Category Archives: Jordan in Scotland

A Day Oot

A knock at the door informs me that the postman has a parcel for me. I pull the door wide. “Hiya,” he says, straight-faced, as he hands me the box. I smile inwardly, noting how much I’ll miss this comically cheery variation on “hello” that the Scots elicit by default. I nod and respond, “Cheers” with a soft “r” in the Scottish way. Most of the time I hesitate to practice the accent; trying to pronounce the dialect as the natives do can inadvertently resemble mockery to the uninitiated ear. But this pair of pleasantries are common enough to feel natural, and if the transaction ends there, I fancy I may even pass as a native.

It’s time to head to class so I change out of my lounge clothes and begin the layering process. Socks go on first, then a pair of long underwear and jeans. A t-shirt comes next, followed by a sweater that, along with the wool-lined jacket, I can peel off on arrival. Easy on/off layers are essential for temperature moderation in arctic climates with balmy interior spaces. I finish my apparel off with a pair of ear muffs and the the ever-essential scarf. You are as good as naked in Britain without a scarf. Keeping warm is 15% conventional clothing, and 85% scarf. Or so it seemed to me when I forgot mine once.

Properly insulated, I exit my home and stroll through a small cluster of quiet cobblestone cottages that share my lot. A fading plaque on a neighbor’s exterior wall ironically declares our charming little villa had a past life as a leper colony.  The dichotomy summons an Eddie-Izzard-ism to mind: “I grew up in Europe,” he said, “where the history comes from.” The complex is encircled by a short drystone wall, so I stroll to the south-west corner and exit by the driveway onto the sidewalk hugging the street. But just around the cornerstone of the complex, a dirt trail cuts a beeline for the beach, and a footpath by which I can walk with the eternal horizon to one side and the panorama of St. Andrews on the other.

1 lepers

The sea presents a different face every time I traverse this path, sometimes beating its fearsome fists into the retaining wall that lines the cove like an angry god scorning containment, other times lapping listlessly at the sandy shore, as quietly as a cat at the water dish. This afternoon, the tide is so far out that the terrain seems to have tripled in size, a great yawning stretch of solid ground having materialized out of a space entirely occupied by an ocean just a short while before.  The earthen landscape changes with each reappearance, as the waters deliver new offerings on every visit, like a charitable caller. By evening, every visible rock, shell and grain will be swallowed again beneath a veil of impenetrable blue.

2 walk to the beach

3 beach

To my left I pass a playground and sprawling mounds of emerald green grass dappled by grazing wild rabbits.  They lope along languidly, parting before me like a fuzzy brown sea as my path turns back into town. A host of fishing boats list stoically in the small harbor beyond, augmented by a romantic backdrop of medieval stone walls and cathedral spires. It looks like a fictional landscape sprung straight from the pages of a haunting fairy tale – no wonder Scotland is full of them.

harbour

I cross a short bridge and follow a stone staircase that rises to a road overlooking the north bay and the relics of St Andrews castle. A plaque at this site explains the sordid history of the town’s infamous namesake.  Another describes the hanging of a man from the tranquil arched window of the crumbling castle, through which a pensive tourist is presently framed. There’s nothing like a ~nine hundred year old settlement for contrary transpositions.

5 castle

Fifteen minutes after exiting my cottage door, I arrive at the department for my major; a solitary stone edifice that looks every bit the imposing castle that the genuine article down the road used to be, if not quite as sprawling. St. Andrews is full of these, as though the castle were partitioned off and distributed across the town. I pass through an iron gate, jaunt up the steps and enter by the modestly castle-sized door. The exterior causes the interior to come as something of a surprise, with contemporary white plaster walls, but the wooden banister tracing a curling staircase somewhat redeems it. I follow this up to the second story and meet with a series of white painted doors lining a nondescript hallway, my footfalls on the wooden stair echoing loudly in the noiseless corridor.

The glass doorknob to my left gives way to a narrow room with a high ceiling, framing a long table with chairs all around. A tall bay window at the far end captures an appropriately pensive view of the perennial sea and its secrets. I doff my top layers, draping them over the back of my chair, and seat myself at my professor’s left hand.  This is one of my favorite things about my study abroad experience; classes in our department rarely exceed fifteen in enrollment, and I relish the equalizing and intimate setting this allows the administration to cultivate. Speaking across a table makes me feel much more a part of the conversation than enmeshing myself in stadium seating for the oversized lectures I’ve been accustomed to.

After class, I cross a quiet, tree-lined street and turn down a sort of alley-way that cuts between buildings, generally and accurately described as a “close”. This one is uncommonly wide, however, and is referred to as a “wynd”, which Wikipedia defines as a public thoroughfare of antiquity, wide enough to accommodate horses and buggy. Closes and wynds are one of my favorite aspects of Britain in general, being broadly exclusive to foot traffic, and permitting pedestrians a brief refuge from the blare and tumult of the motorized sort. Some paths, such as this one, connect parallel roads, but the entire country is generously infused with an intricate web of walking paths, so that the intrepid explorer can largely steer clear of roaring engines spewing exhaust and stick to the fresh air and silent repose of the scenery.  These paths are customarily so narrow and subtly carved between structures as to be easily overlooked unless one knows to be looking.  More than once I wandered timidly down a subtle path on what appeared to be somebody’s property, only to be reassured when it carried me well beyond their perimeter.  More than once I also doubled back upon landing at somebody’s doorstep.

st andrews

My favorite such excursion in St. Andrews was known as Lade Braes, and became my sanctuary from the rigorous frenzy of a new school year in a strange land.  The population of the tiny town more than doubled in size as parents and their progeny swarmed the streets, and the chaos of getting registered and established, compounded by the unfamiliar territory and protocols, had my nerves at attention for days.  But then I discovered the secret of Lade Braes and its quietly meandering path, allowing one to explore the lay of the land from a vantage point both intimately intertwined and eerily detached from its setting.  I tried on several occasions to follow it to its end, little realizing that it wound across counties. But the catharsis I found in its natural beauty could not be quenched.

ladybraes

For now, however, I am content to head into town. The wynd I am walking is cobblestone, and intersects with the main road which is paved in the same.  It hosts a large fountain as its centerpiece, and the cars make a stuttering rumble as they pass. Most streets in St Andrews are paved with asphalt, so I suspect that the stones here are intended to restrain vehicular traffic to a snail’s pace by its tooth-chattering tempo. Pedestrians roam the roadway in this spot rather freely.

I pass by a plethora of pubs, which may arguably beat even walking paths as the jewel of British lifestyle. I adore a proper British pub, and they have ruined me for public venues in the states. The standard eatery in the U.S., whether it calls itself a coffee shop, a bar, or blasphemously fancies it feigns any right to the title of “pub”, is traditionally furnished with plastic benches or chairs around generic tables in a largely undecorated square box. The true pub atmosphere, by contrast, is an eclectic combination of warm wood-and-brass accents, inundated in years of quirky accumulated relics, and often arranged in a dumbfounding labyrinth of hallways and private rooms branching off of eachother in alarmingly unpredictable ways.  You could literally get lost in a legitimate pub; stone sober. And properly realized, one should never be confused for another unless the befuddled is good and thoroughly besotted. Some of my favorite pubs include Edinburgh’s King’s Wark, the Dickens Inn and the Clarence of London, the Haunch of Venison in Salisbury, Birmingham’s Old Crown, the Eagle and Child of Oxford (a favored haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis!), and the tragically shuttered “church” pub of Muswell Hill, which retained every critical aspect of the magnificent chapel it epitomized in its first life.

pub

I duck into Sainsbury’s market.  The storefront, like many venues here, is narrow but deep.  I load my basket with fresh berries, quiche, Scotch eggs and cumberland sausages. Taxes here are called “VAT” for “value added tax”, but are thankfully included in the very reasonable prices. I spend 25 pounds on a full basket that would easily break sixty back home.   And while many big box stores in California still lack self-service kiosks, Sainsbury’s has a row of them along the front wall. I line up in a cue that leads to both the kiosks and cashiers, happy to utilize whichever opens up first.  Crowds are pretty small here, so the wait is short.

Once checked out, I load my grocery bag into my backpack and return to the street. I cross the cobblestones and turn a corner, passing ancient brick-and-mortar business fronts housing all the standard amenities, from clothing to kitchenware. The interiors look shockingly conventional by contrast, although a few retain the rustic ambiance teased by the outside. The sports store presents a particular incongruity, the neon colors of its product lines in hard disparity with the naturalistic medieval setting, particularly nestled as it is beside a cobblestone courtyard at the foot of a gargoyle-rimmed clock tower.

