Monday, July 6, 2015

A Life Less Extraordinary: Moving Back to my Homeland

The grass may be greener on the other side of the pond, but that doesn't necessarily make it better. It's just further away. 

Five years ago I left my hometown and followed my dreams to Scotland. I responded to the siren call of my future beckoning me to cross the ocean to meet it face to face. At the time I couldn't say exactly what called me to leave everyone I loved and start afresh in a new country. Though instinct pointed the direction I didn't fully know the reason for my emigration. Now I do. His name is Paul, and I would turn my life upside down ten times over again to be with him. And so I am. We are leaving the family, friends, and life we've built together in Aberdeenshire to follow his career to Houston, Texas. Once again, I instinctively know it's the right decision.

The irony is not lost on me. I came all the way to Scotland only to marry a man who seems destined to live in America. When I left Texas I sought adventure and novelty. Now I return with a heightened appreciation for familiarity. Living abroad forces you to flex cultural translation muscles you didn't even know you had until you go home and find yourself relaxing into a routine that requires no explanation. I will no longer be the interesting outsider under a spotlight, answering friendly and well-meaning questions about where I come from and what brought me here. I'll gladly pass that baton off to my extroverted husband, who should prepare himself for instant popularity and endless questions about his kilt-wearing habits.

My ancestors left Scotland under various desperate circumstances and I sometimes wonder if I inherited their sense of loss. Something here makes me long for this land like no other. The west coast in particular is almost painfully beautiful, and each time I arrive I immediately begin to grieve for the moment I must leave. Scotland has taken root in me and will forever be one of the few places I consider as home. Life in Scotland is different from life in Texas, but neither is inherently better than the other. They each have their challenges and charms, and I love them both. I'm so glad to have wonderful  family & friends here to visit for many years to come.

And so it is with a heavy heart that I close this chapter of my love affair with Scotland. I cannot stay, but neither can I stay away.

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."
(T.S. Eliot)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Scottish Independence: A Foreigner's View

"I'll drink a toast to Scotland yet, whatever yet may be." 
                                                                 (Davy Steele)

On September 18th Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country. Scottish nationalists have longed for this day since their 18th century Jacobite ancestors tried and failed repeatedly to overthrow the German king on the British throne and bring back the Scottish Stewart dynasty. 

As a foreigner, I cannot vote on in the independence referendum, and I prefer it that way. People I love are spread across both sides of this debate and I can understand all their arguments. The “Better Together” campaign stresses the economic stability of the United Kingdom and warns this may be threatened if Scotland breaks away. We don’t know what currency would be used in an independent Scotland, and people are understandably concerned about their pensions and homes being devalued by a change in currency. My husband and I have our own savings and pensions and don’t want to lose them. And while I’m certainly no economist, I do know that uncertainty over currency and trade can cause instability in the market. No one wants that.

In today’s Britain many people move around and don’t remain in the region of their birth. According to the 2011 census, 8% of Brits living in Scotland identify as “British only,” and 18% feel both British and Scottish. That means 1 in 4 Brits in Scotland (my husband included) have cross-border identities. It’s understandable that people from this group might lean more towards British unity than Scottish independence. That’s not to say that people identifying primarily as Scottish speak with one voice about independence. Scottish people speak multiple languages, practice multiple religions and these diverse people with diverse interests have never marched to the same tune.

It seems to me that those arguing for and against independence are speaking two completely different languages. Those arguing against independence are talking about economics and trade. But those in the “Yes” campaign are singing an impassioned love song of devotion about their mother country that is much broader than any single issue. Scotland has a certain magic that takes root in her children and acts as a siren-call to enamoured foreigners like me. This wild, wind-blown, painfully beautiful land and its people have endured centuries of sorrow. Clan warfare, English and Viking conquests, pillaging and forced migration have not succeeded in breaking the spirit of the Scottish people. For the nationalists, they feel that they have an opportunity to take their country back after it was stolen against their will in 1707 when Scotland and England became one nation practically overnight through a parliamentary handshake. Many are still angry about this. No one ever asked the people of Scotland if they wanted to be part of the United Kingdom . . . until now.

The politicians on both sides have been slinging plenty of mud. The campaign leaflets that have come in the mail have included more photos than factual argument and as a former political science student I'd say both sides could use a truckload of think-tank research and public relations experts. But as an American who grew up being taught to cherish my right to vote, it’s the Scottish people and not the politicians who have my support and attention. They have a chance to speak for themselves and decide their own future for the first time in centuries. I want the people of Scotland to be given the respect and space to make up their own minds about what’s best for them. I love Scotland and consider it a privilege to be here walking in the footsteps of my ancestors and enjoying prosperity in modern Scotland that my impoverished fore-bearers could never have imagined. I support the Scottish people and their right to choose the future they want for their country and I will embrace whatever decision they make.

