Virtual Vacation: The Elephant House, Day 2

So far, 24 hours into my visit, Edinburgh feels like a teeming young person’s city. I don’t know if all the young people we see on the street are locals out for the evening or tourists from all over the world who have arrived for the theater festival.

Last night we struck out around nine o’clock to explore and to find something to eat. We were armed only with a shitty tourist map and tried to pick our way to the local theatre district.

We found ourselves a great local pub, The Fiddler’s Arm, just underneath Edinburgh Castle. It was just the kind of place I’d hoped for: wood walls, big wood tables, a young woman singing folk songs, a young female bartender topping off strong dark draft beers, and great pub food: in our case, beef cooked in stout with a pastry top, excellent French fries and crisp, delicious fresh vegetables. We devoured our meal and our beers and watched the action in the pub. To our right, a couple from northern Ireland. To our left, three young French people out on the town. The pub didn’t feel like a bar; it felt like a living room; it felt like home.

When we finally set out for our lodgings, at 11 PM, Eileene said her sense of direction was poor; I said mine was middling. We couldn’t use our iDevices to navigate since we didn’t have SIM cards that would allow us to tap into the local network. So we went old school; I bought a laminated detailed street map of the city at a tourist shop, and between us, we managed to find our way back to Balmore House.

This morning, after a decent night’s sleep, we set out in search of a replacement keyboard for me; the portable one I’d loaned Lizzy to take to Morocco came home missing the essential screw that holds the batteries in place and was full of corrosion; it was worthless. After we struck out at the neighborhood computer store, we boarded a double-decker bus and headed out in search of a giant department store with a supposedly good electronics section.

The view was great from the top deck of the bus. Here’s Eileene coming down the stairs:

And here are the plaid seats. Only in Scotland, right?

Two stores later, I finally succeeded in my quest. I found a knock-off keyboard that I hope lasts me for the rest of this journey. Then we meandered over to High Street, where we turned in our voucher at the Fringe Festival box office for tickets for The Winter’s Tale tonight.

Eileene’s must-go-to destination this morning was the Mary Queen of Scots exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland. And so I learned all about her political marriages, the murder of her second husband, her political downfall, her years spent in prison and her eventual beheading at the hand of her cousin, Elizabeth.

Once we left the museum and started to move through the city, there were street performers everywhere; we were stopped constantly with someone offering a handbill for a performance, a comedy show, or some other entertainment. We were surrounded by a swirl of languages and nationalities, a large, cheerful party happening everywhere around us.

Midday, we both had one destination in mind: The Elephant House. In order to know why this was so important to both of us, you need to understand that Eileene and I are both mothers of children who came of age in the Harry Potter generation.

The first Harry Potter book came out when Eli was in first grade. Eli (and later Lizzy) and I waited in lines at Bookshop Santa Cruz starting at 9 PM the night before all seven Harry Potter books were due to be released; we stood there with hundreds of other crazy parents and obsessed children, up way beyond their bedtimes, waiting to get our hands on the next book the moment it went on sale at midnight. Waiting until the next morning was just not good enough.

Eli was in sixth grade I think, when Harry Potter IV came out. We got home from the Bookshop at 1 AM; he stayed up all night and finished the book by 9 the next morning and proudly staggered through school, the first child to have finished the 400+ page tome. Only to hand it off to Lizzy, of course, who devoured it in turn. She was just as immersed in Hogwarts and Quidditch and Dumbledore as he was.

I had to wait to read it third, but I was no less eager than they were.

I remember forbidding Eli to read certain sections that we felt were too dark for a nine-year-old or a ten-year-old, but he read them anyway. I remember wondering whether Lizzy would have nightmares about Death Eaters or Voldemort, but she never did. For years, Harry and his friends—and his enemies—were the backdrop of all of our lives. We were in the JK Rowling cult and Harry Potter was inextricably woven into the texture of their childhood.

When the Harry Potter movies came out, we stood in line once again; at 9 at night for the midnight opening of each show. The release of each book and movie were the major milestones of our children’s lives.

Lizzy owned every audio version of all seven books, read masterfully by Jim Dale, who performed every voice perfectly. The first books we owned on cassette; the later ones, on CD. Lizzy listened to the books over and over and over again; she wore out the cassettes, she listened to them so constantly. Those Jim Dale tapes were literally the soundtrack of her childhood. She won every Harry Potter trivia contest, hands-down, and could recite large swaths of the books by heart.

