Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Burns Suppers All Around

Monday was Robert Burn's birthday! Rabbie, as they call him (though when I see that spelling, I can't help but see Rabbi with an e at the end rather than a cute adaptation of Robby) is their national poet. In America and England, they teach us that the Bard is Shakespeare, but in fact the Bard is one womanizing Scot, Robert Burns. Last week and this week everyone was hosting Burns Suppers in honor of Rabbie, and so of course I tagged along to see what all the fuss was about.

Some of the awesome people I work with invited me to a fancy Burns supper where they'd bought a table and that is how I ended up at a Burns supper far nicer than I had the right to be at. It was a dream.

Probably 80% of the men were wearing kilts. Like real deal wearing kilts with the knee-high socks and fancy purse things and everything. We followed a bagpiper into the hall and he played until the dinner started. The address to the haggis was so well done that I couldn't understand a word the man said. The dinner was actually way good. I've found that I can be friends with haggis as long as I don't think about what I'm eating. The Immortal Memory speech was largely dedicated to Burns' sexual exploits, which somehow wasn't as offensive as it sounds. Then a very talented kid sang some Burns songs, including Green Grow the Rashes that was probably my favorite song of the night. The "Toast to the Lassies" was funny. Hannah Bardell, the MP whose office is next door to the one where I work, gave the "Reply from the Lassies" and gave the best speech of the night. She was funny, bold, and also just the right bit of sincere. And then we all help hands and sang all the verses of Auld Lang Syne and that was the perfect end to the most Scottish night of my life.
The crew at the Burns Supper
An artsy picture that does haggis more credit than it probably deserves

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Local Politics

So I ended up with a job in a constituency office rather than in the actual parliament building. This means that my job is lots of writing press releases and letters as well as some work helping solve the problems they bring to my boss as her constituent.

I was initially a bit disappointed to be placed in a constituency office instead of in the Parliament, but I think it is quite useful and meaningful for me to see the very local side of politics. I’ve realized that I came with a notion of politics as something focused on policy and a vehicle for politician’s prestige and power. Instead, I’ve seen a politics very much focused on people. 

I’ve been really impressed by my boss, Angela, whose an MSP (minister of scottish parliament) and the cabinet secretary for education (aka she's in charge of education in Scotland). She strikes me as someone who is involved in politics because she genuinely wants to help people. The other day she walked into office on the phone and I overheard the tail end of her discussion about how to focus the new funds being allocated to close the attainment gap into the areas that need them most. Then, she hung up, and immediately switched to the issue of how to help one local schoolboy who came to her surgery with complaints of bullying in his school.  I was really impressed with her ability to care for an individual constituent as well as manage national policy. It was very striking that she didn’t have the sense of something like schoolyard bullying being too small for her. The concept of a constituent seems to mean something different here, because there exists a very real sense of obligation to help their constituents with their actual, concrete problems, not their broad, theoretical ones. Constituents are not just votes cast every so often; they are a very real responsibility. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Sneaker Commuters

So I get on my train to work every day at 8:57, which means I leave my apartment about 8:30 to walk to the train station, which means I'm in the middle of the crowds of people commuting to work in the heart of Edinburgh. On my first day, I immediately noticed a funny trend of women wearing sneakers to work. They're not like fancy pretty sneakers, literally they're gym sneakers or running shoes. And they wear them so confidently with their black skirts and tights. It's amusing, but also reflects something I like about this place: people don't have as much pretense. There's a certain honesty and straightforwardness that I've observed in the people I've met. I feel like there's a greater acknowledgement and acceptance that we, as human beings, tend to be flawed and a consequent acceptance that we don't need to try to create an image that we are. It's okay to wear sneakers if they make more sense for a long commute and it's okay that they don't look perfectly put together with the rest of the outfit. Do what works.

So this morning I was running late and I was reaching for my leather boots but grabbed my sneakers instead. It did in fact make for a quicker, more comfortable walk up Leith Walk to Prince's street. But then, naturally, my train was cancelled, so in the hour while I waited for my next train I went shoe shopping. Some things just aren't mean to be.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Folk Night

So Friday night my colleague invited me to "folk night." I wasn't entirely sure what it was, but I went because why not. I cannot even express how glad I am that I went. It was unquestionably the best thing I've done in the week I've been here.

Folk night is a gathering of the SNP family from Livingston, the area where I work. SNP, or Scottish National Party, is the now-dominant political party here whose most fundamental tenant is that Scotland should be independent from the rest of the UK. They were the big orchestrators of the the 2014 referendum. So it's a close-knit fiercely nationalistic group of about 40 gathering together to celebrate Scottish folk culture. The average age was probably 55 and I'm pretty sure we were the only sober ones in the cafe by the end of the night, but it was a dream come true.