I’m heading for the stationary store across the street, or more accurately the local post office ensconced at the back.  Far and away its best feature is that it’s open for business all days of the week; a convenience of which I take frequent advantage. Unlike the trademark blue of USPS, the British Post, known as Royal Mail, is branded a deep royal red, rendering the drop boxes posted about town a striking feature of this gothic environment. During my time here I’ve sent a fair amount of mail home and have been pleasantly surprised by the affordable rate. Unfortunately, the tracking included by default in the States is a premium service here. Delivery times are also erratic; a gift I mailed shortly before Christmas arrived within a week, but most of my other shipments were off radar for a month.  One pair of parcels shipped together arrived a week apart. Even more frustrating is that if anyone back home sends me a gift, I’m charged to accept anything valued above ~30 pounds. This, as I understand, is essentially an import tax gone rogue.  It’s a royal pain in the Scottish arse to pay for your presents.

I turn right onto the sidewalk as I leave the venue. Behind me, a band of bagpipers are playing on the grounds of Madras college. Bagpipes, like the violin, may be an instrument of torture in the hands of the unskilled, but become something extraordinary in more able ones. Like much of Scotland, the sound of the pipes carry an ethereal, primeval quality, as though born from the depths of the earth, itself. This afforded me a shock when I discovered how adaptable they are to contemporary music.  “Bag Rock” is a thing.

The air is getting crisp so I think I’m due for an ice cream. Everyone loves ice cream, but none so devotedly as the Scots.  These people will swim in the ocean in thirty degree weather, and eat ice cream in the snow.  I stroll down South street toward The Pends and make a pit stop at Jannettas Gelateria to settle a craving for Sea Salt Chocolate. Cone in hand, I tarry in the cloisters having been taught by the cats never to waste a sunbeam. Then I turn a ten minute walk into forty searching the tide’s latest offerings.

house names

Finally I cross the threshold of my homestead to deposit my groceries. A slip of paper beneath the mail slot informs me that Amazon has entrusted a delivery to one of my neighbors. This is an oddity of Scottish Amazon that I’ve never seen in the States. I don’t normally interact with the neighbors, but I’m beginning to make their inadvertent acquaintance thanks to this neighborly policy misfiled from some earlier era. A knock once caught me just out of the shower and I greeted an elderly neighbor in only my robe.  She chuckled, “That’s just the state I was in when they delivered this!” as she gave me my parcel.  Unfortunately I have no time to harass the neighbors just now, as I’m due at the doctor’s.  I head out and up the road to the corner bus stop, where I pay a pound to deliver myself the mile and a half to the clinic.

I enter the hospital and turn right, facing a mounted touch-screen just inside the door where I plug in my birthdate and surname to check in.  There’s no line, and no membership card required. I’m assigned to a doctor on duty, and head to my appointed waiting area down the hall. The waiting area is typical, with a cluster of chairs and an assortment of medical paraphernalia the only augmentation to the austere decor.

I have just enough time to strip off my scarf and jacket when a man calls my name.  He leads me down a conventional hospital corridor as I wonder whether I’m in the presence of the doctor or the doctor’s assistant. Standard protocol as I’m accustomed to it in the States calls for a nurse to take all the vitals – weight, blood pressure, temperature – before admitting you to a small room and directing you to a padded recliner wrapped in a coffee filter before detailing the cause for your visit.  At which point they will leave you waiting another fifteen minutes for the doctor, who will ask you to repeat yourself.

I follow my mystery man into an exam room which looks indistinguishable from any other I’ve known, barring that this room is twice the size of most and boasts a full-size desk in the corner.  The coffee-filter recliner is present, but I’m directed to take the chair caddy-corner to his own, allowing us to speak eye-to-eye.  He introduces himself as my doctor and doesn’t take my vitals, but listens patiently as I explain my concerns. He makes inquiries and, with permission, examines the rash around my eyebrow that I’ve come about, before offering some suggestions. He’s unhurried and attentive, but the conversation wraps in under fifteen minutes. With my agreement on a course of treatment, he types up a list and prints out a prescription on the spot, offering it to me with the advise that I can take it to any pharmacy to be filled. No need to worry about who accepts what insurance – Scotland has universal healthcare.

On my way out, I notice the route is funneling me toward the exit. Since I’ve paid nothing for the visit, I retreat back to reception and ask what I owe. The attendant looks mildly confused and asks for my birthdate to pull my file. “You’re in the system as a regular patient,” she says. “Do you usually pay for coverage?” “No,” I return, altogether untruthfully. “I just wanted to be sure.” I walk out the door without ever cracking my wallet.  I cross the street and turn over my prescription to the first pharmacist I encounter.  Minutes later he places a small paper bag in my hands and thanks me for coming in.  The cash register doesn’t even get a word in.  It feels unnatural to enter a venue and acquire new things, then walk out the door without trimming the waist of my wallet, but the man in the lab coat seems happy to let me go.

The afternoon now free, I decide to return home by a circuitous route.  I pass the discount store, Aldi’s, on my right. They are a small box store about the size of a mini mart in the States, and their prices are unbeatable. I usually get my bulk items there, like crumpets, vegetables and cheese, along with a few signature items like garlic dough balls. I wish that my home town in the U.S. had discount grocers as well stocked as this. One novelty of the British market experience is that they do not employ baggers. At Aldi’s, the cashier rings you up and then waits for you to transfer your purchases to a nearby convenience counter where you can load them at leisure. Many stores unfortunately neglect this feature, so bagging can be a bit of a trial. Seasoned professionals streamline this process, making it seem easy, but an inexperienced bagger like myself tends to fumble it up while customers still in cue look on impatiently. I imagine most Scots have perfected the art through a lifetime of practice.

city road

My supplies are in good standing for now, so I carry on down City Road until I arrive at Lade Braes.  I stroll beneath an umbrella of rustling red, yellow and gold through which the sunlight dapples the ground, inhaling medicinal breaths of the musty damp earth.  The path trickles along beside the Botanical gardens and tiptoes between homes.   I study the back gates of every abode, as each bears its own unique name.  Nameplates I pass pronounce the likes of Monkswood, the Red House, Ladybrand and Netherburn.  Benches along the way are marked with dedications to others who have chased faeries down this path, before.

Gradually I arrive back in town and come to Topping and Co., a bookstore I discovered through the St. Andrews’ writer’s club.  It is the bookseller of my dreams, or possibly a JK Rowling novel. The front room hosts an actual fireplace, and the walls are literally lined with books, with ladders set against them for ease of access. The store is narrow at the front, but branches at the back into a series of alcoves arranged by subject. I lounge in the Philosophy section and a member of staff pops his head in to ask if I fancy a complimentary cup of tea. American proprietors take note. I decline the libation, however, as the clouds are rolling in and the pub is calling.

toppingandco

I wander back along St. Mary’s Place and let myself through the doors of the Blue Stane. (A “stane”, google explains to me, is a stone.) Straight across from the entrance is a large, ornate bar, with wood-paneled dining rooms to either side. It’s still fairly empty at this hour, so I drape my coat over my favorite booth at the bay window before heading up to the bar to place my order. When my brother was visiting we sat at this spot and played one of the table top games the venue keeps for its patrons, but today I’m here to sample the seasonal menu: a delicacy known as “mulled wine”. It’s a wine mixed with honey and spices and served hot, resembling something like a hard apple cider.

16 blue stane

The mulled wine warms me from the inside-out, until I’m fortified for the brisk walk home. In most of Europe, there’s no pressure to make way for other patrons, so you’re at leisure to linger. The only downside is that the servers can be just as leisurely with the bill. I manage to flag one without issue, however, and he approaches my booth with a handheld credit card reader. These are ubiquitous in Scotland, so I’m told, because consumer protections require that the customer not be parted from their card. The server thus hands over the machine and I swipe without breaking contact. The device enthusiastically pumps out a receipt which the server procures for me.  I take it, nodding my gratitude.  “Cheers,” I rejoin him in impeccable Scottish.  I’m going to miss saying that.  Or at least not getting weird looks for it.

