Monday, July 24, 2006

A Dog, Cat or a Television? -- July 24, 2006

Which is the odd man out? The answer? Of course it’s the cat. But, say my dumfounded American friends, shouldn’t it be the television? Not so, sayeth your friendly Brit. You need a license for the dog and for the television. You don’t need one for the cat. Years ago, Monty Python explained the simple point, when John Cleese walked into the Post Office and declared to the clerk – “I need to buy a fish license.”

And so, like John Cleese, I stood in front of the Post Office clerk. I had bought my television, but didn’t have a license. At least I don’t need to demonstrate I can operate the wretched item. All they need is my name, addy, date of birth and – yes the National Insurance Number. I found my old one from thirty five years ago. Then I had to fork out the dough-- 131 pounds (about 250 US clams.) You pay it every year. Can you get away without paying it? You can sure try, but every now and then the TV police cruise about the neighborhood in a big van armed with antennae, looking like a giant insect. They pick up working TV sets and pounce on anyone watching Big Brother without a license.

That also goes for Friends, CSI, Desperate Housewives and the US invasion. Since coming here we’ve watched little television. In the States, I watched little partly because I detest commercial interruptions. Here, thanks to the TV license, the BBC channels are commercial free, but the programs still don’t grab me. The reality TV craze has hit the UK, and there’s little sign of something new to tear you away from a good book -- a script written by a talented writer. On this side of the pond, the creative well seems to have run dry.

Turning on the radio, we find another world. We listened to half an hour while someone explained what music he’d take onto a desert island. The series has been alive for over fifty years. Then I found a radio play, performed by voices that sent the shivers down my back. I didn’t need to see what was going on. I could imagine. Somewhere out there a coffin descends into the depths, a stranger knocks on the door, figures from the past awaken and send the protagonist into madness. Radio is full of such pieces, some modern and written specifically for radio, or adaptations of literary works. And you’ll hear them without commercial interruption. I wonder who the listeners are? My sister listens on the weekend while she is ironing. I’m sure many others do. I am more in awe that the art form has survived in an age where everyone is rushing to get from A to B, moving too fast to sit down and listen to the radio. Have I stepped back into the world of Bizzarro? Who pays for radio drama? Actually we do with that !@#$% TV license. Radio drama is like poetry or opera. It never pays for itself, but then it doesn’t need to. There are no advertisers out there trying to sell a Rolls Royce to the radio drama audience. The program directors know there are folk who tune in each week to the play, and like it, and that’s enough. You need writers, and there appear to be some with a well trained ear for good dialog, who are still paid for their scripts.

So we bought not only a TV but a radio. In the empty living room, I sat by the large windows and struggled with the TV aerial, waiting for a picture to appear on the (fully licensed) gadget. From the radio issued a violin concerto by Philip Glass, hearty music that filled the empty space. Enchanting. I may never hear it again but I’ll remember it.

I doubt that his CD sold more than a few thousand copies.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

SCOT-MEX July 20

What’s wrong with me? I can’t sit still, so I pace back and forth in my apartment. My head pounds like a broken drum. The apartment walls creep closer as if they want to shut me in. Sure, I miss Amber who is down in Scone taking care of my mother. Things are quiet here, but why does my hand itch for a cigarette though I haven't smoked for years? The light bulb comes on. Of course, I haven’t had Mexican food since leaving Texas a month ago. Surely I knew that in coming to Aberdeen I’d be without my weekly fix. That was part of the deal. Deal be damned! I’m going out for enchiladas, margaritas and salsa.

I found Pancho Villas, a small Mexican restaurant across the street from a beautiful church, now a modern restaurant. Scanning the menu I find enchiladas, fajitas and so on. I gasp. Potatoes in the enchiladas? Have Mexicans have ever encountered neeps and tatties or know what they look like? But hell, this place isn't Mama Ninfas; I'll set my expectations appropriately.

I order a margarita on the rocks and spinach enchiladas. For a while I stare at the empty table before realizing that chips and salsa haven’t appeared. Usually you munch on those before you even see the menu. The margarita arrives; it has a strong acerbic taste. But where’s the good stuff? I’m a cheap date and usually one margarita sends me off singing. After finishing this one, I’m so sober I could drive on the left, down a narrow winding road with my eyes closed.

