Smacked down with a jagged little head-cold. Some bits from my phone, remnants of my desultory search for spring …
A mark on a lamppost.
A squadron of daffodils besieging the links.
A shrubbery unconvinced by spring’s opening argument.
There are many things I would not recommend that you do on Christmas Eve. Almost all of them revolve around shopping. And yet there I was, in the middle of a good-sized grocery store called Waitrose, cradling an amaretto-flavoured soy latte in one hand and a wire basket in the other, when I was introduced to the full-on HPM (Holiday Politeness Morass).
In case it isn’t clear by now, I deeply appreciate living in a polite culture. After decades of the American “everyone’s your friend, the kind of friend you have no compunction about treating like total garbage if it means you are first in line” faux-niceness, I find the whole British orderliness not only refreshing but salutary to my sanity. After returning to the working world, I realised just how crucial this is, and how miserable I was when dealing with the American public every day.
Here is where I will pause to say that I know that a good amount of my readers are part of the American public and might take this personally. I would urge you not to, of course, and instead attempt to espouse a trait of my sociologist father’s that I have always admired: the ability to consider both the cultural veracity of a stereotype and the personal relevance without taking either as an affront. I’m American, and because I live outside America, I am confronted with my Americanness every day. Some of it is good, and some of it is not so good. I try to take zero of either side as a personal value judgement.
Anyway, back to my story. I got off the bus too early (a common mistake I make on new routes, as if getting off one stop too late is somehow worse) and walked through a very nice neighbourhood, peeking at the brightly-lit Christmas trees through front windows. I was feeling only a little sorry for myself, but mostly looking forward to an evening of cooking and watching holiday films. Thus distracted, I entered Waitrose with no sense of trepidation at all. In fact, I was glad to be there: they have nice food and it was blustery crap outside.
This was my first mistake.
Then I noticed the HPM.
It first manifested as a cluster of trolleys and wire baskets clutched by niceties-muttering poor planners like myself, so I was not afraid. Then I noticed the Waitrose worker in the middle of all of this, wielding a price gun above a pile of packets, the contents of which I still have not fathomed. Whatever was in them was more valuable than gold to the HPM as it seethed and swarmed — really gently, and congenially — at the centre.
I decided to go around this, to go somewhere else. Anywhere else.
But this was happening all throughout the store. Apparently prices were being marked down as closing time approached and, as the saying goes, supplies wouldn’t last.
Earlier, I had the bright idea of making meatloaf for dinner, an idea that was quickly revealed as the worst idea on the planet, ever, as I dared to enter the meat aisle for one minute. The HPM there was too strong. I saw two shoppers get stuck in a cycle of darting forward to grab a packet of beef mince but averting as the other was darting forward for not the same packet but one merely nearby. Fierce apologising began, and then the furtive darting forward again, only to bump hands this time, which set off another flurry of apologies.
You know how this would go down in America. Grab the meat, maybe even the sleeve of someone’s coat in the process, and get the hell out of there. You might open your bags at home to discovered you had inadvertently taken someone’s mitten or small child. Ha ha, you’d laugh. What a crazy shopping trip! And then you’d give the small child some potatoes to peel and start cooking.
So stunned, I scuppered the meatloaf idea and went for a dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free cottage pie ready-meal. You can bet there was no HPM hanging about that area.
I also might have grabbed a few other things, like crab paté, that I didn’t really need but wanted. At the till, I chatted with the cashier — another Americanism, but it’s a tough habit to break. As we struggled to fit all of the purchases in my bag, I gave a little sigh and said, “I guess I’m eating my feelings this Christmas.” This earned me the first outright laugh I have ever received from a cashier, which I counted as an early Christmas present.
My second early Christmas present was discovering a completely awesome shortcut from the “faraway” bus stop to our flat. Some cottage pie and crab paté later, plus FaceTime with family, and I’m feeling all right. I hope you are feeling all right too.
Writing from: the lounge, next to the tree. Listening to: “Ghostbusters” on the TV. So much better than any holiday film I had planned.
My red fleece sweatpants are evil. Wearing them is basically the antidote to any productivity I might muster. As soon as I changed from sweatpants to proper grownup clothing today, I got a ton of stuff done. But listening to Patton Oswalt talking about the miracle of sweatpants made me laugh a lot.
Today I am having a day of expat feelings, so I am going to talk about something I love about living in Scotland and something that annoys me.