 

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Worldwise; Beyond St. Andrews

According to travelersdigest.com, the “southern tip of England to the northern end of Scotland would stretch from Los Angeles to the Oregon border”. I was born in central California and have family throughout the southern half of the state, but rarely visit there from my home in the northern half. It’s funny, because during the course of my year abroad I didn’t hesitate to travel that distance just to take in a show in London or eat in a pub once patronized by an infamous author. If there is one thing about the United Kingdom that gives it the edge as a destination (or platform for taking over the world, as it happens) it’s that it’s a central launching pad to the whole of greater Europe. In the same amount of time it would take an American to travel from one state to the next, you can be in another country, immersed in a different culture entirely. From Edinburgh airport it’s a ~1 hour flight to Ireland or Norway, around two hours to Paris or Munich, and around three to parts of Italy and Spain. And the rise of budget airlines mean you can book such a flight for a couple hundred, on average, and find deals for significantly less. If your dates are flexible, it’s not unheard of to find flights under $50 (you’ll pay a premium for extra luggage, but at least you’re not going far).  And there’s always international rail if you prefer leg room.

My mother was able to visit me when I did a semester in London back in 2009, but this time my brother and dad managed to join the party as well. It was the first time we were able to converge on British soil, and I was more than a little eager to show them everything I loved about my second home. We started the tour in London, where I finally got to introduce my brother to his first double-decker bus and drag the whole family on a stroll through St. James’ Park, Westminster, Leadenhall Market, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the haunting Tower of London. And of course we spent Christmas Eve in a church – the church pub on Muswell Hill, specifically.

from the top of St Paul's

Perhaps in penance for our impropriety, we had take-out for Christmas dinner.  It turns out the whole of London comes to a grinding halt for Christmas and Boxing Day, which is basically Christmas Part II.  As the Underground agent explained it to us clueless Americans at the deserted tube station: “Even the devil needs a holiday.” After Christmas we caught a short flight up to Edinburgh where we toured the castle and St. Giles Cathedral, sampled Scottish whiskey on the Royal Mile, browsed the still active Christmas market, hiked up Arthur’s seat, and dined in the beautiful port of Leith. Finally we departed for my hometown of St. Andrews, making a pit-stop in Dunfermline (as charming as it unpronounceable) to see the Red Hot Chilli Pipers in concert. After a brief respite, we rented a car in Dundee and traveled up through the Scottish Highlands, all the way to Inverness in the northern tip, before returning to St Andrews via Fort William to see the actual Loch Ness, and Urquhart Castle.

loch ness

My brother stuck around for a bit after our parents had to depart, so we escorted them to Edinburgh and saw them off at Waverly station. To cheer ourselves up, we climbed the 288 steps to the top of the Walter Scott monument, one of the central icons of Edinburgh, and took in a 360 panorama view of the city. We were so delighted with this success, we returned to London to take on the 528 steps of St Paul, before continuing west. London is just an hour and a half east of Salisbury by rail, which is the site of the Salisbury cathedral and cloisters; a structure only spared during the war because the magnitude of its 404 foot spire became a reference point for German bombers.  The 700+ year old site is also where one of the original copies of the Magna Carta resides, and just a short bus ride from the mysterious standing stones of Stone Henge. It is always a strange experience to look upon something you have seen countless times through a screen and know it for the first time with your own eyes. A place, just like a person, can take on an aura of celebrity and fill one with wonder at having brought themselves to intersect with that miniscule set of coordinates on the planet where it truly and three-dimensionally exists. Such are the thoughts I, at least, experienced at the site of it. That and, “Great Scot, this flindrikin snell is pure baltic!” (It’s cold.)

In fact, we were so chilled to the core that we decided to make the next stop on our map a little closer to the equator, and headed for Spain. We landed in Barcelona where I got robbed straight off the bus (traveler’s tip: no one is surprised when you get robbed in Barcelona) and spent a full day bouncing between the Spanish police and the US consulate.  This misfortune rather blinded me to Barcelona’s better attributes, but a luxurious stint on the Spanish rail soon found me drowning my sorrows in chocolate-dipped churros, traipsing through the fortress of Gibralfaro and snapping photos in the stunning cathedral of Malaga. We also glutted ourselves on Moroccan cuisine in addition to Spanish tapas, as Morocco is just across the Gibraltar strait from southern Spain!

dining moroccan

After my brother left, things got back to normal for a little while in sleepy St. Andrews, but my friend Michelle showed up soon enough to sort that right out. It being her first foray into the United Kingdom, as well, we made the rounds of Edinburgh and London, revisiting past delights and discovering new ones. We traveled to Birmingham to see one of my favorite productions of London’s West End (England’s Broadway), had lunch in Leadenhall, sampled the hot cider at Borough Market, shopped in the bohemian paradise of Camden, and took the Harry Potter studio tour; a sort of Hogwart’s museum where all the original sets and props are interred.

During our visit to London there was a terrorist attack at Westminster, which we were fortunate to have narrowly avoided due to a last minute itinerary change. Regrettably it meant that Westminster was shut down during most of our stay, but it reopened just before her departure. I had tickets to the symphony at Central Hall in Westminster that night which I was determined to attend, having been infected with London’s characteristic defiance in the face of adversity. After the performance, I took the opportunity to visit the site of recent tragedy and multitudinous joys. The Westminster Clock Tower (or “Big Ben” as it’s colloquially called after the giant bell at its center) may be my favorite world icon. My soul has always warmed at the site of its glowing golden edifice and rich, melodic tone, and it is always difficult for me to tear myself away, never knowing when I may see it again. There is an old photograph of my mother standing on the bridge, the rail connecting her to the imposing clock behind watching over the scene like a dignified grandparent.  It made the clock a character in my narrative long before I knew it in person.  I walked here often during my semester in London, and traversed the spot with my entire family over the holiday not three months prior. It was important for me to return to the site to pay my respects and put aside the specter of the tragedy before saying goodbye.

Mike arrived the following month. Like my brother, this was Mike’s first excursion into foreign lands, so he wanted to cover as much ground as possible. After making the standard rounds, we reasoned we could squeeze in at least one other country, and he craved an experience even more undecipherable than the Scots. We compared our bucket-lists and opted for a place neither one of us had been, and were soon departing Edinburgh airport for Venice. A child of the forest, I never thought I could like anyplace as ungreen as Italy’s Venician pearl, but it was a number of days before I stumbled into a greenspace and realized it had been lacking. Venice’s sprawling island of stone is so intricately and artistically designed that I forgot that I was surrounded by a man-made civilization. We happily lost ourselves in the labyrinth of alleyways for hours to a soundtrack of carillon and accordion, navigating a stream of footbridges across a network of canals and stumbling, unsuspecting, into sprawling plazas with sky-scraping belltowers.  Included among the latter was the illustrious Campanile di San Marco after which my own campus’ iconic clock tower was patterned. Berkeley’s Campanile will always be my favorite feature of the campus, but seeing the Campanile of San Marco leaves little mystery as to its influential impact. Even the splendor of the St Mark’s Basilica at its feet could not diminish it. The otherworldly singularity of this Italian world made me feel like I’d slipped through a rabbit hole into some kind of wonderland, and all for less than the cost of a road-trip between SF and LA.

venice

With so much traveling under my belt, I was tempted to cocoon myself in my cottage and hibernate for the remainder of my stay, but I knew that I would regret it when I was looking back at my lost opportunities from across the Atlantic. So I charted a plan for my last hurrahs. It took me Canyoning in the exquisite Scottish wilderness of Perthshire, to seeing Daniel Radcliffe perform live on a London stage, to walking across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol (and getting walloped by a heat wave – thank goodness for universal healthcare). I went fossil-hunting on the “Jurassic Coast” of Charmouth, and slept in a former monastery called Monkton Wyld. I wandered down meandering walking paths in the historic river town of Durham, and woke up to a sheep herder herding sheep across the evergreen hills in a remote region of the Lake District – the getting to of which was a blog in itself! I booked a trip across the Glenfinnian viaduct on the Jacobite; one of the last running steam trains in Scotland (and inspiration for the Hogwarts Express), and along the way explored the Scottish cities of Stirling and Glasgow. I found my way to the top of Stirling Old Town, along the scenic Back Walk, and across the River Forth to the Wallace monument. I fell in love with Glasgow when I was greeted by the Scottish band, Clanadonia, and laid eyes on the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. I toured the 95 year old tall ship, the Glenlee, strolled through Kelvingrove park, and made a special visit to the hairy cows of Pollok Park, in honor of Hamish who I met on the brief excursion in 2009 that first inspired me to come back to Scotland.

Thank you, Hamish. It’s been an adventure of global proportions.

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Surviving the British Buffet (This Post Will Make You Hungry)

Remember when you were a kid and everything you put in your mouth was a new experience?  It’s not too late to relive it.

