The Edinburgh Fringe, Tourists, Darkness and My Disdain

I grew up in a somewhat tourist-y area.

Baraboo, Wisconsin is naturally gorgeous and features a lake which was formed by glaciers.

It’s named “Devil’s Lake” and thus throughout the surrounding area many of the roads and activities are titled “Devil’s This” and “Devil’s That” and, as a kid, I just thought it was all social marketing as people came from all over to enjoy the beauty of Devil’s Lake so… it made sense to keep referencing the feature event.

And, sure, the Ho-Chunk tribes who lived in the area first apparently felt that the beautiful lake had some mystical zing to it and this is why they named the lake “Tawacunchukdah” which is interpreted as “holy” or “sacred” but which the white people misunderstood and interpreted as “devil”

because that’s what us white people do.

And I still didn’t think much about how so many places had “devil” in their titles because I was just used to it.

Similar to how I laugh every time I come across “Random Lake,” which is a Wisconsin village and lake a few hours north of Milwaukee.

To me, that’s hilarious. I mean, whoever found it couldn’t even bother to name the lake or town. They’re just all “Whatever, it’s just some random lake. This place is covered with these things.”

But Random Lake is not funny to my husband in any way. He had friends who were from Random Lake.

Likewise, I didn’t think too much about all the devils in my upbringing. We don’t really see what’s familiar. I mean, I skied at Devil’s Head resort which is where my mom later worked and often passed the Devil’s Doorway when hiking at Devil’s Lake.

Devil, devil, devil.

It’s no wonder I have some ghost stories to share.

Also, and it’s probably because the white people moved in, there has been some well-known devilish darkness in Wisconsin, illustrated by it having more than its fair share of known serial killers.

There was Ed Gein, the Plainfield Ghoul, who made furniture from the skin of the people he murdered.

Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered and dismembered many people in the Milwaukee area.

And, back to Baraboo and all its devil namesakes, my hometown high school class even had its own serial killer, Joe Clark, who is now referred to as the “Bonebreaker Killer” online because he… broke the bones… of his victims before he killed or attempted to kill them.

And, when I heard that Joe Clark had tortured and tried to kill Thad Phillips in tenth grade I was all, “WHO’S JOE CLARK???” It wasn’t until much later where I saw a photo and realized that I had a library study group with him. He had seemed nice.

Why am I reflecting on Wisconsin serial killers? To scare away tourists? Maybe.

Baraboo is also the home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Maybe this is also why I didn’t find the Netflix show Tiger King that crazy or bizarre. Because people are often terrible and troubled and often abuse other humans and animals.

Watching Tiger King was like watching the news to me on Saturday when the local Fox channel suddenly tells Milwaukee how last week really went.

And, besides, the genuine tiger king is Gunter Gebel Williams.

I’d go home after seeing Gunter run around in the sawdust with lions and tigers in a Big Top performance and wonder where he and the other bigger-than-life circus performers lived and shopped for their groceries because we all just lived in Baraboo.

I did hope to see that shirtless vested sparkly blonde tan man at Darrows but never did.

Also, I often tell friends I could never be scared of clowns because my friends and I idolized and stalked the circus clowns.

Happy the Clown, in our opinion, was the star of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Big Top Circus Show.

Therefore, when some of my friends learned that his house was directly across the street from our school we would physically sit on his front lawn and wait for him to come out of his house, star-struck.

But I only realized when I got older how terrifying it may have been to him to see a group of children just sitting in his front yard, staring at his house.

He never did come out and I can’t blame him.

Yet, if I see some person dressed as a clown standing outside my door in the middle of the night…?

Well, if anything, the fact that that person dressed as a clown would empower me more than if I just saw some stranger standing there looking menacing.

Because I used to stalk clowns as a child.

I still get kind of excited if I see one.

And this is because devils, clowns and acrobats were just an everyday part of our upbringing as Boo kids.

You never realize how different your world is from other people’s worlds until you get out and see other people’s worlds and then you’re all:

“Oh.”

In any case, Baraboo has Devil’s Lake and its own serial killer who was my classmate, as well as its own circus, and so maybe the native tribes were right about there being something extraordinary about the area I grew up in.

And it sure is pretty.

I started out talking about Devil’s Lake and then the circus and then the serial killer classmate because these are a few of the reasons Baraboo is a bit of a tourist attraction and it becomes quite crowded during the summer.

And Baraboo is also close to Wisconsin Dells which is absolutely batshit crazy during the summer and serves as the physical definition of “Tourist Trap.”

Thus, many of us Boo kids had to work in the Dells or at the circus or some other local business that depended on Chicago tourism while on summer break.

And I quickly developed a deep disdain for obnoxious tourists and vacationers.

As an adult, if I ever go somewhere on holiday, I try to blend in with the hotel bartenders, staff and locals if I can so I don’t become what I hated as a teenager:

an oblivious, loud tourist.

Ideally, we can all be tourists every once in awhile as we get out and see new things. However, while we are marked outsiders, it’s best to not be a complete dick while embodying this role.

I like my marked outsiders mysterious, menacing and street-wise.

I don’t like them dumb, vulgar, abrasive and demanding.

In any case, I share all this to help explain the origins of my intense disdain for certain tourists.

Because my husband and I moved to Edinburgh.

Tourist central.

When anyone, after hearing how we briefly lived there, asks, “Oh did you ever hear bagpipers?” with this dreamy look on their face, we usually respond, “Every fucking day.” But without the cursing.

But we curse on the inside. This is because of how cheap it became to see someone dressed in the official bells and whistles of a bagpiper’s outfit and playing the pipes on the intersections of the High Street like a common street musician with gaping tourists clapping their hands and looking so happy or EVEN WORSE tourists just zombie-walking right by without even casting a glance in their direction.