So to be in Edinburgh, and to have the chance to visit the very place where JK Rowling, then a poor single mother, sat to compose the early books, was a pilgrimage I simply could not miss. And Eileene was just as eager. This was right at the top of her list, too.

On our way here, we saw several things that clearly inspired JK Rowling: a bus shelter with an ad for the Night Bus: Getting You Home Safe From Midnight to 4:30 AM and this set of phone booths:

Ministry of Magic anyone?

The evidence was right in front of us: this is how writers are inspired by their environment. And here’s the place where it all began:

Inside, the place looked a lot like any other coffee shop:

But on the wall, there was this, a framed set if photos of JK Rowling at work within these very walls:

I felt giddy and very happy eating my baked potato with veggie chili on top (mediocre—but the chai was lovely). And of course I felt inspired to write:

There were elephants everywhere I looked and the line of customers was out the door. It was a bustling, busy place. But I really hadn’t seen anything yet.

It was only when I got up to go to the bathroom that I discovered the real secret of The Elephant House. Every inch of every wall, every inch of each stall, the mirror, the sink, every millimeter, was full of grateful graffiti thanking JK Rowling for the magical world she created for all of us.

I started weeping when I walked into that bathroom and it’s been hard for me to stop ever since. I’m weeping for what those books have meant in my life; for the end of my children’s childhood; for the way one author’s imagination and words—and commitment to write under all circumstances—can influence and entertain a whole generation, not to mention all the generations to come. I’m weeping over the impact words and writers can have on our lives and on our world.

All of that, and the magic that still lingers here in the Elephant House, has me choked up as I, too, sit here writing—maybe even at the very table where she sat.

But most of all, it’s how much I love Harry.

“I solemnly swear I am up to no good.”

–JK Rowling


Dear Eli and Lizzy,

Please forgive me for the gross inaccuracies in this post. I’m sure I got your ages wrong or the books wrong or which movie we saw when, but I know the essence is true. You weren’t here for fact checking, so I just had to go ahead!

17 thoughts on “Virtual Vacation: The Elephant House, Day 2”

  1. Laura, what a great post. Absolutely love the photos and the Elephant’s BR with tributes to Queen R. And, that photo of you…you giggler you! Yes, Edinburgh is magical as is the entire country! No wonder the country’s symbol is the thistle—daily drops of milk thistle cleanse the liver after all that Scot Whiskey–or is that just another Scots myth?

  2. Laura,
    Thank you for this one. It really is a marvel for writers to see what you can do if you just don’t give up. Just keep writing. I have read several of those books and I don’t even have children that age around to share them with. I am always amazed when I crack one open to see how beautifully they are written. It is encouraging when you think that young people might be reading that caliber of writing. Thank you for the pictures it makes it even more real.

  3. You didnt have to be a kid (chronologically) to fall madly under the spell of HP and JKR… Altho I too own all the various formats of all 7 tomes, and greedily watch the movies (again and again) every time they show up on cable, I felt such pangs of withdrawal and sadness when the final reel of Hallows II ended.

    Her power as a supreme story teller, and the allegory she created for adults thru HP, drilled me to the bone and left me always wanting …. MORE! Just like Oliver in Dickens!

    So glad you chronicled your experience at The Elephant House — once more living vicariously thru you!

  4. Thank you for sharing the Elephant House with all of us HP fans — Queen R’s tales are for all ages!

  5. FYI, all the young people are there for the “Fringe” – part of Festival. Edinburgh is usually rather calm. Enjoy!

  6. Vanya Erickson

    Hello Laura and Eileene! I love, love, love today’s blog. When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was just a gleam in the eyes of the Scholastic Corporation (and only available in the UK for another year), a friend in England sent it to me thinking I would like to read it aloud to my students. She wanted an American response, and the kids and I were excited to be guinea pigs. Can you see it? Twenty bodies sprawled all over the carpet in front of my rocker, absorbing the magic for 30 minutes every day. (Okay, so sometimes we went a wee bit longer…) Wonderful memory!

    1. Hi Vanya–Eileene here! The Elephant Cafe was wonderful-Edinburgh is enchanting. See you soon.

      This is Laura–I can just imagine all those kids (and you) totally spellbound. I love that my post inspired this story to come out–in fact how everyone has responded with their own Harry Potter stories!

  7. Laura, Thanks for this post about J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter! I too read all of the books and listened to the audio on cassette and then CD. The Elephant House and bathroom graffiti was a sight to see.