Britain has a reputation for terrible food, and I’m not sure where that comes from. What I will say, though, is that British foods don’t tend to travel the same distances that American foods do, and I suspect this reduces the amount of additives and preservatives injected for shelf life.  In the States, you can hardly find a salad dressing or tomato sauce without sugar added, and salt intake is on the high end even if you don’t own a shaker. British foods, on the other hand, are pretty much “season to taste,” which requires a trifling amount of effort but actually works out rather well if, like me, you’re also starting to realize how shamefully inept you are at the most basic fundamentals of feeding yourself. I’m actually more than a little proud that I’m learning to strike that precarious balance between seethingly bland and plate-of-pure-salt.

 

a proper british pub spread

A proper British pub spread.

 

The trade-off in Britain is that while perishables perish, they also tend to be RIDICULOUSLY fresh when you buy them. Like, right off the farmer’s wheelbarrow and into your kitchen. I’m starting to suspect that the myth of terrible British food is contrived to keep secret the mouthwatering deliciousness of things.  I do suspect that because foods tend to be fresher and less pre-saturated with flavourings, the British may have a slightly subtler palate. American brands compete for customers with increasingly outrageous combinations (chocolate-chip sausage, anyone?) which I suspect has conditioned our tastebuds to have a very high tolerance and a very low comprehension for more nuanced tastes. The Brits, on the flip side, are unaccustomed to such explosions of flavor and can appreciate a milder experience. (Then again, I notice that they do have a thing for chili spice, which I guess is how they get their kicks.)

I can also say that Britain isn’t likely the easiest place to be vegan or vegetarian. I have observed vegetarian and gluten-free options on products and menus, but on the whole the cornerstone of the British diet is heavily geared to dairy, grains, and meat. By far the most oft-found foods are some form of meat or dairy food in a pastry. There are meat pies, pasties, sausage rolls, Scottish eggs, macaroni pies… more combinations than I can wrap my head around, and all of them infuriatingly delicious. It’s set my efforts to reduce my grain intake back decades. Regrets? Undetermined.

 

scotch eggs.JPG

Scotch eggs.

 

One of the things that I missed the most when I arrived here was Hickory Farm’s summer sausage, but a favorite British dish of mine is “Bangers & Mash”: three hefty sausages crowning a simple plate of mashed potatoes and gravy.  I finally took it upon myself to ask the server what kind of sausages they served, which turned out to be Cumberland, and was thus elated to discover these at the market. Cumberland sausages are pre-seasoned with a distinctive combination of herbs and spices, and these have become my staple summer-sausage-substitute.  I would happily stock each, but I fear I may have a harder time reverting than converting.

 

bangers and mash

Bangers and mash.

 

Back in the States, I also liked to keep a block of cheddar in the fridge to slice up for an easy afternoon snack. When I made my first grocery run in the UK, I looked at the cheddar askance. There were no brands I was familiar with, and the blocks were labeled, “Mild” or “Mature” – not “Medium” and “Sharp” as I was used to. Were these equivalent? Would “Mature” have a weird flavor?  I chanced it and bit into my first slice with trepidation, fearing a waste of a good fiver. As the taste hit my tongue, my face reflexively grimaced; it was immediately clear that this was not the cheddar of my experience.

And then the second wave of flavor hit my tongue… little neurons of new information exploding ecstatically into my brain. My eyes widened. I paused mid-bite, savoring the developing taste sensation. It reminisced of something I’d once sampled from a fancy platter of delicatessen cheeses I could never afford. But this was just a common-variety block of cheddar purchased for a few pounds from the bottom shelf of the local grocer. I quickly ensconced another chunk between the roof of my mouth and tongue, lingering on my newfound luxury as the voice of British claymation star Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, burst into my memory espousing the virtues of cheese. Suddenly it stopped being silly.

 

butter and cheddar

Butter and cheddar.

 

A similar thing happened with the butter. “It’s just butter,” you’d think. But let me tell you: in Britain, the butter is so delectable you add the bread to it. Butter in the States is erroneously called “Sweet Cream,” but never have I confused it with anything I would consider sweet until it had been compensated by much sweeter ingredients. Your run-of-the-mill square of Scottish butter is another story. Add a pat of it to the plainest bread slice and poof!  Instant decadence.  I’d been prattling fanatically about the cheese and butter to my family over the phone when my mum stumbled across a relevant passage in a book she was reading called “The Cafe by the Sea” by Scottish author Jenny Colgan:

Colton’s face was comical to watch. If Flora, as a massive cheese fanatic, had adored Fintan’s creation, it was nothing to how a man raised on American cheese and finally tasting something so full and bursting with flavor and richness and full-bodied depth and nuttiness was going to react.  “Good God in heaven,” he said eventually… Colton cut himself a thick wedge, then another…  For a time there was no sound except for some slightly orgasmic noises.  “My God,” said Colton eventually.  “I mean, my God. I mean.”

“Taste the butter,” said Flora evilly.

The motto of the American market seems to be “fast and cheap;” perhaps an unfortunate artifact of the magnitude of our population and economy. But the Scots do things a little differently. A bit of googly sleuthing turned up this article on thekitchn.com which says that European butter is cultured, churned, and allowed to ferment longer, resulting in the festival of complexity on your tongue. I’d imagine the cheese-making process is similar. Dairy products, in general, seem to be something you can depend on for happiness.  You might have heard that if you haven’t had proper European chocolate then you simply haven’t had chocolate. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true. I thought I was above that crutch until a friend introduced me to the real stuff, and now a day is incomplete without a few squares of Lindt with my shortbread (a crumbly, buttery cookie) and tea.

 

chocolate and shortbread

Chocolate and shortbread.

coffee on the road

Coffee on the road

 

I’ve blathered before about my obsession with crumpets, and I’ll blather some more. The pleasure of a crumpet, as I recently lamented to my mum, is almost not worth the sacrifice of finishing it; the flavors still dancing away on your taste buds as you stare at the now tragically empty plate. I call this “crumpet remorse,” and I subject myself to it daily.  The U.S. is SERIOUSLY missing out on these things, and I can’t for the life of me fathom why. Instead, in the States we stock their outrageously inferior cousin, the “English Muffin.” They may appear similar, but English Muffins are dense, dry and taste in my expert opinion like compressed cardboard. Crumpets, on the other hand, are light, airy, porous, buoyant squishy sponges of flavourful fun.  Whatever you put on them, the bread absorbs it so that the entire muffin is thus infused.  When I return to the grievously-deprived States, I may leave my clothes in favor of a carton of crumpets.

How to crumpet: As I understand it, most Scots just ready it in the toaster like your ordinary slab of wheat, but since I like to fry up an egg and sausage for breakfast, I toss the crumpets into the skillet as well. The result is a soft and spongy concoction on the inside with an outwardly crispy crunch. Personally I like to top one off with a square of salted butter and (optionally) a smidge of jam. I lay a fried egg over the other and nibble on my jammy crumpet while I melt a slice of Scottish cheddar in the still-hot skillet. As soon as that’s soft, I pour it over the egg and nip into the most delicious anti-mcmuffin you could imagine.

When they hear you’ve been to the UK, Americans will love to ask: “How was the food?” in tones that sounds more in line with the question, “How was the toothache?” If you ever have the pleasure of the answer, be sure to tell them it’s terrible. More wealth for the rest of us.

 

dining in the UK.JPG

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How to Get Around (Europe) Without a Car

One thing that may come as a shock to a car culture like the States, is that cars are not necessarily the primary mode of transport in other parts of the world. In Europe, most places are just as accessible by rail as car. My mum and I will never forget what a great time we had taking the cross country rail from London to Oxford in ’09. There was a surplus of unoccupied space and we were able to walk around, explore the dining car, and find a seat to ourselves with plenty of leg room from which to enjoy the gorgeous English landscape scrolling by. The rail service in the UK is dynamic, and rail travel is usually comparable time-wise to commuting by car, when it isn’t faster. On the down side, you have to share space with strangers and relinquish some control of the schedule and route, but the upshot is you can kick back and take in the sights, read or get work done all without worrying about navigating unfamiliar terrain, contending with traffic lights or congestion, or the driver of an oncoming vehicle being drunk or incapacitated at the drop of a life-threatening second.  But in 2009 I spent more time on the London subway, aptly known as “the Tube,” than on the international rail service, and I’ve learned a lot more this time around about the finer nuances of rail travel.

 

london underground

London Underground.

