Culture shock on the streets of Edinburgh

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Having gone into Edinburgh city a few times this week, I have observed a couple of interesting quirks of the place.

The first major observation is that smiling doesn’t appear to be common place here. You may have noticed me at Calton Hill not smiling in the photo above – IT’S RUBBING OFF ON ME.

People aren’t smiling in cafes, not on the streets, people on the bus are yelling on phones, elderly men are frowning, and people on family outings are scowling.

The only smiles and laughter I’ve seen is among the tourists on Calton Hill posing for photographs. Or Murray, a checkout man at my local ASDA.

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View from Calton Hill

(Calton Hill is a volcanic mound of monuments that are hundreds of years old. If you’re not keen for a hike up Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill is the next best thing. From up there, you can see right down Edinburgh’s main street, Princes Street.)

Perhaps I’m comparing city life here too much with city life back in Auckland. By no means am I suggesting that everyone walks around with great grins on their faces in the City of Sails, but if ever I made eye-contact with another Aucklander, I could be certain I’d be given a half-smile back. Not a look of nervousness or shock that they have been noticed. Eye contact is not to be encouraged in Edinburgh.

General discourtesies are common on the streets of this city, such as the lack of thanking people for moving out of the way on the footpath. Or, when being approached by a couple walking two-abreast, single file would seldom happen, causing you to awkwardly stop and squeeze past, or step into the road and oncoming traffic.

On the way to a Northern part of Edinburgh called Lieth (so many amazing Italian restaurants!), a group of youths… Well, I say youths, probably mid-twenties, were walking in front of me. Walking with quite a swagger, I might add. They swagged past a homeless man and his clothed dog, when out of nowhere, the hound jumped up and shook.

The lads in front of me had thrown a lit cigarette at the dog! The homeless man pulled the finger and mumbled while his companion settled back down.

That made me feel sad.

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Silhouette of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

This minor incident was on my mind for the rest of the day. It reminded me once again how sheltered I was in New Zealand.

I walked up and down Queen Street in Auckland every day for four years, and every day was identical to the last. (Not saying this is necessarily a good thing.) I think the most scandalous thing that ever happened was when I saw a man slip off the curb and fall over on to his suitcase, and everyone there gasped and rushed to help him.

Or that time when someone had thrown white paint on luxury store front windows. It made headlines the next morning.

I feel incredibly safe in Edinburgh, nevertheless. But due to all the warnings I got from British people before I left New Zealand – to stay vigilant, to stick with people you know, to watch your bags – I feel as though I am expecting something bad to happen.

When in actual fact, despite the grey mugs that swarm the streets, I feel totally safe. I’ve caught the train by myself at night. I’ve walked through the dark back-streets on my own. At no point have I felt threatened.

Except for crossing streets in Edinburgh! The crossing signals are either out of use, non-existent or take an age to change. The amount of times I’ve seen impatient pedestrians jump out in front of traffic, sprinting for the other side.

As expected, returning to the UK has been a culture shock. Which I am embracing, enjoying, and making me appreciate New Zealand’s (and New Zealanders’) brightness.