In just a few days I will be leaving the island of “cheers mate” and cottage pie to fly back to the land of “Bonjour Madame” and millefeuille. So ends six months in the UK.
At the end of each of these chapters I suppose it is expected of me to summarize my experiences and offer some sweeping generalizations of a foreign culture, as Americans in far away lands are inclined to do. I hesitate to indulge this exercise too far since conditions here have not been normal. Hopefully anyone who visits in the future will see things very differently than I did. There is also the old dictum about keeping things to yourself when you don’t have much good to say, but having not hewed too closely to that one over the years maybe I won’t bother starting now…
I leave Scotland bumbling through Phase 3 of their coronavirus route map, which is to say Phase 3 of pretending to have a clue and roughly phase 99 of making a bad situation worse. The contradictions, incongruities, and mind-numbing whiplashes in gulag policy stand in stark contrast to the sole consistent feature of this entire sad episode: the supreme arrogance, self-assurance and condescension of the political class as they issue their schizophrenic pronouncements to us the dirt people. I can only hope such fine personal qualities will serve them in good stead in the fiery afterlife to which they are surely headed.
During the months of lockdown I can’t have been the only person dreaming of the return to normalcy that would arrive just as soon as things began to reopen. Although I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, having reached the new normal we find it so painfully abnormal that I often think back fondly to those days of confinement, when the streets were empty and quiet, and I didn’t have to wear a mask to buy a cardboard sandwich.
Speaking of cardboard sandwiches, Jacques Chirac once famously said of the British, “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine.” To what extent he was joking I don’t know.
I came across another food comment in one of my Joan of Arc history books. Back in 1431, when the English arrived in Paris to crown their double-king, a French supporter of English rule nevertheless wrote in his diary, in regards to the coronation banquet, that “Nobody had reason to boast of the meal.”
My only notion of British cuisine before I came here was what I saw on The Great British Baking Show, all of which looked fabulous. This was not however the kind of food I generally found at the local grocery store, which I guess is to be expected. Even so I was constantly surprised at how tasteless everything was, even table salt is definitely less salty (no, they don’t have Morton’s). Once I decided to treat myself to a cheesecake from Marks & Spencer, the nicest of all the grocery stores in downtown Edinburgh. Admittedly I was not expecting perfection from the supermarket, but I would think it pretty hard to screw up something delicious when all you have to do is mix a bunch of fat and sugar. In America even Wal-Mart has good cheesecake. However to my great disappointment this one had both the taste and consistency of sand even though it still had a million calories. I had to ask myself, why am I eating this? Maybe my taste buds have been obliterated by over-exaggerated American flavoring, but it seems to me there is a crisis to be acknowledged when a society can’t get junk food to taste good. What other purpose could it possibly serve? This is all the more remarkable and puzzling in a place where junk food seems to be the main staple.
Of course I am hardly a discerning food critic as we can surmise from my great love of Taco Tico – a place some people have speculated may not even serve actual food. I’m sure the locals would also point out that Tesco and Sainsbury’s are not the place to discover delectable cooking. So I don’t want to pass too harsh a judgment, and I will suffice it only to declare that no doubt great food is to be found somewhere in Britain: but unlike in France, it is not at every street corner.
Whether because of scurvy or other reasons, I do know that I have been steadily losing weight since arriving here, to the point I now have to walk everywhere with my hands in my pockets to keep my pants from falling down. This is not a problem that concerns me very much because I know a surefire remedy for losing weight, and that is, about three days in America.
When I left France earlier this year I wondered if I might find it a great relief to be somewhere I could speak English once more. Maybe I might even feel at home! After all my distant ancestors did once live on this island. In fact I have felt just as much a foreigner here as in France. I can’t tell if others immediately peg me as a foreigner too or whether it is only a perspective I project outwards.
I watched a YouTube about 5 Things Americans do that Annoy Brits (just watching the video annoyed me), where I was informed that one of their biggest pet peeves is when Americans say “Excuse me” – for example when bumping into someone on the street. According to them, in the UK the phrase “excuse me” actually means “excuse you” and naturally enough is therefore considered quite rude. In America we actually do have a phrase for “excuse you” – never actually used in real life because again it would be rude – and that phrase is: “excuse you.” But things are apparently not so straightforward here.
I know you can’t believe everything you hear on YouTube, but I’ve paid close attention on the street and sure enough I’ve never once heard anyone say “excuse me.” It’s true that for many months the streets were empty, but since the end of confinement they can get quite crowded again, especially on the weekend, and I live on the most crowded street of them all. So I have had plenty of opportunities to observe.
According to these YouTubers what you should say instead is “sorry,” and indeed that is the only thing I have heard spoken in such situations. Incidentally the word “sorry” also exists in America. It is something people say after they’ve run over the neighbor’s dog or forgotten to pick up their kid from school. Married men use this word frequently with their wives, and celebrities and politicians say it, often accompanied by tears, when they’ve been caught foolishly posting some verboten evil on social media like “All Lives Matter.” But Americans don’t usually apologize for the street being crowded, because that is nobody’s fault.
As a courtesy to my foreign hosts I’ve tried very hard to use “sorry” myself, but I admit to failing several times a day. It is just about nearly impossible to break yourself of a lifetime habit, as I also found in France with the door handles that wanted to be pushed instead of pulled (described earlier).
I have learned that two people can speak the same language and yet still not be speaking the same language. And this is to say nothing of the vast difference in accents, many of which are as incomprehensible to me here as Greek.
In normal times I gather Edinburgh is something akin to the Disney World of Scotland, especially during the August festival which however is cancelled this year (a better analogy would be Silver Dollar City for Americans that know what that is). But even under the toned-down atmosphere that exists now, the city has a bit of the feel of the unreal to it, overlaid on top of the very real and very old buildings, cemeteries, and surrounding nature. There are guys in kilts on the street playing bagpipes, and probably one hundred whisky and cashmere wool shops between my apartment and the castle. We all know these things are symbols of Scottishness. But did the Scots invent kilts and bagpipes just to earn tips on the street corner? Do they love whisky and tartan patterns only for the sake of the tourism industry? Surely not, but whatever the deeper significance of these things is I don’t know and didn’t experience. And maybe Edinburgh is not the place for that, though if you like to browse tourist shops, this town surely has the most per square mile of any spot on earth.
Six months is a lot of time to spend anywhere for someone who is essentially a glorified tourist. It is enough time to explore a lot of out-of-the-way streets, enough time to watch some seasons pass, enough even to pay taxes. But for me it was not enough to encounter the Scots themselves. When the somewhat necessary act of breathing becomes responsible for killing everyone around us, it is only natural that opportunities for socializing are going to be drastically reduced. Under such circumstances not even my great talent of speaking English in an English speaking country was of much help.
Thus the real Scotland has remained hidden from me, and that is just how it will have to stay.