Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Quintessential Scottish Experience

We are leaving Scotland again, this time to teach in China. Although we are excited about this move and our new jobs, it is hard to leave this country where we have lived so comfortably and happily for so many years.

When we knew we were going to leave Japan, I began to store up what I considered to be quintessentially Japanese experiences: walking under a canopy of cherry blossoms in full bloom, their pale pink and white petals radiating light; eating sushi and drinking green tea outside on plastic mats, listening to enka blasting from the boom boxes of fellow picnickers; walking with our children through a park full of cicadas whining their plaintive shree-shree-shree.  But the experience of Japan I treasure the most is the one I consider to be the most quintessentially Japanese in that I can't imagine it happening anywhere else. It happened at the Ito-Yokado department store in Abiko, where my little girls and I had been shopping for souvenirs. At some point, my daughters discovered they had lost a bag of whoopee cushions. Blushing, I reported the loss, and the store employee who handled our case treated it with with the utmost gravity and politeness, writing down the details of where we had last seen the bag and assuring my children that she would track it down. How she managed to keep a straight face when I described whoopee cushions in Japanese, I have no idea. I almost lost it when she confirmed what we had misplaced:  I see--a bag of those little rubber cushions you put on people's chairs to make a farting noise. Can you tell me where you last saw them? When we finally recovered the bag, this woman gave every appearance of being delighted that we had regained our essentially worthless purchases. This experience has stayed with me over the years because it is so typically Japanese: the woman's politeness and courtesy; her care in doing her job; her (feigned or sincere) delight in the happy outcome.

For the past three months, I have been trying to do the same for Scotland, capturing and treasuring the  memories that I consider to be definingly Scottish. Whenever my husband and I go out for walks, we stop and gaze out on the beautiful scenery around us--the heather in full bloom, the clumps of thistles and ferns, the lime-green moss, the sheep grazing in the fields. I run water from the tap and savor its good, clean taste; I walk down the cobblestone streets of our picturesque little town and admire the flourishing flowers in the window boxes; I listen to the bagpipes playing in the square and do my best to appreciate their shrill whining.

But then the other night I had it: the perfect, quintessential Scottish experience, something that could only ever happen here--an event that in its complete simplicity, speaks volumes about the people, the culture, the entire ethos of Scotland. First of all, it was unseasonably cold, and it was raining, which in itself is utterly Scottish. The wind had a sharp edge to it--again, very Scottish--and it was late at night. My husband and I were on our way back from work, dodging the dog-do and crumpled potato chip packets on the Glasgow sidewalks, when we saw a man coming our way, holding a Styrofoam take-out container of chips (french fries) which he was eating from. The man was dressed in a track suit he had probably slept in, and he did not have an umbrella. From the way he lurched as he walked, he had almost certainly been drinking--again, like it or not, I fear this is prototypically Scottish. As we passed him, I saw the man select a french fry, pop it into his mouth, and squeeze his eyes shut in obvious rapture. And although you might think I am being ironic here, that simple gesture of pure enjoyment filled me with respect and awe. In what other country could someone walking along rain-slicked, trash-strewn streets in unseasonably cold weather eat potatoes fried in saturated fat, drenched in vinegar and moistened by rainwater, in the bitterly, cruelly whipping wind, and obviously enjoy it?

Forget Braveheart, forget thistles and bluebells and shortbread and bagpipes--the real pith of Scotland is in the people, who can derive pleasure from such bleak experiences, and nutrition from such un-nutritious food. I take my hat off to this man in his rumpled tracksuit. The memory of him enjoying his soggy chips will join the rolling hills covered with sheep and heather, the refreshing Scottish summer weather, the beautiful sandstone buildings of Glasgow. In his genuine stoicism and stubborn pleasure against all odds, he is every bit as impressive as the Japanese store employee who could listen to a foreigner's description of a whoopee cushion with an entirely straight face.



Lisa Shafer said...

As someone who has loved -- and been forced by circumstance to leave -- Scotland, I find this beautiful. And, yes, I understand it with more depth than I do your Japanese example, as I have never been to Japan.
Good luck in China. I don't think I could ever be convinced to return there, but I'm glad I saw it once. (Scotland, however, I'd move back to in a heartbeat.)

I don't know that I could match you with a quintessential Scottish experience, but, if I had to pick images that to me are essentially Scottish, I'd choose the moss growing on the lesser-used parts of the pavement, the sight and smell of gorse bushes growing up the sides of the Salisbury Crags, and that unholy morning cacophony of pigeons, seagulls, and crows. Oh, and IRN-BRU. Yeah, that's Scotland for me. :)

Mirka Breen said...

Scotland will miss you, China awaits.
We will benefit from all you share.

Kit said...

Good luck with your move - looking forward to a whole new raft of stories. And I'm sure soggy chips taste even better on a night like that! Perhaps that's the only way to really appreciate them to their full!

A.T. Post said...

Good gracious...you're going to leave picturesque Scotland and come to sticky old East Asia again?

That quintessential Scottish experience sounds right up my alley. I may have to recreate it. Maybe in Edinburgh instead of Glasgow, though.

I have some news for you. I finally made it out to Japan. Was there for eight days in early August. Loved it to bits. I'm going to Beijing in September. I have no idea where you'll be in China, but I hope to understand the place a bit better and get more out of your blog posts for having been there myself. Keep us posted!

Charles Gramlich said...

I think I would much enjoy the weather of Scotland

Anne M Leone said...

HAH! This is so TRUE! One essential skill I learned while living in England was that a little (or a lot) of rain truly can't hurt me. Funny how we take those little bits of us wherever we go... all the best to you in your travels, Mary, and good luck settling into your new Chinese home.