To close, I’ll share a beautiful song by late Scottish songwriter Davy Stelle called “Scotland Yet.” I’ve included a translation below for those of us who don’t understand Scots so well. Click on the youtube video to have a listen. It’s one of my favorites.

Gie noo a thocht to what we hae, in this land o’ the leal
The Highland glen, the Doric stream, the fertile Lowland field
They seem tae offer different views when looked at from within
Can strangers be the only eyes to see us a’ as yin?

The choice will be upon us soon, tae set oor destiny
I’ll drink a toast tae Scotland yet, whatever yet may be.

Oor mither tongue spoke different weys,  that past tae present ties
Each seperate and yet entwined, that’s where oor real strength lies
For should one strand unwind itself the others tae forsake
Than a’ would be forever lost, fur a’ the strands would break.’


While we still seek to blame oor woes and pains on someone else
We’ll never have the strength tae solve oor problems for oorselves
In truth we fought each other mair, learn this from oor past
Then together we can choose fur oorsells at last.’


Give now a thought to what we have, in this land of the leal (paradise)
The Highland glen, the Doric stream, the fertile lowland field
They seem to offer different views when looked at from within
Can strangers be the only eyes to see us all as one?

The choice will be upon us soon to set our destiny
I’ll drink a toast to Scotland yet, whatever yet may be.

Our mother tongue spoke different ways, that past to present ties
Each separate and yet entwined, that’s where our real strength lies
For should one strand unwind itself the others to forsake
Then all would be forever lost for all the strands would break.


While we still seek to blame our woes and pains on someone else
We’ll never have the strength to solve our problems for ourselves
In truth we fought each other more, learn this from our past
Then together we can choose for ourselves at last.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reflections on a Choice Well Made . . . Marriage to Paul!

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
  -David Whyte, The House of Belonging

Today marks one year since Paul and I were married in Texas. As per usual on anniversaries, I have been reflecting on my choice to marry Paul. I’m still not sure how I got so lucky.

After an abusive relationship and broken engagement at 21, I spent my twenties watching friends fall in love and get married but remained torn as my feelings of loneliness battled my fear of choosing another relationship that was not healthy. I busied myself with school, friends, and countless activities, but the loneliness grew profoundly painful, more so because I always knew my Paul was out there; I just hadn’t a clue when, where or how to find him.

When I moved to Scotland alone in the fall of 2010 I was desperate for company and terribly homesick for the people I love. Pain is not the motivator of healthy decision-making. I allowed myself to go out with people who were not right for me just for someone to talk to. Those choices nearly derailed my future as I broke my first date with Paul because I had just met and become smitten by some fool, who remains in my memory mostly because he was the LAST fool. There was a moment when I took an emotional snapshot of my situation and thought, “This is not what I want. I would rather be alone than in an unhealthy relationship.” I smartened up and lucky for me, Paul gave me another chance, and just look where it lead! I remember taking another emotional snapshot a couple of weeks after Paul and I started dating. I realized that he was exactly the caring, reliable and affectionate partner I had always needed, and at that moment made what remains to this date my healthiest life decision: I grabbed on and didn’t let him go. I still can’t believe my luck in finding that he needed me too. He is so good at being married he should teach classes. I will forever endeavour to be half as devoted and loving a partner as he is to me.

So today I send out gratitude for all the unhealthy, fear-based decisions I have made in my life and for the painful lessons learned. If it weren’t for the wrong choices, I would never have recognized the right choice when he came calling. And today I re-dedicate myself to seeking the healthy choices for the future . . . the ones that bring me alive.

Photo by Lauren McGlynn

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Foos Yer Doos? Aye, Peckin'!

 “[Britain] and America are two countries separated by a common language.”
(George Bernard Shaw)

As luck would have it, the staff of the Aberdeen City Council is made up of native Aberdonians. Go figure! My new job is turning out to be a weekly cultural exchange of slang and customs. For example, the unfortunate opportunity presented itself to explain to my colleagues that the American equivalent to “builder’s bum” is “plumber’s crack.” I’ll leave you to wonder about how the topic came up, but I will just say it was rather an eventful day at the office. My colleagues love to learn about America, and in turn they teach me more Doric slang and, very usefully, the appropriate way to pronounce local towns. For example, “Chapel of Garioch” is pronounced “Chapel of Geery” and “Turriff” is pronounced “Turra.” Without this education, I would go about my job mis-pronouncing addresses and confusing myself and everyone else.

