Category Archives: Jordan in Scotland

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 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.


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 and 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- 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.

at end of article

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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.



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.


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.


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.


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.”

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The Trials & Tribulations of Everyday Incidentals

Imagine you’re 18 and leaving home for the first time.  Your zone of authority has most likely been relegated to one room of the house for your entire life.  It probably doesn’t have a lockable door, or if it does the rest of the household doesn’t take kindly to its employment.  You may have decorator’s privileges, but not without inviting a stream of unsolicited opinions as to the quality of your particular tastes.  Some of them probably have veto rights.  You likely cannot come and go at your pleasure but must apply to the board for approval of your intentions, however well-planned or purely whimsical.  They inevitably demand more detail than you’re comfortable or prepared to produce on a regular basis.  Maybe your music bothers them, or your friends, or your gaming, or your internet search history. Maybe theirs bothers you.  The concept of privacy?  Veritably unfathomed.  Heading into one’s first home-away-from-home, the bar hasn’t been set too high.  Friendly roommates and you’re golden.

Now imagine you’re 36 and haven’t had to capitulate to anyone’s house rules in return for food and shelter in roughly a decade.  You’ve managed to keep yourself alive, to varying degrees of success, for a while now.  Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we do it anyway because creating your own home remains the province of the vertically advanced and the youthfully impaired.  You can leave your bed unmade and your clothes on the floor and eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner – all without bringing your maturity into question because no one is the wiser.  You can infiltrate the fridge or commandeer the kitchen at any time, day or night, without petitions or excuses.  Bedeck the walls in whatever apparel appeals without answering for it.  Finally acquire that massaging-recliner or four-poster bed you still resent Santa for withholding.  Find the picket-fenced yard, start a fur family, develop that home theater or game room or man cave or lady lair you’ve always dreamed of.  This is why we trade in our badges for business cards, flying capes for collared shirts, and home-cooked meals for freezer food – to be kids, er, kings of our own castles.

And this king has been unceremoniously uncrowned.

I admit, I was seduced by the brochure.  Sure, I can handle a dorm… if it’s IN A CASTLE.  I’m sure the bay-window reading nook and rustic rock fireplace will compensate for whatever trifling gnats the neighbors may make of themselves.  Arriving in St Andrews, I lugged my backpack and two suitcases off the bus and, after a cursory scan of the horizon, made for the nearest towering, turreted stronghold.  Lower the drawbridge, Dunwyn, I’ve finally arrived.

But the drawbridge never descended.  Although the goal was in sight, it remained inaccessible and impenetrable.  I wound my way around a large green, up a hill, through a parking lot, past the campus field, and finally arrived at the gate which was, rather unwelcomingly, sealed shut.  Making my way around the perimeter I tried various doors with no success.  Finally I followed my ears to a nearby spot of activity and made inquiries.  A staff person led me around to the back of the beckoning stone masonry where a no-nonsense, asylum-looking structure was hiding in its shadow and impersonating its name.  “The main building is under renovation” the girl explained chirpily.  That wasn’t mentioned in the leaflet.  Sorry Mario



The castle and the asylum.


The room was, to phrase it generously, a shoe-box.  Four white walls, some recycled office furniture, and a stripped mattress.  One of the more scandalizing discoveries I’ve made about Saint Andrew’s accommodations is that they are strictly BYOB: Buy Your Own Bedding.  They generously offer bedroom and bathroom sets for your purchasing convenience.  Determined to bargain-hunt, I spent the first week sleeping on thrift-store throw pillows and trying to turtle under a jacket.



The shoe-box.


Justice in the asylum is maintained by on-site officials aptly called “Wardens.”  Ornamentation is absolutely opposed by the tricky tactic of forbidding all forms of fastening – from tacks right down to poster putty.  Bring a pile of family photos to stave off the homesickness?  They kindly supply a pin board for that which, incidentally, is also utilized for general notices and regulations, not to be removed or obstructed.  I figured I could rig something up with string and clothespins, but the room has been meticulously scrubbed of any lasso-able extensions you might utilize to commit something so scandalous.

