The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh wasn’t prepared for us, for three teenagers drunk on the freedom of a day without planned activities and hovering adults. Eva and I could barely keep up with Krysto, who was sprinting around the marble halls of the museum, smartphone held aloft as he filmed his encounters with seven sarcophagi and Dolly the sheep. Choking on our laughter and struggling to keep up with our Third Musketeer, Eva and I begged Krysto to slow down, and, among some sassy protests, he eventually surrendered and wandered into the Museum’s Café, Eva and I trailing sluggishly behind, wondering what we did to deserve this kind of exercise. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I remember staring down the comical bear that was the insignia of Barr’s Ginger Beer, Krysto’s drink of choice. Eva made some joke about animals dressed in circus garb, and I plucked up the nerve to point to Krysto’s ginger beer: “Can I?” “Yeah, sure. Just don’t drink all of it.” He nudged the ginger beer closer to me: one sip later, my life changed forever.
I am, by nature, often a contradictory person. I can demand a basket of fries or an ice cream sundae, but I am physically incapable of asking someone for a ride home. I’ll bake someone a pie for their birthday, but not let anyone do anything for my birthday, not even acknowledge it. I’ll turn the margins of my books black with notes, but I won’t say a single word during English class. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if I told you that I hate ginger, but I absolutely adore ginger beer.
We weren’t at the Museum for long after that — we only had another five hours left in Edinburgh, and we wanted to see as much as possible. After Krysto dragged us to a music shop to procure a replacement string for his guitar, we wandered off in search of a decent thrift store. Eva and I laughed our way through repurposed bottom-of-the-nineties fashion while Krysto shopped for an old shirt and pointedly ignored our jokes about the shiny new G-string tucked in his back pocket.
Edinburgh is my favourite city for a lot of reasons. One of them is its age, the gritty industrial estates transformed into furniture stores and nightclubs, the jagged cobblestones that can and will twist your ankle — but parts of it are newer, smoother, not as rough or grumpy, buildings that gleam under the clouds, proud and scrubbed, contrasting their gritty siblings. The other thing I love about Edinburgh is its layers. People are always going on about “layers,” especially when it comes to cities. The “layers” of old and new, rich and poor, always an excuse to sound deep, but those aren’t the kind of layers that I’m talking about. Edinburgh is a city of bridges, and not just the kind that go over water. Its streets arch, stretching over and under one another in a complex tapestry of brick and river damp. You’ll walk down a boulevard and think you’re on the ground until you reach a fork in the road and realise you’ve been wandering a catwalk of metal, suspended fifty feet above a trio of shadowed pathways, stepping on each other as they fight for sunshine. You can’t see all of Edinburgh in a day, but if you look over the railing, you’ll see a whole mile.
Every city has its rough parts, a boulevard of thrift stores, resale shops, pawn brokers, pound savers, and hole-in-the-wall liquor stores. It’s one of my favourite parts of a city — any city — because it’s honest and it’s raw. After our thrift store escapade, which took place on aforementioned Main Street of Subsidy, we decided to keep to it, to continue walking down the road and see if we could find anything interesting. Minutes later, we ended up in a Pound Saver, the British equivalent of a 99¢ store, poking at the tourist trinkets and (in my case) debating whether or not we should invest in a tea cosy shaped like a Corgi. Our final purchase, however, was perhaps a little more sympathetic: in a corner of the store, hanging from the edge of a shelf, was a bouquet of individual plastic balls, the ones with the hazy, thick skin that all children play with at some point. We chose a pink glittery one, pooled our small change, and named the ball “Poundie” after its price.
At this point, we had to turn around if we wanted to make it back in time to catch the bus home, but we crossed to the other side of the street to get a different perspective. I’d been waxing lyrical about ginger beer since we’d left the Museum, so when we came upon a seedy-looking Tesco’s (Britain’s cheapest and most ubiquitous grocery store), my friends practically shoved me through the doors, desperate to shut me up. We scanned the massive beverage aisle for a big, cheap bottle of ginger beer — but not too big to carry around. Eventually, we agreed on a choice, and a £1.50 later, we were back on the street, grinning in the sunshine and twisting open the bottle. I took the first gulp, then passed it to Eva, who passed it to Krysto, who passed it back to me. “Shit, this stuff’s good.” We followed this pattern for almost two hours, filling ourselves with the sweet burn of ginger beer and bumping Poundie against our knees as we plodded the cobblestone streets. “Why is the sun such a thing.” “Don’t ask me, I’m not a scientist.” “Em, would you pass the ginger beer already?”
Carrying the bottle around made everything much funnier, because when you see a group of teenagers passing a bottle back and forth and giggling, you don’t think that they’re drinking soda; when your eye hits the label, it instantly locks on the word “Beer,” and your eyebrow raises as you try to steal a look at the cloudy contents of the bottle, wondering who would sell these underage idiots a bottle of lager. Watching the expressions of the people who approached us, the pedestrians heading in the opposite direction, was easily the most amusing part of the day. Outrage, surprise, wariness, disapproval, approval — we got them all. Occasionally, a face would relax and even smile when its eyes found the word “Ginger” on the bottle’s label or when it realised that we had sweet ginger on our breath, not hops. We were giddy with our power, with the way we could create fear, create a whole host of emotions in people we had never met before, would never see again. That’s another thing I love about cities: anonymity. That warm July day, Eva, Krysto, and I were Unknowns, people who would fade from the streets just like the sunset. For us, being Unknown was a kind of freedom. We could be the three kids laughing, passing a cloudy bottle between us, and swinging around a plastic ball, and no one would scowl at us for being too noisy or too ridiculous. It was what gave us the courage to double-back to a particular shop and demand a photo with the cashier, who was wearing a red-tartan kilt with full socks and the little furry pouch tied around his waist. As we grinned and posed for the camera, it felt like closure and a pat on the back, like Edinburgh had stamped us with its inky seal of approval and given us a standing but silent invitation to tea.
I polished off the last inch of the decidedly flat ginger beer as our bus rolled out of the city. I was sitting next to Eva, and we dolefully watched as the heart of Edinburgh shrank away, replaced with streets full of houses, some new, some old, the bus rumbling under our feet. In a fit of separation anxiety, we immediately started building a future — a future where we’d have a house in Edinburgh, a writing house full of Earl Grey and cats and fireplaces and umbrellas and tartans. We even picked a house — a tall, skinny three-story one that stood happily next to an oak tree, halfway down a quiet road on the outskirts of the city. “It’ll be our place.” Eva stared out the window, her expression lost, and nodded: “Our place.”