  8. Thank you Laura and Eileene, for allowing us to share the adventure! Scotland is part of my heritage, and visiting that country a dream someday.
    Your reminiscences about standing in line for Potter book and movie releases made me smile! During the years when books V through VII were coming out, my daughter Lauren (another huge Harry Potter fan) was warehouse manager for Copperfields, which is a smallish indie bookstore chain in the Napa-Sonoma area. They have 6 or 8 stores, I believe. She was in charge of receiving, storing, and supplying each store. Also HIDING massive shipments of each book in the days prior to release. Crates and crates and crates stashed somewhere extremely top secret until midnight of the release date! To this day she has not told me where they were kept, and despite temptation she knew better than to sneak into a crate to satisfy her own massive anticipation. (She’d learned that lesson as a child by snooping prior to Christmas!) She waited for the midnight bookstore parties, where everyone dressed as Snape, Luna etc. and then just like your son, she stayed up… all … night … reading and reading.
    Thanks for allowing me to share my smile ~
    Annie Scott

  9. The place sounds amazing. You were meant to be there and I’m so glad you were. I will read all your posts so keep up the great work! Love to you both!

  10. Talin Vartanian

    I’m writing from the train, which I boarded at King’s Cross very near the now-prominently-marked Platform 9 3/4, so this post about The Elephant House struck a chord.

    My son, who is now 24, read the first Harry Potter book before it was even known in North America. In 1997, his best friend Jordie was on a year-long trip with her parents and “met” Harry in the U.K. She inhaled the The Philosopher’s Stone and brought a copy home to Toronto for Chris, which he read in one sitting then shared with me. That year, he dressed as Harry for Halloween, complete with the perfect eyeglasses (which I borrowed from a local frame shop), a Hogwart’s robe and a lightning bolt scar on his forehead. Sadly, he was profoundly disappointed as he went from door to door and no one recognized who he was until…

    A woman with a British accent who lived on a street around the corner from us had been home for a summer holiday and she also learned about the J.K. Rowling phenomenon. She opened her door, took one look at Chris with eyes widened and said, “Now don’t tell me! I think I know who you are. Could it be, possibly, that I have now met Harry Potter?” Chris beamed and they had a chat about the novel, which was an even bigger treat than anything he had in his loot bag. As they parted, I stepped up to the door to thank her and learned she was an elementary school teacher. Then she beamed when I told her that teachers and librarians are my heroes.

    After book two or three came out in the Potter series, Chris came to me one day with another book and said, “Mom, you have to read this. It’s even better than Harry Potter.” He was right. It was The Golden Compass, the first book of a trilogy by British writer Philip Pullman. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, I highly recommend it:

  11. Hi Everyone,

    I was living in London when some of JK Rowling’s were first published – about the time of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I was able to buy the “Queen’s English” versions there. There a subtle differences – for example, the first book: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone contrasted with the US Release titled: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

    My niece was 9 and an avid reader. My sister always took her to the last night releases – which led to a brief interview by the Reno Gazette-Journal and her picture in the paper. She had to have both versions – which I was happy to indulge her in. She’s 23 now and just married. I wonder who will be reading the 14 books next…?!

    I’ll be sending her your post – I know the pictures will have her squealing!

    Thank you Laura. See you soon!

  12. Laura, thanks for bringing that magical bathroom in Scotland to my cozy bed in Big Sur. I cried too. What a huge impact JK Rowling had on millions of hearts and minds.

  13. Laura,

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Wiping back tears at the all important reminder of how powerful words, language and writing is. Nodding with understanding at how import the act of writing is no matter what, no matter the excuses and no matter the circumstances. My children are ages 27 & 6 (and 1/2 as the youngest will tell you). Both read voraciously, an unquenchable thirst passed down in their genetic code for many, many generations and read to in the womb. I often wonder if Angels hang out in libraries as in the movie, “City of Angels” and if there will be enough time in this incarnation to read all of the books (and finish writing a coulple started) that I yearn to. HP came along when the eldest was too “mature” (Eyes roll here! I’VE READ THEM!), the youngest is not yet at novel stage – though fearlessly has watched every movie spell-bound and discusses the nuances eloquently.

    A funny moment today I recalled thanks to this post: while having lunch outside on the front patio at Walnut Ave Cafe downtown a fellow diner proudly held court on his cell phone, stating that a location they were visiting even had Quidditch and various other HP items of delight.

    HP! It’s everywhere!

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