 

Admittedly, it got off to a rocky start. The railway doesn’t go directly to my Scottish hometown of St Andrews, so you have to book into a little town called Leuchars and then take a short bus ride from there. I figured this much out with the help of Google Maps, but when I was standing in the middle of the flurry of activity that is Edinburgh Gateway, I couldn’t find Leuchars anywhere on the Departures display. I didn’t realize that the display typically broadcasts the final destination, and Leuchars was just a minor port en route to Dundee. Unlike flights, train routes aren’t identified by number so a familiarity with the geography is terrifically useful; a fact which is perfectly useless to a foreigner like myself.  Googling every place on the board to see if it lined up with my stop seemed unrealistic, so I consulted the person at the information desk. Unfortunately this well-meaning individual was as deficient in the commodity his counter advertised as I was in British geography, and he hesitatingly directed me to platform 16 with the caveat that I should ask someone else. That someone else consulted a chart and rerouted me to platform 18, which I was delighted to overtake before it had entirely evaded me. But I could still find nothing posted to assure me that I was in the right place, so I applied to one of the train’s operators for confirmation.  To my dismay he shook his head and told me I wanted 14! Exiting the carriage, I dragged my luggage to the nearest bench and had only time enough to eject an enormous sigh when that same operator came running to inform me of his mistake; that this train would indeed take me where I wanted to go.

Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then.

Now when I take the train, I look it up on the Departures display according to the time. I then google the route to see what the end destination is and confirm that I’m on the right track. You can also ask a staff person at the ticket counter or turnstile, as they are typically better informed than my inaugural string of failures had implied.  (The information changes constantly, so it’s remarkable that a massive operation such as this functions as fluidly as it does, on the whole.)  If Google shows my stop on the route headed to the place name displayed, I check the platform number and make my way to it. Usually another display at the platform has a list of all the destinations the train will be “calling at” and I can reaffirm that my stop is in the list, but since the display rotates you do have to know where to look.

 

St Pancras International Rail Station

St Pancras International Rail Station.

 

Train tickets can be purchased at the time of travel, subject to what’s available, or in advance from ticket booths at the station or online. Advance ticket prices don’t necessarily increase as the time looms nearer, as with airline tickets, unless seats on a targeted route are particularly popular. Sometimes you can get advance tickets at a great price just a day before departure or even on the day of travel. But if seats are selling out, then prices do go up and the cost ranges dramatically. When I tried to change a ticket that I’d purchased for a little over 20 pounds the day before I was to travel, the only remaining seats were over 70 pounds. Alterations in travel cost a 10 pound fee and can only change time of departure but not destination, so my options were to increase the cost of my ticket to 80 pounds or swallow the expense of the original ticket and purchase cheaper ones on a different route. In my case, the direct line from Durham to Leuchars had spiked, but I could still get a cheap 10 pound ticket to Edinburgh and a connecting train to Leuchars just a half hour later, so I scrapped my original ticket and paid another 20 pounds, which still came to half that of the alternative.

 

London Paddington Station

London Paddington Station.

 

Tickets purchased at the counter on the day of travel are typically the most expensive. It’s also important to watch out for what type of ticket you buy, as some are good for the specified train only, where others are flexible – but these, too, have restrictions. At one point I purchased a so-called “Anytime Ticket” for my return. This should allow me to take any train traveling to my destination along a similar route, but I failed to realize that it was good for one day only, so when I attempted to return the next day I found the turnstile unresponsive to my ticket. The attendant sent me to the ticketing agent and I had to purchase a new ticket at twice the cost of my original one. Not a fun thing to do.  On the other hand, if you buy an “Open Return” then the date, too, is flexible, but you’re limited to “off-peak” trains, or anything not running at rush hour.

 

Baker Street Station

Baker Street Station

 

Another thing to be aware of is that the trains leave at the time specified, so you actually want to be on board well before that, if possible. Sometimes the trains don’t actually arrive at the platform until a minute or two before departure, but often they arrive well in advance. You should aim to be at the station at least twenty minutes early and then use the Departures board to determine if your train has been assigned a platform. If it has, make your way there to board or await its arrival (one train I’d awaited over an hour came and went in the time it took me to descend a short flight of stairs).

 

British countryside seen from the train

British countryside seen from the train.

 

Most seats aren’t reserved in advance and even when they are they are not guaranteed. If you order online you are sometimes given the option to request seating preferences (which is awesome, as you can specify everything from which direction you’re facing to noise levels), but availability varies according to the train and seats left, and sometimes things just don’t work out. In one case I had reserved seating on a carriage of the train that was separated from the rest of the carriages due to a fault, forfeiting any existing reservations on that carriage. Another time, I had reserved a window seat at a table, but arrived to a very full train and the discovery that all other seats at the table were taken and I would be locked into a corner. I didn’t have far to go, so I opted to stand by the door at the end of the carriage. As I was doing so, the trolley cart guy (did I mention trains have snack trolleys?) who was awaiting his shift suddenly folded another seat down from the wall, and I realized that I had one, as well. It was slightly less luxurious but a lot more comfortable than the reservation, in that case.  So things mostly work out, after all.

 

Dunkeld and Birnam Station 2

Dunkeld and Birnam Station.

 

The trains themselves vary pretty dramatically. Since they can be driven in either direction, most, but not all, have seats facing in both directions, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get stuck with a backward-facing seat. On one train I observed a couple relocate to another carriage in order to be facing forward, only to have the train reverse course at the station causing them to be facing backwards again!  For most people the direction doesn’t make much difference, except that we’re used to seeing where we’re going rather than where we’re coming from. The trains also have a limited number of tables and outlets, which is why it’s worth attempting to reserve or arrive early to claim one, but newer models are better equipped and, after all, cars don’t have outlets at all.

 

My brother enjoying the luxuries of first class

My brother enjoying the luxuries of first class.

 

When my brother was visiting, I was booking a trip from Salisbury to London when the agent offered me an upgrade to First Class for just a few extra pounds. Typically the price difference is considerably more, so I opted to accept this once. It was so atypical that I completely forgot about it when we boarded the train, and was fortunate that the conductor who checked our tickets was kind enough to point it out and redirect us to the elite carriage. There was only a single other occupant in First Class, so it was extraordinarily quiet compared to the rest of the train. Every chair had a table and outlet, and the seats were plated with gold. Okay, scratch the last bit, but the former are certainly a luxury I don’t scoff at. It was so peaceful and accommodating, I had no trouble knocking out a chunk of my To Do list while the country sped quietly by beneath my feet. When I finally strike it filthy rich, this will definitely be my preferred mode of transport. Here’s hoping this new wave way to travel picks up steam sometime in the States.

 

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A Day in the Scottish Life

I have a Scottish address.

I wake up under two slanted skylights on the wood-paneled A-frame ceiling above my loft, through which Saint Andrews usually serves me a blue sky and fast-flowing clouds drifting like sea foam toward the ocean, only a minute’s walk east.  A chorus of seagulls and other small birds surf the sea breeze or roost on the narrow chimney tops of these old British homes.  My loft stays fairly warm, but I pull on a robe and slippers before descending the stairs.  Since my rental is part of a much larger structure not originally intended for multiple-occupant residency, the carved wood banister and plush navy carpet puts the square white plaster and brown tweed flooring of my every past apartment to shame.

after first full paragraph 2

There are lots of doors in these old British homes, which I think is designed to better insulate and control the heat, but it also optimizes sound insulation and privacy between various parts of the small structure, as well as providing added fire safety.  So at the foot of the stairs I open a beautiful glass-paned door into the hall, which leads to a little foyer on the right and a bathroom to the left.

Foyers seem to be a common staple to these old homes.  Walking around town, I see a lot of front doors framed in small pop-out rooms extending from the primary structure, usually abundant with windows – like a small green house for people.  I assume that the household packs into these rooms on sunny days to optimize their vitamin D intake.

glass foyer

A glass foyer.

My mail comes through a slot in the front door.  This may be “a thing” in some parts of the States, but as a Californian it’s completely new to me, and I love it.  Sure it barricades the door and I have to step over it when I come through, but if I’m inside already it’s just added insulation.  Best of all, there’s no need to tromp through the elements for statgecoach-era communication!  Speaking of which, my community is highly communicative.  I’m not absolutely sure if other places I’ve lived are not or if their communications just got lost in the glut of spam mail.  Which is another thing I love about Britain: you can legally refuse spam mail.  When I attempted to do this in the States I was informed that the U.S. post is required to deliver every article even if it’s addressed to “Resident.”  Although I’m opposed to passively endorsing this waste on principle, I was completely powerless to stem the tide.  In Scotland, I can just put up a little sticker on the slot specifying, “Addressed Mail Only, Please” and voila – no more spam!  I was extremely excited to purchase one but since there’s no consumer bread crumb trail established yet for corporations to follow to me, or because they’re just less overbearing in general, I haven’t been compelled to employ it.  Besides, I’m afraid that it might deflect the community mailings, which I quite enjoy.