I love hearing SSE (Scottish Standard English) every day. In fact, I have done tireless (read: not tireless) research to bring to you the absolute best (read: or just really good) sentence to hear in SSE: “Will you tell the girls about the murder rate of squirrels in third-world countries?” I also love hearing the following words: dreich, guddle, drouthy, numpty, outwith. I hope I didn’t offend anyone by writing this. At least I didn’t say …
Haggis. I am vastly annoyed by the punchline to jokes from non-Scots being, “Haggis!” And I love haggis, so it’s not like I object on culinary grounds. It’s just such a lazy joke, like responding to anything Italian by saying, “Spaghetti with meatballs!”
Hm, now I’m hungry.
Writing from: bed, one electric blanket, two kitties. Listening to: Patton Oswalt.
My new friend R and I went to the Royal Botanics a few weeks ago. I haven’t been in a photo-taking mood for a while, but I took my dSLR just in case. Of course I forgot my macro lens and my tripod, so I got fifty blurry shots of pretty blooms and bees doing their thing, and then this one.
So yes, I am a walking cliché.
Yesterday, FunkyPlaid and I walked downtown on some errands. As we left our flat, we both remarked on the loveliness of the day, blue skies barely clouded, and yet somehow we still managed to get caught in a short downpour on Princes Street.
This confirmed my suspicion that Scottish clouds just dip their bellies in blue paint from time to time.
Today as I sat and hammered out some metadata at my volunteer post — which was exactly six times more exciting than this sentence sounds — the building shook. After a twelve-year stint in California, I am no stranger to shaking buildings. It just hadn’t occurred to me that the wind could shake a building as much as the ground could.
I hopped off the bus in an unfamiliar part of town just so I could figure out my way back, and with the wind it ended up being a little more exciting than I expected. Thank goodness for the steadfastness of the lamppost I clung to as my boots slid out from under me. Hello again, Chicago! I used this excuse to scamper into Tesco and consult blue-dot on the map, which sometimes lies. The walking directions home took me in what I was sure was a large U-turn, but now looking at the map I suppose it was the most direct route.
A lot of navigation here is like that, which makes logical sense in a city-planning-over-centuries way, but I just like to pretend that the bus I’m on is involved in a very slow car-chase, always trying to shake that persistent cop on its tail.
Celsius is much more satisfying for reporting temperatures. Fahrenheit insists it is 37 degrees, which is many numbers, but Celsius says 3. That is about how it feels. Just a few degrees among the lint in your pocket, instead of 37, which is a feast of grapes for lunch, or an impressive spate of paper clips on your desk. Hell, you could make a paper-clip necklace with that.
In other exciting news, I’ve been overpaying my bus fare by exactly 30 pence every time. I swore the sign said £1.60. The tickets piling up in my purse each say £1.30. Another awkward social situation explained!
This Thanksgiving edition of How I Decide Where to Sit is dedicated to reviewing all the rookie mistakes one can make when riding public transit in a new city for the first time, because it is kind of like what the Pilgrims did when they– no. Even I can’t torture that metaphor. It is dedicated to rookie mistakes because I made them all today and I need to laugh about them with you.
So really it was like riding public transit for the very first time ever! That is the spin I am going to take because I am in denial, denial that moving to a new country, even if you (sort of) speak the language, means not knowing how to do anything very well for a while and just sucking that up because the alternative is hiding in your very nice flat all the time and pretending to buy postage from the cats just so you get better at counting out the different coins. Not that I have been doing that at all.
Anyway, I had thought about doing some sort of Thanksgiving meal here, but the more I pondered approximating turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and the rest, the more homesick I felt, and then I felt disappointed about feeling so homesick. My stomach sold the rest of me out for the memory of pumpkin pie. Yesterday’s vegan baking experiment of pumpkin mini-muffins did not do the trick, although they were tasty. (I used this recipe, with a ripe banana in the place of the eggs.)
Homesickness aside, I am extremely thankful for this new home, for my family and friends, and for owning a lot of candles because this place is very dark just now. I think I will go roast some chestnuts.
HIDWtS Rating: We just debated taking turkey legs to the chip shop that will fry anything. Do you think they will do pumpkin puree?
[box type=”shadow”]I used to ride a shuttle to work. It was a really nice shuttle and the first time I had ever had that luxury, causing me to overthink pretty much every aspect of it, especially where to sit. And now I overthink where I decide to sit in every open-seating situation, so I’m writing about it in a series called How I Decide Where to Sit.[/box]
I like St Andrews more each time I visit, and I already liked it a lot the first time. There are great people there, and books and learning and junk, and also videos of sneezing pandas. To commemorate my deepening affection for this place, here is a really fancy postcard that it took me all day to make.
Or my iPhone did it in about two seconds.
Walking to the market last night, I was gently picked up by the leaf-addled wind and set down a few yards in front of where I started. Since it was generally in the correct direction, I saw no need for alarm. This happened about four more times on the way there and back.
