Seagulls perch atop Edinburgh’s church spires and statues, their cries an ever-present reminder of the nearby North Sea. They flutter under the whites and purples and greys of the sky towards Leith and beyond, beckoning people with their promise of saltwater, fresh seafood, and the quiet unearthliness of the Scottish harbor.
Now, the Leithians of the city may have issued a formal complaint about these squawking birds back in 2013, and would probably shun me for saying so, but I love the constant, comforting reminder of the nearby ocean. Sorry Leithians.
Leith’s notoriety brought me beyond my peaceful Meadows neighborhood, past the bustling, tourist-infected Princes Street, and out towards the water. When the bus turned onto Leith Walk, I experienced a minor “That’s it?” moment.
I knew of Leith’s darker past, but when people described Leith Walk, I had imagined a beautiful (or at least interesting) pathway, leading people towards the salty air – not an average, congested street full of city smog and smoke. Edinburgh city air trumps Parisian, Milwaukee, and London city air, but it’s city air nonetheless.
Various cafes and shops along the way seemed inviting enough, yet not so much as to warrant such appeal. Honestly, my unmet expectations have as much to do with my own lack of research just as much as everyone’s hype. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.
As the bus rumbled on, away from the crowds and closer to the port, I found myself in a town awash in gritty charm – where the industrial mouth is only minutes from the inviting cafes and bench-lined paths.
I quickly discovered that it’s not the Walk, but the actual port that deserves attention. For some context, Leith lies north of the city center on the coast of the Firth of Forth, which flows into the North Sea. The district’s first records of civilization date back to the 12th century, and Leith has long since served as the city’s major port – it also used to have quite a scandalous reputation for its red light district and high crime rate.
But times have changed, and although still considered an essential port, Leith attracts most visitors because of its meandering river walkways, and plentiful cafes and restaurants. In most pockets, Leith is a quiet place. One for you to stroll, to read, to think, to admire – and to eat a famously delicious brunch.
My friend and I visited the Roseleaf Cafe, a whimsical, cheery place with typewriters and flowers adorning the shelves, and displays of hats lining the walls – a cafe clearly after my heart. (Mimi’s Bakehouse and Café Marlayne were other strong contenders, and both recommended by friends!)
Out of all the foreign cities I have called home, Edinburgh is without a doubt the most relaxed. A sleepy neighborhood like Leith would be quite the respite for both the Paris and London versions of myself. Here, the calm flowed nicely back into the subtle, subdued chaos of Edinburgh city life.
But Leith meant much more to me than a simple sunny Sunday brunch.
Truthfully, I left Milwaukee in a minor state of panic. I’ll write about it someday. As of now, I understand it but can still barely describe it, and my own jumbled thoughts would probably confuse you even more than they confuse me. Leaving Paris – saying goodbye to people, to parts of myself – losing people I trusted – and now traveling again – wondering if it would be the same – it all collides in a swarm of complex emotions, as fulfilling and broken as any could possibly be. So “going back” meant something to me, and as I originally actually planned to stop in Paris first (way back when I first began planning), this trip meant far more than I can say.
The panic abated as soon as I arrived in Edinburgh, and I’ve been honestly, genuinely happy here. Throughout the course of my initial week adjusting though, I still felt something missing.
I’ve really loved Edinburgh so far, and could describe why everyone should appreciate it for days and days – seriously, don’t test me, I’ll talk your ears off. But my journey into Leith, savoring flat white coffees and Eggs Benedict, laughing about nothing and everything with one of my best friends, finally calmed me down.
Rarely do I ever feel weightless. Many people don’t, I believe. And so the moments when the wind suddenly kisses your neck, sifts through your thoughts and extracts the ones you’d care not to carry, matter – at least, they do to me. They’re the moments that stay in my mind, whether I’m picnicking in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, dancing barefoot back in the grassy fields of Ohio, or alone, hiking through the mountains of Wales.
They’re the snapshots of life. The ones not necessarily drenched in happiness, but painted in a simple weightlessness I’ve always found quite elusive.
While creating a path of sunlit footsteps along the riverside of Leith, I finally felt all these elusive sensations that brush across my heart every so often.
Leith may not be the most beautiful spot in Scotland, or even Edinburgh. But almost because of its reticence, its muted, softly pretty face, it became the perfect spot to simply be.