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Thursday, September 27, 2012

MY KINGDOM FOR A GOOD MOCHA


Mike Nettleton  



We arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland after a six hour flight from Newark, New Jersey. After our chatty cabby delivered us to the MacDonald Holyrood hotel at about nine-thirty Friday morning, we were politely informed our room wouldn't be ready until two in the afternoon, perhaps a "wee" earlier. (We later discovered that "wee" is an all purpose adjective to describe everything from breakfast to a brisk walk led by our tour guide. In his book, the Bataan Death march was a "wee" walk through the jungle.)

Jet-lagged to the brink of hallucination, we decided to wander up to the Royal Mile and see if moving our legs might get our brain neurons to resume firing.  After stumbling up a "wee" alleyway, we found ourselves at one end of a narrow medieval street that stretches uphill to the glory of Edinburgh castle. An amazing sight, with buildings that had stood on that spot since the fifteenth century. Not only that, but right at the point where we emerged from the alley I spotted a Starbucks. I'd always wondered where  Mary Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce bought their morning half-caff, non-fat, white mocha, hold the whip, and now I knew.
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 We staggered around, peering in storefronts and at plaques alerting us to historical factoids like "On this spot Angus McGregor and his band of four sheepherders and a simpleton peat-moss-stacker held off six hundred Visigoths using only a trenching tool and a half-eaten haggis." Or words to that effect.  After an hour or so of sightseeing, we killed the rest of the time lounging in the hotel lobby, reading, dozing and mumbling incoherently to strangers unfortunate enough to wander in. 

To the hotel's credit, our room was ready prior to one. Warned that hitting the sack immediately was a sure-fire way to turn jet-lag into week-long zombie status, we held out until six-thirty, had a wee wee in the bathroom and collapsed. The next morning, after awakening at 3, 4, 5 and finally 6 a.m., I set off in the morning darkness to procure my morning half-caff, non-fat, white mocha, hold the whip, at the espresso joint on the Royal mile.

Understand, that for me, without a good cup of coffee, life, as we know it, ceases to exist. In the Northwest, where I live, you'd be hard pressed to drive three blocks without finding a drive-up or walk-in espresso stand. The running joke is that the only place left in the U.S. for Starbucks to build a new franchise is inside another Starbucks.

I arrived at the Edinburgh version at approximately 6:20 and twisted the doorknob with eagerness bordering on desperation. It didn't turn.
Sticky, I thought, and applied more force. No joy. Than I looked inside. No lights, no sounds, no sign of human activity. My worst suspicions were confirmed when I checked the "hours of operation" sign on the door.
Monday-Friday 7am. Saturday 7:30am, Sunday 8am. This being Saturday, I was facing more than an hour without caffeine.
        
I walked for half an hour up the Royal Mile, hoping against hope that some independent bakery or cafe might be open to sell me a cuppa. Not a chance. Finally, I returned to the hotel and bribed one of the waitresses in the restaurant to sell me a cup of regular hotel coffee to take up to the room.  It was like a crack addict settling for over-the-counter sinus medication. But it would have to do.

To be fair, once they were open, the Starbucks delivered decent coffee, much like you'd find in any of their seventy-million stores in the Portland-Vancouver area. The late opening times were not peculiar to Edinburgh. I twitched my way through coffee-less early mornings in  York, Ambleside, Liverpool, and London. How do these people jump start their Sunday if they have to wait til eight for their half-caff . . . you know?
        
The answer. They sleep later. Or, if up early, they brew a pot of the U.K.’s universal solvent, tea.  Coffee is not the fixation in the U.K. that it has become in the states. You'll find espresso in most of the scenic villages and even at some of the centuries-old castles in Scotland and England, but it's generally pre-fab swill. Not that I’m too proud to drink pre-fab swill in a pinch.

It all worked out in the end. The magic tour bus careened through narrow streets of scenic villages all over Scotland and England, taking us to castles and abbeys, foggy moors, seaside villages and the Bronte bedrooms. We ogled the crown jewels, watched a rehearsal at the Globe Theater, and rode the London Underground like veteran cockney commuters.  Our expedition to Scotland and England left us both exhilarated, exhausted, and reveling in the experience.

The only thing that would have made it better would have been a wee cup of half-caff, non-fat white mocha, hold the whip served up in time to get get the blood pumping. 

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