The bathroom at the other end of the hall is a proper bathroom with full bath as well as toilet, but most Brits will scoff if you refer to a room without a bath as a “bathroom,” since what we would call “half baths” in the States are really just a toilet (and they call them as such, as well as the “Lavatory,” the “Gents” or my personal favorite, “The Loo”).  And if you’re ever abroad and looking for a public toilet, you might try the door labeled “WC” and hope it’s a Wash Closet and not the private carriage of a Wembley Cockfoster or Wimpleton Cumblebutt.  A “Wash Closet” is another name for the Loo, and a common identifier throughout Europe.

Straight across the hall from the bottom stair is another door leading to the kitchen, so I pad across the slate tile floor in my slippers and fire up the electric kettle.  Electric kettles are to British homes what coffee pots are to American ones.  Everyplace I’ve stayed within the UK, be it hotel, b&b or cabin in the wilderness, came equipped at minimum with an electric kettle and tea fixings.  You can acquire a conventional coffee maker, but they don’t come standard since not everyone drinks it.  This is fine, however, since I’ve lately discovered that percolated coffee is kind of crap, thanks to a devious friend who cured my disinterest in the stuff by gifting me with a fancy French Press.  Back home I’d taken to bringing the water to boil in an old fashioned tea pot, but the ordinarily patient Brits drink such copious amounts of hot beverages that they can’t be bothered to wait, so electric kettles it is.  And they do come in handy.  Mine sounds like a miniature jet engine taking off, but I depress the small pedal at its base and then exit the room, closing the door and sealing the bulk of the noise pollution behind me.  I then attend to my morning necessities, and when I return a few minutes later the kettle is silent and the water is steaming.  I scoop some coffee into a cheap press I acquired on Amazon, pour the water and seal, allowing it to steep for a few minutes while I wash the dishes.  My kitchen sink overlooks a very British view, with a tiny courtyard framed by the stucco wall of a neighboring courtyard to the left, the back of a cobblestoned structure across, and my own entry at right, with a wash-line and small tree framed at center.

kitchen window

The kitchen view.

I take my freshly pressed coffee back across the hall into the sitting room, where I enjoy the morning sun as the fog burns off.  In St Andrews, a typical day seems to include all kinds of weather.  It no longer concerns me if it’s suddenly raining when it was sunny ten minutes before, as odds are it will be sunny again before I next remember to look up from my work.  I once experienced three showers interspersed with dazzling sunlight over the course of an hour.

After I’ve had my coffee and caught up on my favorite web comics, I head back to the bathroom and give the pull switch right inside the door a tug.  This turns on the water to the electric shower, though it doesn’t start running until I switch on the heating mechanism, itself.  The heating element is encased in a plastic structure attached to the wall, and as soon as I depress the “on” button the water pours forth and the water is heated internally.  Since the water is heated on demand, there’s no need to keep water in a tank constantly boiling, and there’s no possibility of running out of hot water – a particularly nice feature in any communal living space.  It’s unclear to me why electric showers have never caught on in the States, since they’re quite common in other parts of the world.  My brother had a rather fraught encounter with them in Mexico, and they were standard at every stop of our family trip to Thailand.  Developing nations like these can lead to poor or dilapidated installations (leading to my brother getting a nice morning wake-up shock when he adjusted the temperature on the metal faucet) but the strict regulations in Britain rigidly separate the weak current from coming into contact with anything conductive, and a quick google search returned no alarming statistics related to shower incidents.

shower

The electric shower.

When it comes to my favorite features of the British home, however, radiators may have the edge: these are metal heaters warmed by steam, and typically placed throughout the house; my small apartment has a total of 7: one in the foyer, the hallway, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom, and two in the sitting room.  Towel bars are strategically placed directly above them in the kitchen and loo, so that wet towels have been merely a fading memory while I’ve lived here.  I can control the temperature of the radiators via the central control station in the kitchen, or adjust each one individually by the knob at its base.  The knobs each have a dial reading snowflake to fan; dials are typically set to the snowflake position when Scotlanders are away from home, so that a minimal amount of heat is maintained to keep pipes from freezing.  The opposite end of the spectrum indicates that the valve is fully opened for maximum heat.  I keep all but the radiator in the loft on max, and then manage the actual temperature of each simultaneously through the central heating system – a wall installation with a temperature dial and three functions: On, Off, and Timer.  The timer allows me to have the radiators come on before I get up in the morning, turn themselves off when I’m usually out of the house, and take the chill off again before I get home.  I initially thought this would be an incredibly useful feature, but since I get around mostly by walking, now, I tend to be a self-fueling furnace myself.  (Really cuts down on the heating bills.)  Switched on, the radiators pump heat at just the right temperature to rest your bum against without burning; also known as cat-magnet temperature; a fact which British cats exploit as you’d expect.

cat radiator

I dry off with my warm-and-toasty towel, slip into a polyester robe and slippers, and return to the kitchen. One of the hardships of transitioning to a new culture is adjusting to the different groceries available.  Somewhat surprisingly, differences persist even within the global market; one of the primary jobs of the controversial European Union, for example, is to make import goods more difficult than local ones to acquire.  Many brands available in the U.S. are branded differently in the U.K., making them difficult to search for or recognize on a shelf, but other more localized brands aren’t imported at all.  In my case, Dennisons canned chilli beans and Hickory Farm’s summer sausage were cornerstones of my diet that suddenly became unavailable.  But rather than dwelling on the inaccessible, it’s a good opportunity to discover similar delights that are exclusive to the host culture, so that you are primed to enjoy that same crushing state of dietary withdrawal in the reverse!  There can be no return to innocence from having known Scotch eggs (boiled eggs baked in breaded meat), cumberland (deliciously spiced) sausages, pasties (like commercial Hot Pockets but better), sausage rolls, macaroni pies (just as they sound), mulled (spiced) wine, sticky toffee pudding (ginger cake with hot toffee sauce), shortbread, and buttered CRUMPETS (to which english muffins are an inferior mongrel cousin, and no substitute).

crumpets with egg and jam

Crumpets with egg and jam.

Another delight of renting in the UK is that even budget apartments often come equipped with a dishwasher and clothes washer.  Some clothes washers even double as dryers (they flip on a switch) but most include a traditional clothesline for the purpose.  Due to space restrictions, the compact machines are generally installed in the kitchen or bathroom, and are often completely camouflaged among the cabinets.  I pull a load of clean clothes from the washer under my kitchen counter.  It’s too cold outside, yet, to take advantage of the clothes line, so I attire the household radiators in my various garments.  The house soon smells of clean laundary.  Within the hour I’ll be able to encase myself in a preheated shirt, socks and trousers (don’t call them pants in Britain unless you mean to have your audience imagining your underpants!).

laundry machine 2laundry machine 1

These old homes don’t come preinstalled with as many outlets as modern ones, but I’ve managed this with the use of powerstrips.  Cable internet also doesn’t seem to be common here, but my Broadband DHL gets about 40Mbps, which is as much as I ever got out of Comcast.  It’s also less expensive: I rent the phone line for £18.99 and pay £10.00 for Unlimited data, which comes to a monthly bill of about $37.50 USD.  I’m going to miss this when I leave.

I pop online now to order some take away (delivery or take-out for those of us from the States).  Websites like OrderTakeaway.co.uk and just-eat.co.uk make this absurdly easy.  I locate my venue in their directory and make my selections from the online menu. At checkout, I enjoy the convenience of another quirk of British life: residence-specific postal codes!  I don’t know how this works, but every time I need to fill in my postal address, web forms always start by asking for my postal code.  I plug in my post-code, which is a 7-character alphanumeric string, and upon entering that information, the webpage propogates the remainder of my address, right down to the name of the residence.  Since I’m in a complex, it only asks me to confirm my house number, which I select from a drop down list of my nearest neighbors.  Now if only this would catch on in the States.  I suppose there just aren’t enough numbers…

Deliveroo

Deliveroo- a popular food delivery service.