The enchiladas arrive, topped with a fragrant cheese sauce, Spanish rice and beans on the side and two lonesome tortilla chips stuck in the beans. Realising that the food might need extra zip, I ask for a side of salsa. I finish one enchilada; it’s mild, savory, but seasoned by someone who didn’t care for spicy food. Though tasty, the enchilada doesn’t sooth my craving or put to rest my addiction. The salsa arrives, so I spread it on the remaining enchilada. No! They couldn’t have done this. The salsa tastes like Italian pasta sauce. Did someone buy pasta sauce thinking that because Italy and Mexico are both hot countries, their sauces have to be similar?

The young waiter arrives and in broad Scots asks if everything is all right.

“Yes, but I was expecting the food to be more spicy.”

She returns a very penetrating look, as if to say, “Another bloody American.”

I ask if they adapt Mexican food to suit the local palate. Unless it’s Indian curry, the hot and spicy doesn’t go well with local tastes. She agrees that this is the Scottish version of Mexican food. Scot-Mex.

As Monty Python would say, “There isn’t much Mexican spam in it.”

As I go to the cashier to pay my bill, I find a sweet twenty something kid there who asks in broekn English how she can help. She’s too fair skinned to be Mexican, so I try Polish. She smiles and replies in Polish that she loves to hear the language up here.


A Church, a Restaurant or a Pub? July 18, 2006

It sounds like a joke or a riddle. So have a guess at what the picture is about. Meanwhile let’s walk down Union Street in Aberdeen, then down Corrections Close to the maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Many steeples rise above the granite city, making you think that people here are religious. Approaching the buildings you’ll see classic Presbyterian architecture – some of the stateliest in Scotland. But upon entering the peaked doorway, you’re more likely to find a pub or a restaurant. Amber and I spent a delightful evening in one, sampling the local French cuisine. Unfortunately the fish was overcooked. Several other churches had some of the best local beer on tap. Little remains inside of the quiet space where choirs once sang and ministers with raised fist laid down the law. On Sundays, be careful which building you enter. You’ll find either the minister or the bartender.

Aberdeen may hold the record for churches converted to pubs, restaurants or apartment houses. A phenomenon all over Scotland, it’s nevertheless legendary in the northeast. Either the city used to be excessively religious, or since the oil boom, it’s become excessively a-religious. Growing up in Perthshire I never sensed that religion was an integral part of people’s lives. My neighbors went to church once a year. The few times I entered a Presbyterian church, I found the minister mostly preaching to a choir. Catholic churches were better populated, but not by folk who were gung ho to be there. You had to be there every Sunday, or else there’d be hell to pay for. Today the opium of the people has been replaced by whisky and beer. Well might the minister quote Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas: “I took my stand in the midst of the world and in the flesh I appeared to them, and I found them all drunk.”

On Sundays, we’re made aware of our religious roots. Most businesses are shut. You can’t buy alcohol. Bells in the remaining real churches play beautiful medleys. Not cheap recordings but live performances with bell ringers pulling at the ropes.

I’ve yet to discover a mega-church in Aberdeen -- an excited congregation of several thousands with the preacher offering salvation, health and prosperity, but that church has its home in warmer climates. Life in the northeast can be tough.You have a harsh climate, gray skies. cold wind and long winter nights. The oil boom has not benefited most working people whose wages remain low while the cost of housing has gone through the roof. Local taxes keep climbing, and the hospitals remain as shabby as ever. Old farms are being replaced with housing developments and the money disappears into a few rich pockets. I suspect that churches do not speak to the common people in language that they understand, hence they remain empty.

Churches still prosper in Cults, Banchory and suburbs where folk are more affluent, many connected with the oil and gas business; where expats live. The banal connection between religiosity and income may not indicate that folk need God to take care of their money. Or that they have more disposable time to spend in church but that they are the mobile -- here for three years or so. Church is a good way to meet others. Working people have well established networks and would rather socialize in pubs or in their homes.

Amber and I can usually tell when the pubs let out, around 2AM, because we are awakened by singing in the streets. Though not on key, the tune is recognizable. In the US the only socially acceptable place to sing is – you guessed it, in church. I once tried to sing at the Onion Creek pub in the Heights and occasioned many dirty looks. It’s not that the old church vibes in the converted pub encourage singing. Scottish folk sing everywhere: at football games, when they’re tipsy, at parties, on buses, generally when they’re happy.