The night started off with Auld Lang Syne. There were about 6 guitars in there and we spent hours and hours playing and singing. Some songs were written by people there, some were old Gaelic songs, and there was lots in between. Some sang alone, some everyone joined in, and some were a little bit of both. There was a "rap battle" between Trump and Angry Alex Salmond  (they checked with me to make sure I don't like Trump and I was like "I'm embarrassed for my country that I even need to answer that question"). There were a few poems, too. They wanted us to do something, so I sang "Come Thou Fount" in Ukrainian. I really don't sing and it seriously sounded so so so so so so so bad, but it was nice to contribute. I guess it was a pretty casual thing, so participating seemed more important than saving face. I've been listening to Scottish folk music pretty much nonstop since, so that next time I'll be more prepared to join in. I'm learning the "unofficial national anthem" Scots who Hae right now.

We ate Haggis for dinner, so I crossed that bridge much sooner than I thought I would after getting to this country. It really wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. The mashed potatoes were way good. The meat was basically just like a meatball, but with much more of a black pepper spice than other spices that typically season meat. Here's a picture of us as we take our first bites. 

Towards the end of the night, once everyone was pretty well and drunk, someone said to me, "Hannah, I could see you falling madly in love with some Scot man and moving here and getting into Scottish parliament. It doesn't matter that you're not Scottish, we let all kinds of people into our parliament. You should do that." A drunk compliment is a drunk compliment, but I'll take it.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Big-hearted Scots

I've been here a week, and it's rained every single day, but that's no surprise. The jet lag was inexplicably worse than any other jet lag I've ever had getting over to Europe, which I think is because the sun rises at 8:45 and sets at 3:45 and it's just awfully difficult to adjust my inner-clock when there isn't daylight to help the process. I'm finally doing better and good schedule, though, so that is great. Work is good, my apartment is good, things are good.

Something that I have really appreciated here is that people are so stupid nice. I think on some subconscious level I was expecting it to be similar to Ukraine, where people in public are generally at minimum minding their own business and at worst mean (or drunk, or both). But my experience here hasn't been like that at all. All over the place people have been so kind. I don't want to venture into broad declarations about what "the people" are like (as Mormons tend to do), but I must say that most of the people that I've met have been thoroughly big-hearted.

Like, for instance, on Wednesday I got on a bus to take me back from work to the city (I commute to a suburb sort of thing - another story for another day). It's my first day on the bus and when I tried to pay, the bus driver informed me they only take exact change. It was like 6.50 and I had a 5 and a 20. I was about to buy a ticket just part way when the guy behind me shoved 1.50 into the dispenser and said "here, take it, I have a bus pass anyway." It was so generous, when I kind of expected a grumpy "stupid American doesn't know what she's doing response." 

Another transit story (it's always transit, isn't it?). Friday I was standing in line to buy my train ticket and the lady told me to use a different machine which then wouldn't take my card so then I had to get back in line but my train was leaving in 4 minutes so I was moderately panicked. When I told the lady this the guy in front of me immediately said, "well then, off you go" and had me stand in front of him. I made my train with all of 45 seconds to spare and was so grateful to him.

One of my colleagues, Lorna, invited me to "folk night" (another great story for another day, because it was the best) the day I met her. And the next day not only did she follow up, but she invited me to her house for dinner and offered me a ride back to Edinburgh, all before I could even remember her name.

Today after church one of the members came up to us and said, "are you taking the bus home? You live in Leith? I'll drive you. I'm Joe." So he drove us home, which we really appreciated, particularly me because I am really good at getting lost on public transport. 

Oh, and ten minutes after I met my boss, she bought my two friends and I dinner (haggis, obviously).

People here just don't seem to be as selfish. It definitely makes me realize that there's sort of an American culture that tolerates selfishness in public settings because of the inherit anonymity of public places. And it's made me want to change that, and be more aware of how I'm interacting with others, even when I think I'm anonymous, or when I think the situation merits selfishness. I want to be more like a big-hearted Scot. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Blogging My Way through the UK

So there's been this trend in my life where I blog better when I'm in Europe. Maybe because there are more adventures. Maybe because there are more mishaps. Maybe because it takes me so long to get over jet lag and if I'm up at 6 and the sun doesn't rise until 8:45, I might as well drink tea and write a blog post. At any rate, I'm back.

My latest adventure is an internship in Edinburgh. I'm working in the office of Angela Constance, an MSP and the Scottish secretary of Education. I haven't met her yet, but from everything I've read she's super cool and super fierce, It's just starting up, so I'm not entirely aware what all the job will entail just yet, but the job description is basically writing stuff and researching stuff and I like all that. Basically, I'm here, I know nothing, and I am so excited.

Until next time, I'll try to stay #CleanForTheQueen