Bluster. I forgot about proper bluster! Such polite people excused themselves as they bounced all over the walk. Every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of someone’s head suddenly spasming backwards. The old leaf to the eyeball, I nodded knowingly. And then got a leaf to the eyeball.
I don’t know how I got it into my head that Scottish people don’t eat chocolate chip cookies, but I had, and so I was craving them horribly. Then I found chocolate chip cookies in the market. Gluten-free ones. Why did I ever doubt Snackland?
The part I hate, the paying part, happened. I couldn’t postpone it any longer. So I milled around near the line for the till until the nicest-seeming clerk was free, then stampeded her. She was, in fact, very nice, and so I bought groceries in a non-humiliating fashion for the first time since arriving here. This also had to do with the use of my debit card instead of fumbling through a too-deep wallet for unfamiliar coins. I’ll take the sad little victory, thanks.
Will it ever seem natural for me to say “cheers” instead of “thanks”? The Midwestern “a” that haunts my “thanks” makes me cringe. I will try to be understood and to fit in — trousers, not pants — but some words still seem affected when I say them.
Sometimes the world is so beautiful I forget to be self-conscious. I am just an awed human in an ancient place, and it feels wonderful. Then I realize, as I did last night, that while gaping at the stone spires silhouetted against the flannel sky, a small line of drool has escaped the side of my mouth.
Nice to meet you, world. I am all class.
O, look! It is a photo of the castle! Another photo of the castle! And not at all because it is one of the only places I can recognize in the city! No, no, not that.
Actually, it is a photo of the castle because I watched FunkyPlaid take a picture of the castle with the moon just so and I had to take one too. But his is better. But I took one too. So, you see, I am twelve.
The exciting part is the part that has no picture, where I somehow recognized not just the castle but a whole string of things — including Starbuxen and libraries, yes, okay, so I am predictable — and was able to recognize them not in some arcane card-flipping memory game but in the actual field, the actual walking-about time and needing-to-navigate time, the pertinent time, the errand-running time of today.
There were lots of errands! Some of these errands were less errandy than others, like our visit to Transreal Fiction. It is as glorious as I expected it to be, and despite just transporting hundreds of books across an ocean, we left this excellent shop with several more.
Along with all of those books, our kitchen arrived, which manifested itself (after FunkyPlaid’s careful unpacking) in an evening meal of garlic courgettes and balsamic-mustard glazed salmon fillets. I did not misspell that last word; it is pronounced as it looks, to rhyme with billets. Also, zucchini are called courgettes, which perhaps should offend my Italian sensibilities. (It doesn’t.)
Today’s exciting linguistic moment in marketing is “flu jab”. Get your flu jab today so you don’t get sick!
Due to an international banking error — those are fun, let me tell you — we do not have a car yet. FunkyPlaid wanted to show Mike around outside the city, so he rented a car and the three of us sped off to St Andrews.
I hate being the little old lady in the front seat, clutching her purse, but there I was, incredibly nerve-wracked by the seemingly arbitrary rules of the road. I loosened up a bit with the M90‘s standard highway-ness. Still, it is embarrassing and disappointing to be so thrown by UK driving.
Our visit was entirely worth the stress, of course.
Not only did we get to show Mike around, but we ran into another friend from the store who is a first-year at the university. Small world, indeed. We all ended up in the Central for lunch, where we were joined by FunkyPlaid’s advisor, two other PhD candidates, and a prospective history student. The prospective student was staying in Edina, so we gave her a lift back to the city and she stayed for supper. Or dinner. I am confused by the difference. But Mike made delicious risotto and veggies, to which I added some basic balsamic chicken bits, and we enjoyed a nice evening meal together no matter what it might be called.
During our short jaunt around St Andrews, I envied Mike his dSLR and for the thousandth time wished I had not entrusted my own to a shipment along with all of my winter coats and hats. Some cameraphone shots will have to suffice for now.
Although this is hardly my first day of packing for Scotland, it has been a long one, filled with Kleenex (yay, head cold) and boxes I never unpacked from my last move and lots of stuff I simply do not know why I own. And now, some highlights!
Packed for storage: my entire poetry library. I may regret that, but it will give me a good excuse to use the public library system while I am there.
Thing I thought I would want to keep but don’t: my high school yearbook from senior year. I contacted my school’s alumni association to see if they want it. (Thanks for the idea, Unclutterer!)
Books, books, books. So very many books. Would you like some books? I have some up for swap at PaperBackSwap and Goodreads. If you are looking for a particular book, you are welcome to check out my library on LibraryThing and make me an offer.