I love Scotland, Truly

by Rachel on September 18, 2009

I must say that I absolutely adore Scotland and every single Scottish person. Where else is everyone uniformly friendly, helpful, welcoming and simultaneously totally incomprehensible, even though they purportedly speak my native tongue? I had to ask virtually everyone to repeat themselves, sometimes more than once, and even then I had no idea what they said. I do better in France, and I’m not even fluent in that language.

Though I truly do LOVE the Scots, I’m going to make a few comments at the start that aren’t entirely complementary. The comments refer primarily to appliances and bathrooms because without them I’d be reduced to camping, and I’m only willing to do that once a year. I was just coming to terms with the tiny washer/dryer combos in England when suddenly I had to deal with Scottish refrigerators. A tad larger than a dorm fridge, these ridiculously small food storage devices are helpfully positioned down on the floor so that once you’ve had a few too many Scottish whiskeys and have fallen down you’ll have easy access to the snack you need just before bedtime. In America we understand food storage. We’ve got refrigerator/freezer combos in most homes that would keep enough food cold to feed a third world country for a week or provide a simple repast to the front line of the Green Bay Packers. What would the Scots do if their entire neighborhood descended upon them at lunchtime? How would they cope? As most of you know, I could handle this stressful situation without breaking a sweat. Most of my friends plan to head straight to my house in the event of urban catastrophe. If I lived in Scotland the rest of you would really have to do some serious thinking about disaster planning.

I did not want to be reduced to “toilet talk,” my children do enough of this already, but I must spend a moment or two addressing Scottish restrooms (the Loo, in the local vernacular). First, as far as I can tell, none of the Scottish toilets flush. The whole lever thing is a big red herring. You press it and press it and press and NOTHING ever happens. I think it MAY be some sort of inside joke and there’s a small button hidden somewhere that only Scots know about. It’s just the foreigners who have to do the walk of shame in a public Loo hoping no one will notice that they couldn’t figure out how to make the damn thing work. And to add insult to injury, the whole experience costs money. Yep, all over Scotland you have to pay to pee. If there’s a nice attendant at the entrance, kids pee free. I didn’t notice any senior rates, which doesn’t seem the least bit fair given how often some of them seem to need the facilities. I think I’d have a reasonable case in the courts that the whole system is sexually discriminatory since I’ve noticed some adult males can go days without ever needing a Loo. How fair is that? Think of the lifetime savings.

Highland Cow at the Royal Highland Show, Scotland

Another Highland Cow at the Royal Highland Show, Scotland

The absolute highlight of our stay in Edinburgh was the day we spent at The Highland Show. This is an annual event a bit like a State Fair, but for the whole country, and the country is Scotland, not the US. The main events are competitions that run like a dog show, but the participants are every variety of sheep, cow, goat, horse and chicken and the human being handlers are level-headed Scotsmen who wouldn’t think of prancing around the ring in high heels the way American dog handlers do. The poor cloven-hoofed pigs were banned this year as they knew we were coming (it might also have had something to do with fears of Swine Flu). The Highland cows with their hair long over their eyes and their big horns were udderly fabulous.

Inside the stalls at the Royal Highland Show, Scotland

Once the competitions are over you can visit all of the animals in their stalls. I had to drag my boys out after a full hour in the goat tent, and we spent another equally entertaining 45 minutes with the cows. We had a breakfast of rashers and bangers and mash and didn’t need to eat again for a week. Our only disappointment was that we missed the Queen. Apparently she and Princess Anne attended the day after our visit. Bummer. We did see one of her cows – not Anne’s, the Queen’s – I don’t frankly know whether Anne has any cows, it wasn’t discussed. The Queen has quite a few. This particular one wasn’t terribly well behaved and lost the round that we were watching. Not very Royal really.

The View from the Zoo, Edinburgh

Other Edinburgh highlights were the Scottish Botanic Gardens and the Edinburgh Zoo. You see, once upon a time, in a land called Scotland, in the year 1972, I managed to fall into the lily pond in the gorgeous glass house in the center of the idyllic Royal Scottish Botanic Gardens. Better yet, it is a two-story building with a viewing area below the lily pond so that you can see the fabulous fish and the beautiful plants, and on very special days, the scrawny legs of an 8 year-old American girl named Rachel. I always make a pilgrimage back to this sacred spot. I did so this time with my own small children who had the sense NOT to fall in, though I thought about pushing them. There would be a certain symmetry to the whole psychologically scarring episode had they gone in too, don’t you think?

Finally, if you do make it to Edinburgh, and I hope you do, you really must see the Penguin Parade at 2:15 pm at the Edinburgh Zoo. 365 days a year they open the gates to the largest Penguin enclosure in the world and allow the penguins to go out for a walk. Participating in the walk is, accordingly to the zookeepers, “entirely voluntary on the part of the penguins.” Some days a lot of them elect to go, and some days, not so many. They march around the outside of the penguin enclosure on a wide sidewalk amongst the zoo goers who are implored to give way and not crowd the flightless birds. It is really rather awesome. They amble along looking quite happy about their mid-afternoon stroll amongst the masses. The Gentoos hustle a bit more speedily than the Emperor penguins, but they all seem equally pleased with their walk. We absolutely loved it.

My family has strong ties to Edinburgh. We were able to visit all of our old friends who still live there. The boys did us Yanks proud. Dressed in their best slacks and shoes, they minded their manners and drank gobs of tea while simultaneously eating entire trays of tea biscuits and all manner of smoked salmon appetizers. One of our Scottish friends did at one point refer to them as “hoovers,” but I know she meant it in the nicest way. The boys, never ones to be shy, asked to tour the artist studios of our painter friends, something precious few visitors ever get to experience. The Stern boys were gracious to a fault repeatedly exclaiming how much they liked this or that painting (these are top Scottish artists and there isn’t anything other than really outstanding work in their studios). It was all I could do to resist getting out my checkbook and offering to purchase things right off the walls.

After Edinburgh we made our way back to London. Everyone was quite agitated because they were expecting record heat. It was supposed to be 84 degrees TWO DAYS IN A ROW. This caused no end of angst, glaring newspaper headlines (not quite as large as the ones related to Jacko’s death, but BIG) and fears that people would soon start dropping like flies. Let’s hope none of them ever have to spend a day in the San Fernando Valley.

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