When I visited North Berwick, a small coastal town near Edinburgh, I was almost disappointed – not because I didn’t have a good time – the town was beautiful – but I almost knew too much.
Chris and I had just passed through old, dilapidated mining towns – villages with peeling paint, rain-drenched bits of trash – all sinking beneath a pallor of grey. And then we reached North Berwick, a picturesque seaside town where people clearly lead more affluent lives.
The disparity was so shocking that by the time we had settled in North Berwick, I was too distracted to simply enjoy my time there.
It’s not how one often imagines Scotland, or a beautiful drive through the Scottish countryside.
Which it was meant to be.
These were the trips of my daydreams. Sitting at work, staring blindly out my window at the brick wall it faced, I pictured a nearly unattainable Scotland, the way I used to imagine this incandescent version of Paris that couldn’t possibly exist.
Apart from vague childhood memories, Scotland was nothing more than a picture.
We start with a glossy photo, or a Travel and Leisure article, and become hooked – gripped by a need to go, to explore, to taste Italian pastas and feel balmy breezes in Malaysia.
All that exists is that picture – a blur of blue in the distance, and conjured ships disappearing in the outlying mists. Storybook bridges and watermills, thatched roofs – the very depiction of of “quaint.”
And when you’re too awestruck to absorb much of anything, you can travel and see and taste and marvel, but all that exists in the end is that picture.
Void of substance.
I believe this is normal for people who travel somewhere new for the first time. I’ve certainly felt this way. It’s unintentional – even expected in some circumstances. When we idolize a place for years, we often spend our first few days wide-eyed, ogling, almost unseeing in our effort to see everything we’ve always imagined. We don’t want to be disappointed.
And it’s easy to do in places like Edinburgh, where the poor are relegated to the outskirts; and with crime, other than petty pick-pocketing, largely hidden
And so there I was in North Berwick, a town so quintessentially daydream worthy, I felt this odd, hollow absence when that sensation of novelty, that feeling of, “This – this is the place I’ve been dreaming of-” didn’t immediately wash over me.
These were the trips I had imagined, the kind that were supposed to feel special and novel, the places no one else would visit, with an absence of tourists, and local families milling about.
Chris and I stopped for coffee and pastries, and watched a rambunctious puppy sprint back and forth across the beach, three little boys wearing wetsuits in hot pursuit of their pet. We spoke to a couple locals and bought homemade goods for dinner that night.
I explored the ruins of a crumbling chapel; apparently North Berwick used to serve as a stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Saint Andrews. The pilgrims were the original tourists, and would purchase badges declaring they had truthfully visited North Berwick.
Not too different from the souvenirs we see today, right?
And all day, I kept expecting to feel that sense of novelty wash over me.
But in the place of novelty, I found something much more rewarding. After having visited similar towns along the Scottish coast, after exploring the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle and great hall of Stirling Castle, afternoons on windy hilltops and drives through the moors and heather, I finally felt like I understood Scotland in a way I never could have my first month living there.
I had finally developed a deeper appreciation, a more complex understanding and awareness.
North Berwick wasn’t particularly novel. But as it so happens, I did, at some point while walking back to the car, realize I loved it.
From the seaside cafes to the children diving into freezing, Scottish waters, the boutique shops and delicious seafood, hiking trails and family dogs roaming the beach, North Berwick was lovely to see – lovely to visit – lovely to explore. Perfect for a casual Sunday afternoon.
My experience visiting North Berwick was remarkably different than what it would have been a year ago, but then again, I’m a very different person than I was a year ago.
I wasn’t in awe of this typical Scottish seaside village. It wasn’t a novelty.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.
And in the end, I left with more than a picture.