Sunday, July 16, 2006



It’s not the name of the latest Scottish heavy metal band. It’s fluttering and squawking above our heads: thousands of seagulls who have invaded Aberdeen and taken up permanent residence. Why confine yourself to hunting for darting fish in the sea when the city provides the best, fried fish and chips?

You know they’re everywhere by their wild squawks that wake you in the morning, at two AM and whenever you try to sit down and think. Like drama queens (thank you Sue) they tilt their heads back, beaks to the sky and belt out their arias. Each one needs to be heard and make her squawk louder and more emphatic than her neighbor’s.

While I walk to work in the morning, they wheel above my head or strut along the pavement like they own the place, dive into trash cans and pull out stale fish and chips or leftover hamburger. If you sit down to picnic on the grass, you’ll find a couple of bloated birds, wingspans like albatrosses, eyeing you. They’re impudent enough to dive in and fly off with your sandwich if you set it down to make love to your lady. I saw one dive down, grab a plastic grocery sack with food, and make off with it. Their white shit rains down indiscriminately, dribbles down on your car, your coat, and if you’re unlucky will catch you in the eye should you look up.

In Richard Bach’s fable (sorry guys, we sixties kids fell for that sort of writing which no one has read since those days,) the Breakfast Flock cleaned up beaches and chased after boats. Disgusted by such behavior Jonathan Livingston decided to go it alone and learn to fly. Perhaps he taught them something. Watch how they come in for a landing on the tall chimneys above the granite row houses. Down they swoop at thirty miles an hour, land on a ten inch wide pad and never miss their footing. I doubt we can manage that feat with our helicopters armed with our fancy computer navigation.

Despite their droppings they leave a clean city. You’ll rarely see any scrap of food left on the sidewalks. And that’s not because we have efficient scaffys. (English or American speakers had better look up the word. I’m tired of translating from Scottish.) I see the scaffy occasionally, an elderly man with a frizzy beard, pushing his cart along the pavement, a large bin in the middle and two large brooms in their cradles, one on each side. He cleans up seagull shit and barf from last Friday night, but I never see him pick up a scrap of food.

Leave it for our screaming friends in the sky to help.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


The debate in the British Parliament on whether to introduce a national identity card, appears to be going nowhere. In a land where you leave home without a driving license or any other form of ID in your pocket, a national identity card goes against the grain. If a cop stops you for drunk driving or disorderly conduct, he’s likely to open the conversation with one of the following:

“Sir, I must ask you to accompany me to the station. Are you coming quietly?”
“Sir/Madam, can I have your name and address?”

Enough people have given phony names and addresses that the government has decided to try the national ID card.

In other ways, we’re definitely not in Kansas any more. When I went to the bank to open a checking account, the bank lady looked me up and down, then asked whether I could provide her my salary – and proof of it too. Really! I told her to look up my bank balance and convince herself that I wasn’t a deadbeat, but that didn’t wash. I can think of only one occasion in the US (buying a house) where I’ve told anyone my salary. Soon I realized that cheques have gone the way of the dinosaur anyway. People pay for groceries, gas and whatever with debit cards tied to a PIN. To pay utility bills, they use direct debit. You provide the utility company with your bank code and account number – and – yes, they lift the money from your account. Dazed by the prospect, I asked the cashier at the bank if this was considered safe. What about identity theft? “Oh it’s quite safe. Everyone does it,” she said, with a quick look at me to ascertain what planet I was from.

It dawned on me that the British government was somewhat intrusive when I filled out the application for Amber’s visa. After answering when and where we were married, I saw the following questions: Where did you and your spouse first meet? How many times did you date? How many times do you see her? When did you last see her? Are you committed to a permanent relationship? What is your sleeping arrangement?

I wouldn’t expect ACLU to be excited about closed circuit cameras on the streets, or speed cameras on highways, that mail the vehicle’s owner a nice surprise. BTW, you can dispose of the ticket if you name your kid as the actual driver of the car. Or you take the bullet for him/her. On the other hand, the cops behave with decorum. Signs on the highway warn you of speed cameras and that the cops are hiding in the bushes half a mile ahead. In this country only the true dumb asses get caught.

Visiting the doctor is also different. Amber and I drove to register at the clinic (known here as a surgery) in Kingswells, because that surgery serves the area where we live. We don’t know what doctors operate there, but I assumed that they passed the relevant college courses and wouldn’t operate on my brain without a little experience under the belt. We fill out a simple form with name, address and favorite medications. No space for insurance, job or financial status. If you’re a resident, you’re covered. Not that I’m crazy about doctors or nurses, but if either of us get a nagging pain in the chest, we only have to worry about the pain, not financial ruin.

