval streets, gawk at castles, and eat the infamous “haggis”.

There was exactly one thing we didn’t count on, and we discovered it as soon as we boarded the train. The conductor, a stern-looking middle-aged woman with a ticket punch and a large crossbody bag, approached us and said… something.  There wasn’t a single syllable that she uttered that I could piece together in a comprehensible English word.  Victor and I sat in stunned silence and then, slowly, Victor extended his hand with two tickets.  She took the tickets, stamped them, said something else, and moved on.  Had she not been obviously dressed as a train conductor, we might still be there, trying to figure out what she was trying to tell us.  It never occurred to us until that moment that we could completely not understand the language in an English-speaking country.

“What are we going to do about the tour we booked?” Victor asked.  “Should we still go?  Are we going to understand anything?”


We had a two-hour walking city tour booked for the next morning to explore the Royal Mile, a historic street that runs through the heart of Edinburgh, and it was looking very unlikely that we were going to be able to learn anything from a local.

“It’s free,” I said, “Let’s go and check it out.  If it’s incomprehensible, we’ll discreetly leave right away.”

I knew that these free city tours relied on generous tips at the end of each excursion, and I wondered how common it was in Edinburgh for most tourists to disappear as soon as the guide began to speak.

The next morning, at 10 am sharp, we were waiting in the meeting spot in front of a bar (where else would you meet in Scotland?), nervously chatting with other tourists.  The guide appeared and he was energetic, funny, and most importantly – entirely comprehensible. Maybe we were too tired last night, I thought, maybe Scottish English isn’t so bad!

“By the way,” the guide said, “For those of you wondering why you can understand me… I am originally from New York City!”

Everyone laughed and we started the tour.  Walking down the Royal Mile was like taking a step back in time, with shops and restaurants housed in buildings dating back to the 17th century and intersecting narrow streets and winding alleyways full of medieval architecture.  It was a gloomy late morning, heavy clouds threatening rain at any moment, but that only made the city seem more atmospheric.  We finished the walk by Edinburgh Castle, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Scotland.  The castle is perched on top of a rocky crag and the guide helpfully explained that this was at one time an extinct volcano.  After finishing the tour, we climbed up to the courtyard and sat on the lawn, enjoying the stunning views of the city below.


We walked back down the Royal Mile, stopping by shops, sampling scotch, and trying on traditional Scottish tartan hats.  There was just one thing we were missing – a taste of haggis.  We had agreed ahead of time that we were not leaving Scotland without sampling this popular dish consisting of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with minced entrails such as heart, lungs, and liver, along with oatmeal, animal fat, and seasoned with spices.  Sounds exotic, right?

We walked into what looked like a traditional Scottish restaurant, only to find shark fin on the menu and other strange seafood.

“Haggis?” I asked the waitress, and she shook her head and recommended another restaurant.  We ran under the rain a few more blocks and ran into a pub.

“Haggis?” I asked immediately instead of a greeting.  The waiter pointed us to a table and twenty minutes later we were served two hot steaming plates of haggis, neeps, and tatties, aka mashed potatoes and turnips.

Finally!  We dug in and two bites later, I stopped chewing and stared at Victor.

“You don’t like it?” he asked, shoveling more in his mouth.

“It’s delicious!” I said, “But… my grandmother used to make this!  This is basically Ukrainian kishka!  She used to take intestines and fill them with various organ meats and grains.  The only difference is that haggis has oatmeal and my grandma used barley!”

Apparently, poor peasants everywhere use every single bit of an animal, including intestines and blood in their meals, and that is how traditional Scottish food turned out to be so much like the Ukrainian village food I grew up eating.  Haggis, especially accompanied by mashed potatoes and turnips, also popular Ukrainian side dishes, did not turn out to be the exotic meal we presumed it would be, but an unexpected and nostalgic taste of home.

One day in Edinburgh was not enough and we will be heading back to explore the whole country soon.  Who knows, maybe there’ll be another price mistake airfare soon?  I’ll take anything less than $1,000…

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