The wee Aberdeenshire town of Turriff had fifteen minutes of fame in 1910 when a local farmer refused to pay national insurance tax and had his cow confiscated by the government. The locals rioted and the Turriff Cow (known as the “Turra Coo”) became a symbol of the rights of the farmers. Today a statue of the Turra Coo can be seen on the Turriff high street.

The Turra Coo

Another Doric phrase I have recently learned is “Foo’s yer do’s?” to which the appropriate response is “Aye, peckin!” A “do” is a pigeon and at one time pigeon racing was quite popular in Aberdeen. Locals used to ask one another how their birds were faring as a way of asking “What’s up?” The phrase translates, “How are your doves?” “Always pecking!” This is similar to an American asking a friend “How’s it hangin’?” or a German asking “What’s loose?” (to which their friend will respond ‘The dog is loose”).

In other news, Paul and I are in the process of changing our names to Truitt-Turner and I am discovering that the British are not very understanding of my choice to use “Ms” as a title. I have been using Ms ever since I was 18, having always preferred my title to be separate of my marital status. Most of my American girlfriends use Ms. But here in Britain, woman are automatically expected to take their husbands’ names upon marriage and switch from Miss to Mrs. I literally have to make special requests at the bank, Human Resources, etc to be called Ms. However, when Paul filed his legal name change paperwork we discovered that in the UK, a person has the right to use Mr, Miss, Ms or the gender neutral title Mx. So while the government gives me the right to have a title separate from my marital status or even my gender, the public still expects me to be Mrs. Paul Turner. As with so many occasions where I defy British expectations, they just assume it’s because I’m American.

Paul and I send everyone our love and we sincerely hope that your doos are peckin’!

Song of the Day: "The Far Famed Fite Turra Coo" by Geordie Murison. I found this song about the Turra Coo and uploaded it on youtube so you can check it out. Sorry to say I don't have a translation of the lyrics.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Trumped Up: The Donald vs. Scottish Turbines
"Discontent makes rich men poor."  
(Benjamin Franklin)

I don't usually take sides in local political issues in Scotland. As a foreigner I feel it's my duty to listen and learn. But as this hullabaloo centers around a man whom I grudgingly call a fellow countryman, I feel the need to speak up.

Donald Trump is developing a new golf course. He is apparently unaware of the fact that Golf was invented in Scotland and the best courses in the world are already here. But that's just my opinion. Here's the rub: He says that the government has no right to build green energy wind turbines which are planned to be installed miles offshore from his golf course because they will spoil the sea view.

I have several problems with his ludicrous argument. Firstly, the turbines are going into the sea, miles away from his view for rich people. Second, despite his innumerable wealth, Donald does not actually own the sea (or, in fact, the government or the Aberdonian voters). The government can build whatever the voters like in the sea off Scotland's shores. Third, and I feel this is slightly obvious, wind turbines are not ugly and, in my humble opinion, are nice to look at in their own right. Not that it matters, since they're going MILES off shore into the sea . .  but I repeat myself.

In addition to buying giant newspaper ads trying to convince local Aberdonians that wind turbines are evil, The Donald had just written a letter to the Scottish government arguing that wind turbines will foil Scotland's chances of independence from the UK. This brings me to my fourth, and soapyest-box of points: Mr. Trump, you have absolutely no business meddling in Scottish politics. The Scottish people are fully capable of deciding their own future in regard to golf, independence and green energy without any help from your PR minions. You cannot simply tell the government of Scotland "You're Fired!" You can't even vote them out because you're not a Scottish citizen . . . unless you want us to question your birth certificate too.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Scottish Food: From the Braw Bangers to the Bellywashers

(Braw = good, Bangers = sausages, Bellywasher = pint of beer)

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
-Robert Burns, Address to Haggis

Ah, Scottish food. Where to begin? It is the subject of so many myths that perhaps it is best to first lay a couple of those to rest.

Myth 1: Scottish food is the same as English food (i.e. terrible). Now that’s just untrue and unfair. Scotland has historical ties to France and therefore the Scottish people have long been exposed to fine sauces and lovingly prepared roasted meats. That they completely missed the French cooking lesson on green vegetables is the fault of the climate. While pub grub in Scotland shares many a dish with pub grub in England, Scottish cuisine has its own unique style. Perhaps most importantly, Scotland has top notch seafood and beef to rival the best the in the world!