Then there’s the British open door policy on immigration. Here in Aberdeen, half the maids at the hotel are Polish. The past two years Poles and Eastern Europeans have been coming to Britain in droves, like 200,000 a year. They take jobs as bus drivers, farm hands, and hotel helpers. The sort of jobs that the locals don’t particularly want. Poland’s economy is in the toilet, hence the exodus. Sound familiar? Is does, except for one factor. The immigrants are legal, they have the right to work here and they pay their taxes. They also tend to blend in with the locals and aren’t obvious until they speak. Some will eventually return, but most may not.

After all, this is the land of opportunity.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006



True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his e’e;
And there he saw a ladye bright
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

We weren’t on Huntly bank, or anywhere close to it, but among the bare rolling peaks of the Cairngorm mountains, ancient with rounded tops and valleys sculpted by ice. Nevertheless, as we paused by a clear brook that tumbled out of the hills and babbled under out feet, its waters dark and clear, I wondered if I’d look up and see the Queen of Faerie come riding along. Whether she’d point out the gate to her kingdom as she long ago did to Thomas:

“And see ye not yon bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the Road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.”

Early in the morning we did not meet anyone on the trail. It climbed, and climbed – then some more. Soon the valley floor was far below, and Loch Morlich shrank to the size of a pond. Amber asked where all the water in the creeks came from; I suspected that at the foot of the tall cliff that drew closer to us we’d find a corrie (Scottish for a glacial lake.) Though neither of us had found our mountain legs, having spent twenty years in the Houston flats, I wanted to climb high enough to see the corrie. Except for the trail, lined with granite boulders, you didn’t see any sign of human activity. We could have stepped a few hundred years into the past and not known it. We stopped at the edge of the ridge and lay down in the bracken, finding it soft and dry. Lulled by the sweet magic, like a tune played beyond the range of your ear, you could easily fall asleep there and wonder where you were when you awakened.

As we climbed on, and the open sky drew closer, the clouds descended and drew their veil about the peaks. A bitter wind blew in our faces, and soon the effort of placing one foot before the other grew more demanding. The corrie came into view, a small dark lake far below. To touch its waters you’d have to hike cross-country – not difficult but something you’d think before doing. Weather can change quickly to rain, in winter time to snow. Many have frozen to death among those valleys. As we started our descent, a cold wind blew from behind: the clouds drew tighter over the hills. Picking our way over the rocks and ledges demanded all our attention, and seemed as slow as the ascent.

We passed several groups of kids, mostly teenage guys with a gray-haired man bringing up the rear. Armed with maps and compasses they were learning the art of exploring the wild, later to go cross country with only the map as a guide. They said, “Hiya!” as they passed. Like other Americans we tended to say, “Hi.”

Back at the ski center lodge, we ordered a cup of vegetable soup. The medley of carrots, onions, leeks and barley could never have felt more welcome. Bringing us back to life.

In winter time, after a good snowfall, the lodge wakens up; ski lifts hum and the mountain funicular buzzes up the peaks. A different place, but then solitude and magic is probably not what the snow lovers seek.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Five Players and the Scottish Play – July 9, 2006

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the story of a man seduced by witches, and his sexual wife, to murder his uncle so as to become king. He subsequently bumped off other noblemen who interfered with his ambition. Getting to the top is as difficult as staying there. Not only is the play replete with hallucinations, magic and madness but the play has a curse on it, which prevents actors and directors preparing it from uttering the play’s name. Safely, they refer to it as the Scottish Play.

So Amber and I sat on Drum Castle’s lawn yesterday evening and watched five actors defy all the curses to perform the entire play. The men and women switched in and out of roles not fussy whether Donald Bane, Macduff or the witches were male or female. At times they engaged in self parody as they belted out their lines. The Porter strung out his scene to twenty minutes while he wandered among the audience and engaged their help. When the inevitable clouds gathered over us and let loose a summer sprinkle, a few umbrellas went up but no one left. The rain moved on but a bitter wind turned our feet and hands to ice. Amber and I huddled on our blanket. Hadn’t we left Texas to get away from the heat? We were glad for the half-time cup of hot tea, then watched as Birnam wood marched to Dunsinane castle. There was still plenty of daylight for the final curtain at 10.30.

