The blog conventions dictate that I shall be known as “Jordan in Scotland,” but it should really be “Old Man Undercover.” Not only have I sat on a shelf and ripened a decade or two longer than the majority of my peers, but I clearly have the constitution of a man many years my elder. If I were at home right now, I’d be bookended between two cats on the couch, drinking tea. Of course, I can be as childlike as I am centennial. But so can an old man if you stay off his lawn and give him a lolly. The point is, I’m old and set in my ways. I know what I like, and I’ve spent the better part of many years discovering what makes me happy and comfortable and carving a little nest for myself which is conducive to those ideals. So what am I doing in a featureless flat in a foreign land, bereft of all worldly possessions beyond the ones I could fit under the seat of a plane?
Oh, sure, it’s easy to take a holiday from everything that ties you down. Even liberating. But a holiday, this is not. If this were a holiday, I’d probably be sharing each little oddity, amusement, and imposition with a close companion. But I’m out here on my own, 5,000+ miles from home, with all the usual responsibilities to manage and none of the customary support. I won’t pretend to be having a grand old time of it. But if I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t have come back.
It’s been seven years since I first jammed myself into a flying tin-can for eleven hours and had the privilege to inhale British-European air upon my glorious extrication. Six years, nine months since I’ve been scheming to repeat the ordeal. Because the one thing holidays can’t offer you is the chance to live like a native. For three months in 2009, I was a Londoner. I lived in a flat in the borough of Kensington, took the Piccadilly line from Gloucester Road station, and sat for classes at University of London. The experience filled me with a new lease on life, countless Bangers and Mash, and one last niggling thought as I returned to the States: “I was just getting the hang of it!”
This Scottish scheme was conceived during that previous stint abroad. During the semester intermission, we popped up to Scotland on the rail and took a peek at some of its finest offerings: Stonehenge, Dunkeld, Loch Ness, the Castle of Edinburgh, the Wallace Monument, the Isle of Skye, and Hamish the “Hey-ry Coo” (Hairy Cow). I knew before the week was out that I’d be coming back. But I never do anything by halves. For the next 9 months, I’ll be a Scotlander – longer than I’ve been a San Franciscan from my native California. Nine months and no going back. You could make a whole new person in that time. Nine months in the little medieval town of St Andrews at Scotland’s oldest university, rocking the gothic since 1413. You could make twenty-five generations in that.
You’d think that seven years’ preparation would have prepared me. But this newer, more audacious stint at international infil-, er, integration sends me straight back to nursery school. I’ve noticed in my many lifetimes that one of the harder things to navigate in life is anything you’ve never navigated before. From the moment we’re wrenched from the womb, if we’re lucky, someone is holding our hand and leading us forward every wobbly step of the way. We learn our way around the crib, the house, the neighborhood, the campus, all under the watchful eyes of our elders – slowly graduating from one bubble to another like a geographical Chinese nesting doll, all along wrapped in the confidence that we’re right where we’re supposed to be.
So it’s always something of a terror being set adrift without a map. How do I get where I’m going? What am I supposed to be doing? Am I about to get eaten? Good luck and godspeed. Anytime I have to do something I’ve never done before, no matter the magnitude, there’s trepidation. It’s inevitable that I’m going to do something wrong. Make a wrong turn, say the wrong thing, walk the wrong way, and generally betray myself as an infant without attendance. In the words of the venerable Bilbo, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.” Transplant yourself to a new world and every day is an adventure. Adventure is not about safety or comfort. It’s about living. Leveling. Expanding.
And going to another world is exactly how it felt. In the days leading up to departure, it’s all I could think about. I once drove from Arizona to Oregon to seek refuge at home, but there’s no road between home and my heading, this round. If I wanted to come back, I’d be at the mercy of the aviation gods and the depths of my wallet… and Time. There’d be no popping back for dinner and drinks or a hug, no matter how much I or my mother needed it. I may as well have been stepping through a one-way portal to spend the next nine months in search of the one that brings me back. The overbearing sense of “No Exceptions, No Returns” was overwhelming. Not only did I have to remotely prepare a life for myself to step into in the new world, but I had to insure that my life at home would continue to function without me. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than it had in the past, not only due to the extended duration but to the ways that my life has changed.
You also might expect, as I did, that being older makes things easier. But at least in this case, youth seems to have the advantage. For my first expedition abroad, I was fairly new to living on my own. I had moved to a town about two hours south of my parents, and could get home easily if I needed to. I had a new apartment, a new car, and was the newly adopted father to a couple of adorable shelter cats. I had recently returned to college, and my petition to study abroad had been accepted. I was feeling competent and intrepid. I coerced a loyal friend to house-and-cat-sit for my little London excursion, and soon looped back to the States and resumed my life as if nothing had happened. But a lot happens in seven years. I’ve inhabited different residences and jobs, developed relationships, grown my network, and refined my own sense of place and community. I’ve also developed the kind of ailments that introduce themselves after thirty, like back pain and an irritable bowel. Even more problematic, my furry dependents, now both nine, have each developed their own health hazards. And, oddly enough, my parents aren’t getting any younger, either.