Myth 2: It’s all haggis all the time. I don’t know anyone here who eats haggis on a regular basis. Apart from Burns Night (the birthday celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns, which includes haggis, neeps [mashed turnips], tatties [potatoes], a lot of Scots verse and an energetic albeit drunken chorus of “Auld Lang Syne”), I have never once seen a Scottish person eating haggis. Haggis is comprised of unsavory bits of meat spiced in such a way as to conceal their origins. This traditional poor-food sustained the penny-pinching, poverty-ridden Scots through the centuries. But just like chitlins and liver in America, prosperity brought with it better tasting foods that are now the norm. Is haggis easy to find? Sure, tourists eat it all the time. You can even buy it canned at the supermarket (gross!). However, you’ll find it about as common as Rocky Mountain Oysters in the American west. Does everyone know where to find it? Sure. Does everyone eat it? No way . . . unless it’s stuffed inside a chicken breast, as in dish called “Balmoral Chicken”.

Below are some lists of my favorites, least favorites, and local treats only to be trusted at quality establishments. If you find yourself venturing to Scotland any time soon, I encourage you try some of the good stuff!

The Good Stuff: Scotland Does Lots of Food Very Well

Fish – salmon and haddock. These are locally sourced and the best I’ve ever had. Salmon in America is flown in from Alaska or (surprise, surprise) Scotland. Before I moved here I didn’t know what salmon (or lovely, white haddock, for that matter) was supposed to taste like. I was missing out!

Summer Berries - I did not know the taste of Heaven until I tried a Scottish summer strawberry. And blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries - oh my! I like these with a little cream cheese on top of a toasted crumpet. To die for.

Baked goods:
Scotch Pies – These can contain meat, veggies and even pasta. Thain’s bakery in Aberdeen is famous for the best pies in the city. My favorite is the lasagne pie (strange, I know, but good). It’s full of macaroni, meaty red sauce and cheese. Delish! The macaroni pies (full of macaroni and cheese) are also quite nice. While many Americans find carb-on-carb a little strange, pies make very handy fast food when you’re on the go.

Pastries, scones and butteries – They just love baked goods in this country. Fresh scones with butter and jam are very popular. One local favorite is a flat scone made with more butter than you want to know about called an Aberdeen buttery. I prefer regular scones, but both are very tasty.

Cheese – Scottish cheddar, particularly from Orkney and Shetland, is to die for. Yes please!

Macaroni and Cheese – Imagine the best mac & cheese you’ve ever had in America. Now try to imagine it with the best cheddar you’ve ever tasted instead of Kraft flavorless orange shreds. Mac & cheese is very popular here and considered a proper dish at pubs and cafes. It’s a great choice for vegetarians and carnivores alike.

Roast beef, chicken and pork – The Scots, like the English, love a proper Sunday roast, sometimes called a carvery. roasted chicken, beef or pork is often accompanied by stuffing and roasted potatoes, carrots, parsnips and Brussels sprouts. It’s like Thanksgiving every Sunday!

Sausages - As a Texan, the only sausages I’ve really been exposed to are Louis Rich summer sausage and Jimmy Dean. The Scots eat more sausages (sometimes called “bangers”) in more flavor varieties than you could ever imagine. Last weekend at the farmers market a local butcher was selling sausage flavored with Iron Bru, a popular Scottish soda (see my “avoid” list). We bought pork & apple and beef & tomato and had a dinner of bangers and mash (mashed potatoes). Both were excellent. I think Paul could eat sausages for dinner every day for a month.

Steak – Aberdeen Angus beef is popular even in America. The Angus cows are plentiful in the Scottish countryside and make for one tasty steak. But don’t ask for any A-1.

Oats – Like oatmeal? The Scots invented it! Porridge, as they call it, is lovely here and oats also feature in baked goods like the popular oat cakes eaten with cheese and deserts like cranachan, a sort of oat parfait with ice cream and fruit. Granola is called “oat crunchy” here and is very good, especially with honey and yogurt.

Whiskey and Beer – Do I even need to explain these? Whiskey, called “uisge beatha” (the water of life) in Scots Gaelic, is plentiful, with well over 100 distilleries in this small country. I suggest trying it, even if you don’t think you’ll like it. A little water helps me appreciate it a lot more. Popular beers made in Scotland include Belhaven, McEwan’s and Brew Dog. Brew Dog is currently the favorite of young hipsters in northern Scotland, as it is made in Inverness.