Macbeth has to be the most difficult of any Shakespeare’s play. I’ve walked out of a couple of productions too painful to watch. But this one felt fresh and vibrant, with an infectious enthusiasm.

He’s a most un-modern hero. Not an Indiana Jones or a Ted Bundy who kills without any remorse – the sort of guy people like to read about, but a man tormented by conscience, pursued by nightmares and visions. Though Lady Macbeth professes that a little water washes the blood from her hands, we later see a woman who washes her hands in her sleep and wonders that “the old man had so much blood.” But every Shakespearean murderer is racked by a guilt that prevents him from enjoying his subsequent life. Hamlet doesn’t have it in him to even kill his uncle. Claudius kneels to pray to assuage his guilt pangs. The ghost of Caesar haunts Brutus for the final two acts. Were murderers haunted by their nefarious actions more fashionable in Elizabethan times? Was this Shakespeare’s way of telling us that “crime doesn’t pay?” Or was Shakespeare himself ridden by guilt which he projected onto his characters?

I suspect the latter. We know nothing about who wrote the plays, so they have to speak for themselves. Killers in today’s news rarely display much remorse, even the day of their execution. In our “can do” culture guilt is not only unfashionable but unmanly. Please – let’s not have any “to be or not to be.” Shakespeare wrote in the shadow of the Reformation. His characters seem ridden with the Catholic doubt and guilt that had to be prevalent in England. Hadn’t the Pope declared that all Anglicans were damned to everlasting fire? In response, Henry VIII offerered the chopping block to anyone within his reach who naysaid his claim to be the head of the church, or questioned the validity of his divorces. As he heads off to murder Duncan, Macbeth captures the spirit of those times as he says – “That bell is a knell that summons your soul, Duncan, to heaven or to hell.”

The plot is blatantly unhistorical. Macbeth was a good king with a better claim on the throne than Duncan, a nasty man whom he killed not by knifing him in his sleep, but fairly in battle. His Norwegian wife, Gruagh had to be very loving and supportive. Under Macbeth, Scotland was at peace for twelve years. Enough time that Macbeth undertook a journey to Rome to ask for the Pope’s absolution for killing his uncle. Birnam wood would have a ways walk to Dunsinane – a tramp of 30 miles. Shakespeare was less fussy about geography than about history. But does the real story make the Scottish Play less interesting?

I submit that the play is much more English than Scottish. Despite its Scottish theme, psychologically the play deals more with England and needs to be understood in its Elizabethan context.

For more Scottish material, try the writings of Robert Burns, two centuries later, Sir Walter Scott or Robert Louis Stevenson. About whom, later.

Thursday, July 06, 2006



We don’t drive much. The car stays in the parking lot unless we need to leave town. No, we don’t take buses or taxis either. We walk. You don’t have to live in the city center for your feet to take you interesting places, to find the small gems that hide down narrow streets where you’d never notice them driving. And why not? Because your eyes would be on the road while you maneuver around parked cars, avoiding oncoming traffic and stray pedestrians like us who might not know the rules. Whether you want to go to a government building, a specialty shop, restaurant or bus station, you can walk there. Lunchtime, Union Street turns into a river of pedestrians who will run you down if you’re “not in the flow.” But be careful when you step off the kerb. Roads are for cars. Californian etiquette of pedestrians having the right of way is as remote from here as Hollywood Boulevard. But when you do get the green pedestrian walk sign, you can walk into the middle of the intersection, do a yoga pose or dance a Scottish jig and you’re perfectly safe.

So it comes down to knowing the rules, spelled out in that booklet called “The Highway Code.” I read it at bedtime as it’s useful and helps me fall asleep. Amber swears she won’t touch it until the night before her practical test. Unlike in Texas where at 16 you can take a certificate to the drivers license office, signed by your dad where he says that he taught you to drive and that you’re a good ol’ boy – and they give you your drivers license, over here it’s not only a rite of passage but a commando course. The practical test is like the SAT – and you’d better take practice tests or a course if you want to pass. For the practical test, the inspector can flunk you if he doesn’t like the way you hold the steering wheel.