Despite the fact that the hallway looks like something out of a horror movie, it quickly becomes a happening social hub for the new arrivals, which I have the benefit of participating in from either side of the sociably eavesdroppable walls.  The tiny window offers a welcome reminder of the breathably spacious outdoors, but the curtains look like they’ve been upcycled from Aunt Gertrude’s old school dresses, themselves upcycled from an antique tablecloth inspired by the lovely color patterns of an upchucked potato stew.  One of my study abroad organizers, herself a former international student, raved about the welcome package included with her room, offering practical items like a UK sim card.  I find a pinstriped french-fry bag filled with a lollipop, bubblegum, and a few pieces of hard candy.  Malcom Gladwell would be proud.



Hallway of horrors.


Delicious curtains.


But these are mere trifles.  The real surprise comes three days into my incarceration when a sharp knock awakes me from blessed semi-slumber beneath my luxurious hoodie-blanket.  Through my sleep-addled brain and the benefit of hotel experience I suddenly ascertained the word, “housekeeping!” and immediately ejected an emphatic, “No, thank you!”  The door swung wide and a woman poked her head in.  “I need to get the bins,” she stated patly.  I sat in my shoe-box as startled as a hounded hare, and nearly as naked.  “Sure,” I mumbled, shell-shocked and dream-dazed.  “Go right ahead.”

In consecutive days, the incident repeated itself courtesy of the managerial staff and the porter.  I studiously composed a pleading appeal to the management to inform me of impending appointments, but soon learned that students do not require such extravagances when my request was politely ignored.  Welcome to the playhouse – it’s great to be a kid again.

The kitchen oven proves another insurmountable hurdle for my simple American mind.  There are two separate knobs, each with its own little series of incomprehensible symbols.  A pro-Googler, I soon learn about the wide array of conduction methods of which the modest English oven is capable.  I expertly select the fan symbol, set the temperature after a quick conversion to Celsius, and watch my dinner sit in the dark, getting colder.  But wait!  Everything, and I do mean everything has a wall-switch in Scotland.  Yes – here it is, marked: “cooker”!  I flip it triumphantly. A little while later finds me improvising with two cookie sheets sandwiched over the graciously functionable stove. (Turns out English ovens can’t cook without knowing the time, and you have to depress a cleverly randomized set of buttons to do it.)



The oven challenge.


Not to be shown up by the kitchen, the bathroom has its own set of hurdles in store.  It consists of a small room with toilet, sink and showerhead.  The latter is hung just to the right of the throne in a deformed-diamond shape corner of the oddly-angled room.  It’s partitioned off by a curtain which falls about a foot short of the floor, and a four-millimeter depression in the ground tile.  These are there to present toe-stubbing opportunities and the illusion of containment.  Don’t be fooled: the entire bathroom is your bathtub.  Your toilet will be standing in a centimeter of water on the memory-foam bath mat.  I initially sought to combat this unwelcome wading pool with sand bags strategically placed for maximum trippage, but ultimately found that an extra-long curtain resolved the issue more gracefully.  Score one for Ravenclaw.



The shower challenge.


The shower diamond is about 30 inches across at its maximum width and barely sufficient to contain even a skinny sneetch like myself.  A large horizontal pipe additionally protrudes into the space with adjustment knobs at either end for activation and temperature, respectively.  The pipe gives literal meaning to the phrase, “piping hot”, so I spend my mornings skillfully tetrising myself between this and the lecherous curtain.  Most tragically of all, my beloved hand-held showerhead is conspicuously absent from this Scottish dormicile. I’m forced to resort to the medieval method of standing in the stream.

So far, this grand new adventure proves commendably challenging.  Level one starts off with a bang, dumping me into the playing field without even a tutorial (who’m I kidding?  I never use those) and forcing me to relearn the basics.  But I expect no less from this strange new Scottish world.  The princess may be in another castle, but the game hasn’t defeated me yet.



Stranger in a strange land.

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Between Worlds

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!”



Hamish in 2009.


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.



Home life with my cats.


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.



Starting to pack.


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.



On the double decker bus.


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!



Leith in Edinburgh.




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).



An example of the serving sizes here.


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.



Ready to learn the bus system!

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