Foods which are safer in nice restaurants:

Cullen skink – a creamy haddock soup similar to chowder. This recipe is named for the town of Cullen on the north coast of Aberdeenshire and it's done really well in good restaurants.

Stovies – an Aberdeen specialty, this is a meat and vegetable mash. Imagine you took all your leftover roast meat and veggies after Sunday dinner and made it into a paste, then pluralized the name for no good reason. If the original ingredients that went into the stovies were good, so too will be the stovies. If you’re at a chippie or a dodgy pie shop, don’t bother.

Black pudding – I only recommend trying this blood pudding when prepared by a chef and nicely spiced. It can be tasty or terrible. It’s all about where you have it.

Haggis – never eat this in a touristy place.  As with black pudding, only trust a good chef! It tastes even better when kilted men are present.

Foods to Avoid

Vegetables at pubs – if it’s colorful then it’s frozen and flavorless. You’re better off sticking with potatoes at pubs and enjoying quality veggies at a nicer restaurant or cafe.

Scotch eggs – Some people love scotch eggs, which are boiled eggs wrapped in limp bacon and greasy breading. I think they’re gross.

White pudding – If you’ve heard of black pudding (made from blood), perhaps you can imagine what goes into white pudding. It’s made from marrow and fat leftover after butchering meat. No thank you.

Kebab/Chinese/Curry/Burger/Pizza Takeaway Shops & “Chippies” – These are ubiquitous. If 5 international cuisines served in one dingy storefront doesn’t trigger red flags for you, check out the grease leftover at the bottom of your takeout container. There are genuine, lovely restaurants where you can get gyros, shwarma, fried rice, curries, hamburgers pizzas and fish & chips, but never all in the same building. When I want takeaway here I get it from a proper restaurant. Drive thrus are not common in here. I can only think of two in Aberdeen – McDonalds and Burger King, both of which I avoid even in America.

“Bar-be-que,” and “Tex-Mex” – Both these cuisines (often confused with each other and with Cajun) are popular here and there are British chain restaurants selling foods that claim to be American BBQ or authentic Tex-Mex. Take it from this Texan: Run for your life! That is unless you enjoy Cajun-spiced duck burritos with sugary salsa. My general rule (one I copied from Anthony Bourdain) is to stick with the local specialties wherever you are. There are plenty of good things to eat in Scotland, and when I’m homesick for BBQ or Tex-Mex, I make it myself.

Iron Bru – A Scottish soft drink banned in the USA for it’s harmful chemical ingredients. It tastes like Mountain Dew with fat added and looks like orange toxic waste.

Scottish cuisine has a lot to offer and I suggest you get yourself a plane ticket and come check it out!

Friday, March 2, 2012

To Be An Immigrant

To be an immigrant is to be alone

because no single person in your divided world

can know every part of you.

To be an immigrant is to work

twice as hard without the benefit

of “native” understanding.

To be an immigrant is to have your heart broken

over and over again as those you love

spread far apart beyond your reach.

To be an immigrant is to misunderstand

often, and yet understand

what no one else does.

To be an immigrant is to know secrets

that cannot be translated

but must be experienced.

To be an immigrant is to suffer,

and struggle,

and grow.

Lately I have been experiencing frequent cultural hiccups that make up the immigrant’s learning curve. I accepted a job, only to find out that I cannot start work until I receive a National Insurance number (similar to a Social Security number in the USA). I waited in line at the post office to mail a letter that was in a prepaid envelope. (How was I supposed to know? It didn’t say, “postage paid?”) I got terribly lost in a familiar street and gave up looking for the destination, only to discover later that I was next door to it when I gave up looking. These are the daily trials of living in a foreign country. I keep remembering a particular nugget of wisdom from “Eat Pray Love” when an Italian tutor said to Elizabeth Gilbert “You should be very polite with yourself when learning something new.” It’s difficult for me to have that patience. I’ve always been an A student who prided myself on getting things right the first time. But as an immigrant I am bound to get some things wrong because there is a wide range of cultural knowledge one can only learn from experience. And so the girl who hates to get things wrong must do just that and do it with patience for herself. Oh, the irony! I’m very grateful for Paul’s love and support. When I make a cultural mistake and do not want to forgive myself, he offers me the patience and understanding I need. I have gained a profound respect for immigrants around the world who cross language, bureaucratic and cultural boundaries to experience a bigger world. My ancestors left Scotland knowing they would never see home again. Luckily, travel and the Internet make it possible for me to visit the people I love, near and far. Nobody appreciates Skype more than an immigrant!

Song of the Day: "With a Wonder and a Wild Desire" by Irish American band Flogging Molly