After we bought our car, Amber and I stopped at a self-service photo booth at the post office, snapped some mugshots and with application forms and passports in hand walked over the driving licence office. We don’t have to do this now, as our Texas licenses are valid for a year, but if by then we don’t have our UK licenses, we’ll be relegated to the ranks of learners – having to drive accompanied by a kid who has a UK license, with “L plates” on our cars and forbidden to drive on freeways. Better get started ASAP.

At the driving license office I pulled out the ace from my sleeve, my old UK license that expired in 1974. The small two inch tall booklet with a red fabric cover imprinted with a crown and the words “Driving License,” made the female attendant laugh. “What have we here?” She showed it to her colleague who shrugged, but nodded affirmatively.

“Yes,” she said. “We can exchange this for a full license. You won’t need to take the test.”

A sudden gasp from Amber beside me. “This is SO not fair! I can’t believe it! You owe me a beer – much more than a beer for this one.”

The official looked at my passport and return it. However she took Amber’s and said it would be returned by mail. Nothing personal – it’s just that those transatlantic colonials need an extra check. Not unlike how Americans fingerprint the Brits as they arrive in the States. We’re not there yet with international trust.

We followed-up our errand with a beer at the Prince of Wales, an old-fashioned pub in one of those hidden alleys, near Corrections Wynd. They serve their own beer, with a very yeasty and light taste. A good place also to talk to people.

Come visit us and we’ll take you there.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


The WOMAN drives the sale!!

So, while we walked around the car lot, looking at various vehicles, wondering what would be the best choice for us, why did the fast-talking salesman mostly look at Amber? It’s not that Steve ignored me. He just didn’t think I was that important. Even though cars are supposed to be the guy thing. They’re advertised in sports sections and on TV during Miami Vice or the Superbowl. “Irrelevant,” Amber said as we eased out of the parking lot to take our Vauxhall Meriva on its maiden voyage. “The guy may have the purse strings but the woman drives the sale. And they know that. All she has to do is to fall in love with the car, or shake her head, and it’s all over.”

Our trek started at the Arnold Clark Toyota. Mr Clark, a white-haired gentleman, owns the empire of second hand auto stores that stretches all over Scotland. Iain (my brother in law) said that he sees Arnold at church every now and then. The salesman at the Toyota store, a tall pleasant looking chap in his fifties, also named Ian, listened as we described our dream car – a station wagon, known over here as an estate car, cheap, economical on the gas (petrol over here – which costs about $7.00/gallon). “I’m not sure I have exactly that,” Ian said to Amber. “But if you went to the Vauxhall dealer, he might.” We took a four door hatchback out for a spin. “Nice ride, but it doesn’t have rear window visibility like a station wagon, or its storage capacity,” Amber said. I pointed to a second car that was only a year old, and cheap. “Bad vibes,” Amber said. “Probably bad karma too.” After spending over an hour with us, Ian gave us detailed directions to the Vauxhall place. “I don’t need to sell customers their car,” he said. “A Toyota car sells itself.” He told us that he had been an insurance salesman, but the stress almost killed him. After a kidney operation, he decided to sell cars. He likes Toyotas and enjoys talking to people.

At Vauxhall we found Steve, a wiry twenty something salesman, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and a little scattered. He showed us a large (American size) station wagon, and some SUVs (known over here as MPVs). Amber climbed into a large one and smiled seeing the view and huge hauling capacity. Paul might want to haul a load of manure (known over here as muck.) But fuel economy? “Forty-five mpg,” Steve said. (A British gallon is 20% larger, so we’re at 37mpg-US) Impressive. “It’s a diesel,” he said. Doubting Thomas as I am I asked for documentation. While Steve ransacked his office for some brochures, Amber and I stood in the showroom and stared at a Meriva – smaller than an SUV but with the tall structure, and great for storage. “I have a diesel like that in another store. I’ll transport it here for you,” he said. Then he clapped his hand to his head. “Wait a minute, I brought some in last week. Let’s look at it.” He led us across a field of cars to the target. “It’s half a year old with 4,000 miles. Diesel with a 1.7 liter engine.” Asking price is 9,800 pounds, but he promised to get the price down for us. It’s fuel economy. 65 mpg on the highway (54 US) – a little worse in cities. In a country where fuel prices really hurt, manufacturers have no problem delivering fuel efficient cars. Even SUVs.