I select to pay by cash or card and within the hour there’s a knock at my door.  The take away service outsources the delivery to another company called Deliveroo.  What’s interesting is that these guys usually arrive by bicycle or moped, so I can only guess that the company employs staff in every neighborhood to maintain the efficiency I’ve observed.  The delivery person hands over my order with a brief exchange of pleasantries and departs, without waiting for a tip.  Since employers are required to pay a living wage without factoring in gratuity, tips are not expected.  The minimum wage in Scotland is about $9.30 USD, beating out the federal minimum in the US by over $2.00, even though cost of living is generally lower here.  The minimum wage hasn’t been raised in the States since 2009, whereas in Britain it’s gone up every year in the past decade.  What’s interesting about the absence of tipping culture is that servers aren’t obligated to be nice to customers in the hopes of netting a little extra.  The downside is that service doesn’t always come with a smile, but the upside is that when it does it’s typically genuine.  My Deliveroo drivers always seem pretty happy with their lot in life which, in my view, makes the interaction feel less exploitative and more positive all around.

I could really get used to this life.

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Housing Hiccups & the Scottish Rental Market

Here’s the thing about defeat: it doesn’t exist until you’re dead.  (Or if you’re a video game character, not even then.)  Defeat is just a trial leading to an error that informs you what not to do next time, for as many next times as you need until you strike upon a winning combination.  So here’s a little story of a recent pothole in the road of life, and how that’s panning out for me now.

I never intended to commit myself to the rabbit hole of student housing again.  Before I applied, I inquired with the department as to whether it would be suitable for an adult re-entry student with certain (apparently special) needs.  They were not forthcoming with information, either on the accommodations themselves or the pursuit of alternatives.  Through my own research I determined that renting privately would be impossible for a person of my means without being present in the target continent, given silly in-person restrictions like proving my corporeal existence.  So I decided to take shelter at the university as a starting point, hoping not to begin my Scottish residency on a cobble-stoned curbside.  This logic, it turned out, was perfectly reasonable and utterly impotent.  The university department of housing is a for-profit operation designed to fill as many rooms as possible with as many foreign students as possible (tuition is free to Scottish residents) and then to point to the dreaded Terms of Service (TOS) as proof of their ownership should you be sideswiped by this data.  That little note in the body of the email about a cancellation period, it turns out, refers to a 7 day window that begins as soon as you accept the offer from the safety of your home continent, several months prior to arrival.  The fallout of this is that you are locked into a living arrangement – year long, in my case – sight unseen and situation unknown.  I discovered all of this when I announced my departure within the hour of my arrival and became embroiled in a protracted battle to gain access to anyone with the authority to do better than throw their hands up and deny any authority.  This was my happy introduction to the town, the country, and the university I’d sought after for years.  It was a hostile welcome, particularly to a ragged wanderer who’d just jettisoned all manner of security, familiarity, and home comforts.

 

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The shoebox.

 

The appointed Rational Decision Maker of the housing department, as it happens, was heavily fortified behind a boss dungeon of detours and misdirections.  Repeated assurances that I would be contacted went unfulfilled for weeks until finally I was retroactively informed that a representative had conversed with me without ever revealing his relation to the department.  Needless to say, I did not avail the anonymous man as to my housing concerns.  The well-oiled engine of the adult world is missing some pivotal screws! I worked meanwhile with a Student Advocate at the Student Union to assess my tenant rights and legal footing, and by the end of a month I at last managed to jam my foot in the door of the Wizard’s palace and communicate my appeal to the man behind the mask.  I had to trot out some highly personal information to make any headway against the TOS, but in the end I emerged victorious.  Score one for the little guy.  Literally.

And all of this is merely a preamble to the main point, which is this: I have leveled up, and the rewards are sweeter for the struggle overcome in obtaining them.  I have successfully navigated the Scottish housing market and secured shelter for myself in a foreign land.  I have repelled the dragons, defied the odds, and put down roots – and I go forward with the knowledge that these intimidating obstacles are conquerable.

Once free of my TOS tethers, I began my search for a new home at the UK’s Craiglist equivalent: Gumtree.  I soon had countless tabs open to various rental aggregate and agency’s sites.  In retrospect, for a small town like St. Andrews it may have been easier to simply pop in at the agencies in person, but I was under the impression from prior experience that it was better to rent from landlords directly, where possible.  This turned out to be a less accessible option, as the strict Scottish rental regulations encourage most private citizens to outsource that fuss and bother to the professionals.

In Scotland you don’t rent so much as “let,” although I have heard the terms used interchangeably.  (Similarly, an apartment is more commonly called a “flat”, though it can be called both.  I am not sure if there are nuanced differences to when the terms are appropriately employed.)  So most homeowners employ a “letting agent” who markets the rental and manages the considerable bureaucracy.  On a positive note, the regulations appear to be designed as much for the tenant’s protection as for the lettors and landlord.  While this is ostensibly the case in the States, it is more in evidence here by certain quirks of the Scottish system, such that deposits are held by an unbiased third party organization established specifically for the purpose of protecting rights and mitigating disputes.  This third party organization also oversees the walk-through assessment of the property before and after the tenancy.

One of the first things I discovered when I began my search was that many lettors state point-blank that they do not let to homewreckers, er, students.  Of course, the single-occupancy properties I was looking at appeal exclusively to singles and young persons of which students make up a majority, so many lettors preempted these applicants by stipulating “professionals and grad students only.”  This was particularly confounding to me because as a 30-something re-entry student I am neither a graduate nor a typical undergrad, and as a homebody I maintain my abode in fairly high standing.  Furthermore, although not presently employed I have ample professional experience, both freelance and office-based.  So I determined to emphasize my professional experience and minimize my student status when promoting myself to prospective lettors:

“Hello, I’m calling about the flat at 321 Northsouthwest Humperdink?”
“Are you a student or fully employed?”
“Um, yes.”

After a brief phone interview I was greenlighted for a viewing, so I set out in my least outrageous sweater pulled over a collared shirt, trying my best to look tweedish and teacherly.  All went smoothly until the agent responded to my inquiry about property tax.  “Oh, undergraduates are exempt, actually.  Are you an undergraduate?”
“Why, yes, I am!
Woops. Gratefully it was not held against me, though the particular property I was looking at was not specifically sacrificed at the alter of “student lets.”

Proceeding with the application process, the agent took my email and sent me a list of documents they would require.  These included landlord, employer and character references, along with proof of income and enrollment status.  It turned out to be fortuitous that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, since a financial aid document was the only proof of income I currently had.  I returned these things by email while reciting a silent mantra of thanks to whatever managerial spirit had seen to sparing the redundant requirement of a formal application.  There was a brief period of uncertainty when they inquired if I could provide local references and I cringingly confirmed that I could not.  To compensate for this deficit, I sent along some official letters of reference from former employers and waited on tinterhooks for a week or so, at which point an angelic choir of shoulder angels accompanied the happy announcement of my approval.

 

end 1 the trophy

furnished lets

 

Contrary to the informality of the application process, the walkthrough itself was considerably more formal than those I’ve undergone in the States.  When the woman from the third party organization met with me, she had already been through the property once with a fine tooth comb.  She then gave me a tour while pointing out the issues she had already found and documented.  I later received a copy of this comprehensive report, including photographs and notations on the condition of all aspects of the home, and was given a week from the time I moved in to submit corrections or additions.

One of the coolest discoveries I’ve made about renting in the UK is that it’s not at all uncommon to find a furnished rental.  There’s an option in every search filter for furnished housing, and no shortage of listings that meet this handy distinction.  Thanks to this, I was able to rent privately without having to worry about buying everything I would need for the home – a condition which would have either left me destitute or profoundly spartan.  So it was that my new home came with a double bed, bedding, couch, chairs, a television, and a fully equipped kitchen.  There was even some modest decor, which I was told I could put into storage if so desired.  Most of it is still scattered about the place, though, since clutter makes a home.  But I’ve also made my own contribution, of course, and at last have my revenge for the scrupulously decor-resistant dorm walls!

 

decor 2

decor 1

 

Prior to my departure from student housing, I had been warned that private letting in St. Andrews would be difficult and expensive.  Perhaps because I was looking after most of my fellow students had already settled in, I was fortunate to find a fair number of choices.  I also discovered that for a short bus ride out of town I could find housing for half the price of what it went for in St. Andrews.  I ended up taking a place within a 15 minute walk to the school – half the distance of the student apartments – and less than a 5 minute walk to the beach, for less than the cost of university accommodation.  Adding in private utilities, it came to about the same.  Suffice to say I was reasonably satisfied with the switch.

