[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories from Reeti Roy’s experience in Edinburgh, where she attended university on a Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship in creative writing this past summer.]
THE BAR REEKS of rotten fish. No one else seems to be bothered by the smell.
“Fish and chips or chicken and chips with beer or wine, only for 7.99 Pounds,” it says in bold letters.
“Excuse me,” I ask the bartender “Can I have a cold drink instead?”
“Sure,” she says, flashing white teeth. A drunken man totters towards me. “Hi there,” he says. He smiles creepily. I pretend to write in my journal.
Edinburgh. Bang in the middle of the fringe festival. If I were better with directions, I would probably have been gloating about having met Carol Ann Duffy right about now.
I would probably have been with my ex boyfriend.
We were sitting in my house in Kolkata and chatting about what to pack for the Edinburgh summer. Suddenly he said, “Look, we’re through” and stormed out.
“Maybe it’s a good thing,” my mother had said. Two days and I’d be leaving for Edinburgh.
It is easy to romanticize freedom and Independence when you’re 21. Two weeks ago my head was full of Into the Wild. I started thinking about how great it would be, all alone in Edinburgh, no one to stifle me, no boyfriend to be judgmental and dismissive.
The first week went by pretty peacefully. I was glad to have won a scholarship. The lady at the immigration office asked me very many questions. I was surprised she didn’t ask me why I wore turquoise eyeliner instead of black. She let me cross the yellow line and then I was on a bus and then I was on a plane. My co passengers flirted with one another. Some texted their partners. I was partner-less after two and a half years. I resented it but wished to convince myself that I was alright, that I could deal with it.
Yesterday I got lost. It was dark and there were very few people on the street. “Minto Street,” it said on the tiles, indicating the road. I had left my map at the Pollock Halls of residence.
Three boys in an expensive-looking car yelled, “Paki! Paki! Paki!”¹ I ran towards a bed and breakfast. “I’m sorry dear,” said an old woman, quite possibly the owner, “but it’s fully booked.”
“Oh, I’m not looking for a place to stay. Could you just point me towards Dalkeith Road?” “Oh sure, I’m going that way. Keep walking straight.”
The woman disappeared around the corner and I had found the right street. By then, I had tears in my eyes. If I were home, I’d have known the streets.
The creepy man walks past. The bartender smiles at him. “Hi there Steve,” she says. “The regular tonight?”
Steve nods his head. His face is already red from the drinking. The bartender tells him about her daughter, how she is away at college and how this job is helping her pay for her college tuition.
I notice a couple at the far corner of the bar. They are wearing matching zebra striped shorts. The striped shorts make me want to snort. The man speaks in a northern Irish accent. The woman is clearly Australian. The man lights up. Even though I can’t see his brand of cigarettes, I know what it is. Lucky Strike Silvers. My ex-boyfriend smoked them.
It feels so strange to have to explain a boy I used to love in this way. A boy I perhaps still love.
I ask myself if I want to get drunk. I’m lonely and miserable. A drink might make me feel better.
I opt for ice cream.
¹ an extreme ethnic slur (United Kingdom) or abbreviation (New Zealand, Australia) for a person who is Pakistani.
Have you personally experienced racism in your travels?
How have you dealt with traveling immediately after a breakup?
Would choose alcohol or ice cream?
Please stay tuned for the next chapter of Reeti’s story in a few weeks.