It drove smoothly. We both loved the view and the space inside, and that the car is small enough to maneuver on the narrow roads, and easy to parallel park. A little noisier than the gas models, but not unreasonably. Putting my nose to the tailpipe I could hardly smell the exhaust. I looked under the chasis and under the bonnet (the hood). Very clean all over. Steve got the price down to 9,495 ($17,000) – out of the door. Close to our budget limit, but we like the car. We sealed the deal, though we can’t drive it away for a few days, until our new insurance company sends over proof of insurance. The dealer also needs to spiff up the car for sale and check it out mechanically.

“Not a bad experience,” I said to Amber as we headed back into town. “Now let’s go and apply for a UK driving license.” Yes, you need to take a theory and practical test.

But that’s another story.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


Sunday, July 02, 2006

While my husband is busy at the office watching the World Cup, somebody has to attend to the business of dinner, a noble position to which I have duly and formally appointed myself….so, on Thursday, against the advise of everyone who maneuvers quite comfortably in the 21st Century by automobile, I set out on foot to the harbor with the simple, unmistakable purpose of buying the freshest fish I could find – the Thursday morning catch. The docks are not on any tourist map. The steep climb up Market Street, the long stretch of pavement to the River Dee and then over the bridge where you realize you’re not in Kansas anymore, is the neighborhood of Torry where you can find Hosie’s just beyond the yellow bin that stores grit for the snowy roads of winter. It took me a mere forty minutes to get my greedy little hands on this succulent North Sea Salmon that I’m sure claims still the flavor to inspire great poetry. “That’ll be five pounds forty,” boomed the voice from across the counter to chance being heard above the noise of the ice block deliveries, the warehouse workers sweeping boat refuse and other bones opposite its one lone customer and, in general, the din of dialectical patois that vibrate the morning air. This is one of the heartlands of Scotland, where the fish monger likely speaks a mixture of English and Gaelic to the untrained ear of the American, who labors to catch a word edgewise.

With a fresh supply of salmon and the morning not yet near behind me, I turn happily away from Hosie’s to traverse my trip home again, back to Rosemount Place for a visit to I. J. Mellis. (Having met the cheese monger and now the fish monger, the idea of returning to a commercial market quite literally sends me into a state of absolute tantrum). But first, I must find a good local baker. I actually stopped at a bakery just up the street from Mellis’s place (on Tuesday) and found myself in a bit of a bind, because there were no freshly baked breads, just sweet rolls and packaged white bread, but the girl behind the counter was such a dear that I bought a roll so as not to appear the ungrateful guest. To spare you every detail of my walk back from the harbor and every bakery I popped my head into, sufficient to say that there are no bakeries in Aberdeen that offer good savory loaves of bread made from organic grain and flour. (Although on Saturday at the Farmer’s Market, we did meet the owner of Crannach Hand Baked Breads, but he’s just now (in the next few weeks) opening a bakery here in Aberdeen City).

Now it just so happened that I saw a rack of freshly baked bread, baked right there on the premise at I.J. Mellis on my first trip into the store, but I was too busy yielding to the romantic idea of buying my cheese in one store, my bread in another, my wine in yet another and so on that I was convinced that Mellis’s could only offer me cheese, but how terribly incorrect I was.

On my list that day was more olive oil, cheese and bread though unfortunately I did have to make a dreaded stop at the grocery store for herbs and tomatoes, but like bad tasting medicine, I ducked in and out quickly.

Please indulge this lengthy prelude to my second visit to I.J. Mellis which was nothing short of mythological.

So I needed bread and cheese and olive oil and as I approached the door, there was Hailey with her bright smile and welcoming gestures to try new cheeses and chutneys and in general inquired about what exactly I needed today and when I told her a nice parmesan for our pasta, she expertly suggested something Irish, a hard cheese that would be perfect for pasta, and, of course, it was. I grabbed a loaf of unwrapped 9 grain bread from the rack and then went to inspect the olive oil. Here is what I found:

On the bottle of Affiorato – Extra Virgin Olive Oil – it read: “It is strange that so few people have heard about the 'lacrima di affioramento' (rising drops); and yet, producers of extra-virgin olive oil, ground in stone mills with all the attention to and respect for tradition, know what it is because it is the oil they keep for themselves. It is the oil which is skimmed from the surface with special zinc containers. This has been done for centuries because the oil which rises naturally to the surface is the mildest, the lightest and the most perfumed that an olive can give. This oil has not been touched by machines or filters. This is what the 'lacrima di affioramento' is: the best an olive can offer. For the first time in the history of my business, I've decided to make it available to you." Gianni Calogiuri

The reason I’m so enchanted is because the owner probably knows personally Gianni Calogiuri, and has probably shared a good laugh with him over a glass of Chianti, a bit of bread and cheese and olive oil, in the same way he knows the woman in Orkney with 14 cows and Wendy, the one in Wales who makes the best vinegars.