My life at 36 is infinitely more beleaguered than my life at 29. I had to thoroughly uproot myself from my latest apartment – no one would be house-sitting this time. I sold most of my furniture in the classifieds, and liquidated many possessions through yard sale and donation. I had to enlist my poor mother to take on the unenviable nursing care of my special-needs cats for the better part of a year, and at a time when she didn’t need the extra hassle. I had to settle my accounts, stockpile medications, and say goodbye to friends knowing they might not still be around when I get back. As if that weren’t enough, that old nemesis Bureaucracy had to rear its great horned head: the pharmacy bumbled my prescription, my university-sponsored health insurance lapsed due to my being technically unregistered (studying abroad), my mobile contract expired a week before departure, and the British Consulate stole my passport without informing me.
The proverbial hurricane that carried me away from home was anything but exhilarating. I felt like a piece of paper that had been torn in two, with half blown to another continent and the other still wilting, bewildered, back at home. I’ve had a weather widget for St Andrews parked on the home screen of my phone for several years, serving as reminder and motivation; a digital carrot carrying me toward my self-prophesied fate. But upon finally arriving at the pinnacle of my hard-sought destination, poised in the seat of victory atop a double-decker bus, my thoughts were ever in two places. Not unlike they’d been when I’d returned from London, actually. Maybe it’s a side-effect of the portal.
After surviving a series of excruciating flights and a layover in Keflavik, I arrived in Edinburgh on August 28th. I’ve blocked out most of that period, so it’s fortunate that the age of digital documentation doesn’t let us forget. It looks like I did manage to collect my luggage at the claim; I suppose that explains why my new abode isn’t entirely derelict. And I do recall the personnel for the Edinburgh Tram outside the airport being incredibly gracious, helping me sort out payment and route not just with patience but solicitude, and not merely in the paid-to-please brand of the term. Perhaps they were new to the work, or maybe they were attracted to the California sun still baked into my clothes. But the sense of disorientation remained profound; I was as green as the Wicked Witch in Emerald City. I bought a day pass for the bus in Edinburgh and when the driver directed me to scratch off the date, I stared at him dumbly. What WAS the date? Was it still Saturday? Was it August, here? With everything so altered, it was very difficult to be sure.
One of the first things I noticed upon setting down in Edinburgh was my inherent tendency to veer to the right on walking paths when faced with pedestrians traveling in the reverse. I noticed this because those oncoming had an unfailing tendency to veer to their left, placing us on a collision course. It gradually dawned on me that we unconsciously seem to organize ourselves on foot by the same rules that we’re accustomed to driving. Thus, constituents of the UK don’t just drive on the left – they WALK left. Have fun attempting to reformat your walking legs if you ever make it here. And then go to a college town half occupied with American exchange students, and have fun playing human pinball trying to guess between them and the locals!
Another thing that immediately captured my attention were the serving sizes in restaurants. The Scottish don’t strike me as timid eaters, but a standard helping at the venues I’ve sampled would have been sent back in the States on the charge of forgetting the entree. The burger and smattering of fries I received in one establishment looked a little lost on its comparatively enormous saucer, but they were sufficient to satiate my stomach. Visitors to the US must be aghast at the portions we serve, and satisfied as to the source of our infamous battle with obesity. Truth be told, I would have eaten twice that number of french fries (at the least).
Another thing to watch out for here is the predominance of sparkling water. It’s wise to cultivate the habit of adding “tap” when you order a glass of the old standard, and “ice” isn’t bad to include, either. Just as popular is the practice of ordering to go. Virtually every venue will ask if you mean to “sit in” or “take away” – from the afternoon cafes to the evening pubs. In the States, staying seems to be taken for granted unless otherwise specified. As an introvert, I really ought to get a handle on this “take away” trend.
But what has been most surprising for me on this journey so far is not that I have missed my home during this tumultuous transition, but how much I have missed London. I find myself looking not for the comforts of home but to relive the experiences I left behind in Britain. The rustic pubs and tea houses on every corner. The bridges over the Thames, the London Eye, and St James Park. The Tube, the boroughs, and live theater enough to rival the television listings on subway billboards. And I desperately miss my London flat, with its big windows, tall ceiling and cozy kitchen. I came prepared to embrace the British way of life, the one I had jump-started all those years ago. I just forgot how distinctively different two countries that share a continent can actually be. Living in the UK bears certain associations that I’m discovering are not exclusively universal. The Sainsburys grocery chain and Boots pharmacy still exist up here, but I might have to trade in my staple diet of Bangers and Mash for Scotch Eggs and Whiskey. The locals still speak the Queen’s English, but you wouldn’t know it for all you can understand them sometimes. And the buses! I have yet to get hopelessly and irrevocably lost on the buses. This definitely isn’t London anymore, Toto. I guess we’d better practice our Scots.