From start to finish, my experience renting in St Andrews was dramatically different than my last experience in the States.  Compared to St. Andrews, my home university has a student body of roughly 40,000 in a city with a population of over 100,000 in the excessively popular Bay Area of California, one of the most populous states in the nation.  Listed rentals are inundated with applicants within minutes, and the extremity of demand has prices skyrocketing and landlords clamoring to convert ANY unused space into an income source.  Most of what I looked at there was four white walls with a bed and a hotplate, some no bigger than a large closet.  They made me claustrophobic, and I have a history of living in trailers.  For all of that, the minimum monthly cost was still well over a thousand.  Due to this, I ended up commuting to school from a friend’s place about two hours north for the first four months of my university career, until at last I landed a little apartment an hour closer.  Even then, they said they had received hundreds of applicants within an hour of posting, and I was only fortunate enough to secure it by virtue of arriving at the open house early and with a binder of references.  So I just have to laugh when I hear people say that St. Andrews is a hard place to rent in.

Welcome home, wanderer.  I am living in Scotland!

 

end 2

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Welcome to the Wild, Bridled, Mid-West

On my first foray into the Scot lands in 2009, I stayed at a charming hostel perched on the edge of Loch Ness and hobnobbed with the venue management over drinks in the evening.  Inspired, as I recall, by a customer’s sordid tale, the bartender imparted to me a truism, as she implied, on Scottish temperament: if you fall and crack your head open on the curb, the Scots will pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way with a bandaid and a pat on the back.  I did not, of course, take this story literally.  But I did infer from it that the Scots were a laid back sort of people, warm but resilient and able to take a few knocks.  In a world of ever-growing restrictions in the name of public safety, I was attracted to the idea of a more relaxed climate and attitude toward personal responsibility.

When I was a wee whipper-snapper, my favorite playground equipment was a horizontal bar just high enough from the ground for me to do flips on.  Nowadays, at least where I come from, you’ll rarely see so much as a metal slide (burn hazard) much less anything you might risk cracking a skull on.  And the red tape isn’t limited to the little people; try to sit, stand or walk anyplace not strictly approved for the purpose and you’ll be yelled off on charges of “safety.”  I can only assume that this pattern of paranoia is a product of the lawsuit culture in the United States.  The “safety” really being referenced is the city or the property-owner’s protection from liability.  Even erroneous lawsuits are costly and damaging to reputation.  I was looking forward to living some place where the laws were a little more permissive and I could explore my environment without fear of being yelled off by the authorities.  After all, if I want to stand in the shower while drying my hair, that’s my right as an idiot.

At first blush, my intuition seemed sound.  As I was discussing job prospects with a local friend, he mentioned that Law was not a very lucrative discipline in Scotland, as there just isn’t enough work to be had in the field.  A fascinating idea, coming from a place where Law is considered an extremely responsible degree with excellent prospects.  So it is all the more confounding to discover that, far from the land of hard-knocks I had envisioned, Scotland is extraordinarily regulated.

The last time that I lived in school-accommodation, I was dumped into a small apartment with three other people and then immediately and entirely forgotten until the rent came due.  The contrast with my latest experience is enough to make you long for the days of administrative apathy for your existence.  In the Halls at St Andrews, not a week goes by that something isn’t being tested, inspected, handled and branded for safety regulation compliance.  It’s an active, ongoing cycle that can’t be buggered to back off while semester’s in session.  One day the porter needs access to inspect the fire equipment, another day it’s the ever-foreboding shower head that requires immediate investigation.  Cleaning inspections run monthly, and our adrenalin systems – that is, the fire alarms – are tested Every. Single. Tuesday. Morning.

Additionally, each semester an electrician requires permission to enter the premises and test every cord, contraption and cable that ever even dreamed of harboring an electric current.  He then glues a large purple sticker to each and every device lest it be caught horrifically naked and unstickered and summarily confiscated. From where I sat on the bed after the electrician had had his way with things, purple stickers could be seen adorning the television, television cables, refrigerator, dishwasher, thermostat, lamps, stove, tea kettle, and the kitchen sink.  (Okay, that last one was a bonus.)  And personal possessions were not immune: everything from my laptop to each individual mobile charger had been tagged.  It reminded me of an old roommate who used to put stickies on all of her property with the words, “Do Not Touch!” throughout the apartment.  I was discovering formerly unnoticed stickers for days.

 

a-storm-of-stickers

A storm of stickers.

 

But the height of the insanity snuck up, as it often does, in the wee hours of the night.  I was awoken one Tuesday morning to the soothing sound of an electric trill.  As I slowly drew myself up from the alternate universe of unconsciousness, I calculated the date.  Yes, it was Tuesday.  Fire alarm test.  The trilling stopped and I drifted back toward the siren call of blissful slumber.  The alarm sounded again and my eyes popped open, landing on it suspiciously.  I checked the time on my mobile: not yet 5am.  Was the system glitching?  Tripping a few hours too early?  Was this a real alarm?  I couldn’t smell smoke or hear screaming.  Most likely it was a glitch or a drill, but I hadn’t read anything on the noticeboard about the latter, so I had to prepare for the worst.  If I was going to be standing outside in the Scottish night for untold hours,  I’d need protection from the cold. I pulled on my jacket, shoes and hat.  Should I save anything?  I started to leave empty handed, then reconsidered and went back for my laptop – that way I could let my family know what was happening and keep busy until (something like) order resumed.  I proceeded cautiously, checking closed doors for heat, then finally exited the building.  I skirted the large crowd loitering just outside the door and put some distance between myself and the prospective inferno, looking back to search for signs of smoke.  I noted that no authorities had yet arrived, which I would expect even in the case of a false alarm.  Just as I was wondering how long we’d have to wait, I heard a voice announce from the crowd that we were free to return.  A drill.  It was all just a drill – a thing I have not experienced in twenty-odd years, and never in the dead of night.  And not just a drill, but a timed one.  The Warden was less than impressed.

Presumably, all this safety paranoia in the Halls stems from an administration in abject fear of over-protective parents, many of whom may hail from the lawsuit-happy U.S.  But the regulation-frenzy isn’t relegated to the Halls.  I had another surprise when I attempted to access a classy website catering exclusively to adult sensibilities on my mobile.  Mobile providers, and indeed internet providers as well, block any and all 18+ content by default.  Even high brow literature, such as I was plainly seeking, is not immune.  It’s not enough to be the authorized owner of a device – access to, shall we say, sophisticated content requires not only a manual change in the Account settings but the submission of a valid form of ID.  Since I don’t have a Scottish driver’s license and am opposed to censorship on principle, I had to proffer the exhaustively long serial number attached to my government-issued passport.  Short of these, you won’t sample a paper thimble’s worth of undressed vanilla.  Since “adult sites” can be interpreted very broadly, you’d be surprised how much falls behind the veil.

A less salacious shock came in the form of counter-shock measures.  UK regulations do not permit any outlets in the bathroom, with the solitary exception of one exclusively for shavers built into on a small lamp above the mirror, presumably to keep it sufficiently removed from sources of electrocution.  It is also not uncommon for switches in the bathroom to be on pull-cords, reputedly to prevent wet hands coming in contact with electric outlets.  I don’t know if this has anything to do with light switches generally being located outside of the room they are intended to light, but I am certain that they are an endless resource for pranksters and small children.

 

shavers-only-need-apply

Shavers only need apply.

 

Scotland isn’t quite the land of hell-hardened warriors that I thought it was, but the overbearing public oversight isn’t all bad.  There are a number of social services that we could use in the U.S.  When I went to order tickets for a show, I found discounts offered not just to seniors and students but to the unemployed.  The railway even provides an avenue for mature students, like myself, who ordinarily age out of student benefits to prove our academic status to qualify.  Tenants are liable for property taxes, known as tarrifs, but these are waived for undergraduate students who rent privately.  And there are full-service discount stores here selling the same essentials (like mulled wine) you can buy at the more expensive chain stores for a fraction of the price.  St Andrews is considered by the locals to run toward the high end in cost-of-living, and judging by the way property prices plummet as you head out of town, that must be the case.  But coming from the Bay Area of California, living has never looked more affordable.

 

price-tiers

Price tiers.

 

So, Scotland may ere more on the side of a Coddling Nursemaid than a Nanny-state and be refreshingly lawyer-free, but until the day that I can surf my laptop from the bathtub, it will never be the savage land sold to me by Braveheart and a little bartender at Loch Ness.

 

careful-visitors-welcome

“Careful Visitors Welcome.”

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