Nothing is sacred. But obviously I still believe some things are sacred because I still get upset often.

In any case, while living in Edinburgh I attended the University of Edinburgh which is a highly respected and venerable old university.

And it is surrounded by Edinburgh which is composed of seven million ghost tours and William Wallace/Mel Gibson lookalikes and thousands of tourists who eat it all up as long as they get to loudly talk about how their family has a unique tartan which they of course brought with them and are wearing informally as a kilt.

I couldn’t handle the surreal juxtaposition between the university and the tourist culture of the city.

But it’s the Edinburgh Festival which almost killed me.

The International Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival occur simultaneously throughout the month of August and are usually referred to as “The Festival.”

It is touted as the world’s largest arts festival and brings amazing music, comedy, arts, dance, theater and other cultural performance events to the city.

The Festival also causes the city to transform.

Consequently, vendor stands of candy, umbrellas, hats, food, wands, broomsticks, scarves, drinks and other magical things are put up all over the place in the most unexpected places.

Pubs pop up everywhere, from tiny little two-seater bars to more elaborate set-ups. Fake turf is placed on the cobblestone and fake trees are set up… I mean, physical spaces are transformed and the city shape-shifts.

This sounds magical.

However, it’s sheer bullshit if you’re trying to accomplish mundane but essential tasks as if you’re living in a Regular Place and you suddenly have a goat stand blocking the entrance to some building you must enter.

My harsh feelings for the Fringe Festival are probably because we moved to Edinburgh right during the middle of it in 2007.

It was utter mayhem, and mayhem was not what we wanted to experience first thing.

Especially since my husband and I had endured a somewhat rough transition to the United Kingdom.

For no other reason besides the tickets were the cheapest, we flew from Chicago through to Dublin on our way to Edinburgh.

Previously, neither one of us had ever traveled across an ocean, nor had we ever experienced the jet lag that subsequently hit us.

And, on our first morning in Ireland, we ordered breakfast at some outdoor tent, and I simply wanted dry wheat toast and felt I should be capable of ordering this.

Yet, the feeling that we were out of our depth was immediately palpable:

“Good morning. I’d like toast…”

“White or brown?”

“Brown…?”

“Thick or thin?”

“Uh… thin…? Oh, and no butter.”

The frowning servers then looked up at me as if I had offended them personally.

As someone who just wanted to blend in and not cause a fuss, I was instantly made aware that this was likely not going to be the case and everything was going to be more difficult than I had anticipated.

And then, when we arrived in Edinburgh, I had to wander around the maze of streets, trying to find certain offices in the midst of drunken, stupid, loud, vile waves of Festival tourists.

Thus, these factors combined to create the unholy trinity of Things that Bother Me:

  • Oblivious tourists
  • Oblivious crowds of tourists
  • People Complicating Things Needlessly

And it felt like the Festival Fringe was always happening right when I desperately needed to get things done or directly during “crunch time.”

Thus, I’d be experiencing an especially climactic feeling of panic and look up because a fucking jester had sprinkled glitter across my paperwork and was now twinkling his fingers at me from the other side of my park bench.

August in Edinburgh was my hell.

I had three years to complete my doctoral research, then write up and submit my thesis and get it approved by two virtual strangers who could very well hate my research/me and make me start all over simply out of spite.

But I only had three years of funding so I couldn’t just “start all over.”

Rather, I’d have to pack up and hijack a ship home.

It was stressful.

My hair started falling out.

My family kept asking, “Are you done yet?” as they had been doing so since I arrived in Scotland two years previous.

I was so very stressed.

In fact, I was on the brink of mental breakdown in August of my final year in Edinburgh.

And that’s when, once again, naturally, the Fringe was hitting town and, once again, getting anywhere was that much more difficult.

What was most surreal to me is how I would walk out of my university building, leaving behind some of the most serious and intelligent academic people one can find, to then enter the most vulgar and idiotic environment created by the tourist frenzy of the Fringe.

Idiots, clowns, comedians and tourists now dancing through the streets which were confusing to start with and which were now camouflaged with absolute chaos.

By our final August in Edinburgh and when I was really at the end of my proverbial rope with all the academic bureaucracy and imminent deadlines, I walked out of the old medical building which usually meant I was walking into an always-empty enclosed concrete courtyard but that fateful day I walked out and saw a tiny little booth set up in the far corner.

I stood there and just stared at it for a moment.

And then I almost went over to set it on fire.

The booth had no patrons because even most Festival tourists must have had the sense to be intimidated by the university’s structures which were blissfully untouched by the Fringe for the most part and, in order to access this particular courtyard, one had to walk through this intimidating stone archway

so that’s why the booth attendant was not murdered by this strung-out American that evening.

__________

Friends thought my disdain for the Fringe was hilarious.

Mostly because I was a foreigner.

I didn’t care.  

I wanted to make a t-shirt which said “I’M LOCAL. DON’T HASSLE ME.”

I didn’t think people were hassling me because they thought I was American. I thought people were hassling me because it was the Fringe and that’s what the Fringe is all about.

Yet, my disdain for tourists while being essentially a long-term tourist in Edinburgh did not hold me back from accomplishing my goal of acquiring my doctorate in three years and publishing my research in a big, gold-fringed-paged book

which has been cited

BY TWO WHOLE PEOPLE.

You may ask how it feels to light the world on fire and I have to answer:

“It feels pretty great.”

The moral of this rant is to not allow serial killers, clowns, obnoxious tourists, jesters, lions, tigers, bears or anyone hold you back from accomplishing your somewhat useless but admirable goals or from being at least a halfway decent person when on vacation.

And if you do visit Edinburgh in August, please don’t be drunk and terrible.

Leave that to the lads in Grassmarket.

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