I’m enchanted because this unassuming storefront on this very modern street of Rosemount Place in Aberdeen City can take you on a journey in time where you can know the tree from which the oil comes, can know the cow that yields the cheese and can know the baker from whose soul the dough was kneaded fresh that morning.

The flavors of our dinner on Thursday night mingled like old friends. (Menu follows) The conversation was superior as we talked about our plans for writing, our new house and, in general, our immense pleasure at having finally arrived in Aberdeenshire to stay.

We are not tourists anymore.

Finally, we did go to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday and we did buy some strawberries and some bread, but it was a little too much on the “crafty” side for me and as I made my way past the individual booths of necklaces and picture frames, I secretly wished to be back at I. J. Mellis to bask in the fragrance of the plentiful cheeses, to buy a freshly baked loaf of bread, to taste a new chutney, but in particular to indulge in the delight of hearing a new story, one that turns back the clock to a time when we knew the origin of our food and the journey one took from the garden to the table was as short as the ease of spinning hopes and dreams with your best friend.

At table.

Menu: Fresh North Sea Salmon placed in a ceramic casserole with sprigs of fresh thyme in white wine put into a cold oven and heated up slowly for about 30 minutes.

Pasta with fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and olive oil, grated Irish cheese.

Freshly baked bread and Spanish Wine.

A bowl of Olives (yet to be bought from the source).

Conversation: Paul and Amber with a wee visit from the gods.

Much Love.

THE WORLD CUP -- 2006 July 1

Okay, take it from me on this page, that the French team is going to win the World Cup. They play with a superior level of artistry (in their 1-0 game against Brazil) that I haven’t seen in any of the semi-finalists. But, to win the Cup you also need luck. The penalty shootout between England and Portugal, decided at the last moment, seemed to be more like a game decided by flipping a coin.

So here am I, a guy who with no interest in sports, I mean zero, writing about the local religion – football. (In the US, it’s called soccer, but you all know what I mean). I realized the seriousness of the World Cup that afternoon when I couldn’t find my boss. He was in the conference room following the game on the large screen. I asked who he was rooting for, but didn’t receive a clear answer. Perhaps like religion, there’s a taboo against revealing beliefs or feelings that might prove controversial. Three days later, we had a tele-conference meeting. Some folk muttered that the meeting interfered with the game and that they might just skip the meeting. We struggled for an hour to get our conference equipment to work, and wondered if the football enthusiasts had sabotaged it so as to get us out of the football-viewing room.

So to last Friday when after a long and dry presentation on our company plan, my manager announced that we should take off at 3:30 pm and he would buy drinks for everyone at the local pub, so we could all watch the game. A German, he couldn’t miss the quarter final game of Germany vs Argentina (a penalty shootout sent Germany into the semi-finals). The pub was well it by sunlight coming through tall windows and furnished with ancient wooden tables. The barman drew the curtains for us. We huddled before the large screen but ended up watching and chatting at the same time. Between the action, I managed to finally chat with several colleagues, enough that we’d be more than faces in the hallway. After a beer all caution melted away and I found out where some had bet their money in the office pool. To heck with work. There would be plenty of time to generate profits for ExxonMobil, and defeat the approaching Spanish Armada.

Like never before I found myself drawn into the game, studying the players’ disciplined footwork and bodywork as if it were ballet. If I admitted this to the blokes, I’d be laughed out to the world’s ends. But put aside the dramatic sparring, sideways kicks at each other’s butts and faces, the yellow and red cards. Watch the French players manipulate the ball, send it effortlessly exactly where it needs to go, and you’ll see a dance, choreography improvised on the fly, physical movements executed with speed, precision and total control. It took years of training the body to reach the Level. What am I describing?

In my previous Scottish life I never liked football. The effects of a bout with polio lasted into my teens and made me un-physical, and un-sporting. Living in the States, I never understood Americam football rules or tried out the game. Besides, books were more interesting. Watching the World Cup is not going to make a sports follower out of me, but now I understand what the excitement is all about.

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