Sunday, April 22, 2012

Scotland Encounters


I’m always watching people.  On our recent trip to Scotland, I had occasion to observe people from a whole different culture and society.  What follows is a brief description of those unique souls who caught my eye.

Waiter at Bella Italia

On our first night in Glasgow, Jackie and I were tired, but we were also so very hungry.  We had arrived in the city around 3:30.  Immediately, we went out and tour George Square.  By 7:30, we were ready for a meal, so we took off in search of a restaurant.  Eventually, after much walking and thinking and looking, we settled on Bella Italia.  This is a chain restaurant that has a cozy atmosphere and solid food.
We were greeted by a friendly young gentleman who took a keen interest in us.  Then again, he seemed to be striking up conversations with all of the diners. While we didn’t catch his name, the waiter was a young, stocky man with a neatly trimmed beard. He looked the part of waiter and acted with an air of authority.  On one of his rounds, he stopped and pointed at my VT sweatshirt and asked me what my “pro team” is.  I honestly wasn’t sure what he was talking about.

He continued that he wanted to know which NFL football team I rooted for since I was a Virginia Tech person.  You don’t find many Scots who like the NFL, but this guy was for real.  He knew everything about every team.  When I told him that most people in our area like the Redskins or Panthers, he was quiet.  Then he told me that his team is the NY Giants.

I explained that they were one of my favorites as well.  We got deeper into conversation.  He knew everything about the Giants and was a huge Eli Manning fan.  At some point I dropped the family NY Giants story on him…the one about my Uncle Pete’s brother, Ed Danowski.  Ed was the starting QB for the Giants back in the 1930’s and early 40’s.  I told the Scot about “The Tennis Shoe Game in 1934” and was shocked that he knew the story of that game.  This guy was amazing.  He was a walking encyclopedia of NFL knowledge.  Something you just don’t expect in Glasgow, Scotland.

Dennis at Bosville

Dennis greeted us at the Bosville Hotel in Portree.  Portree is located on Isle of Skye and is a lovely small village.  Charm drips from every building in town and the buildings seem to melt into the stunning landscape.

Dennis, a short, powerfully built man with a square jaw and outgoing personality, was very kind to us and helped solve a small booking issue. Basically, the hotel thought that just two of us were coming.  When Dennis saw me drag in three suitcases, he panicked for a moment, and then he went on a hunt and secured “the family suite” for us.  It was a lovely room, freshly remodeled.  Dennis hoisted a 50 pound suitcase upon his shoulders and lugged it up the three flights of narrow stairs to the room.  He smiled and made small talk with us as we settled in, then left us alone.

Later that day, I bopped into the hotel bar after our walk around the village and surrounding countryside.  Dennis was there behind bar serving drinks to local patrons.  We chatted for a bit about our walk, and he was genuinely interested.

That evening, Dennis was filling drink orders in the hotel restaurant.  He was moving fast and furiously trying to keep up with everyone’s orders.

I left Portree and Bosville Hotel impressed with Dennis.  A hard-working man, Dennis seemed grounded and truly interested in the people he encountered.  This is a great quality for a hotel host.

The CIA Agent

Dinner at the Bosville Hotel was quite delicious for me.  I had a beef pie which was something akin to beef stew…but much, much better.  The beef was so tender.  Callan had a lemon chicken dish that was okay.  Jackie had a horrid penne pasta dish with “vegetables.”  Both of the vegetables were excellent, but the pasta was sterile and the sauce was bland.

While we sat and dutifully ate our meal, our own conversation quieted as we became more involved in listening to the conversation going on at the table next to ours.  I’m sure everyone’s done this before.  The people at the next table were engrossed in a major conversation, oblivious to how loud they were.  So we just listened in.

There were two couples at the table.  One of them was an American couple with the lady a native of Scotland who had married her dream-boat American CIA AGENT.  He was an older gentleman with gray John Duffey hair (Duffey- was the front man and mandolin player for The Seldom Scene) complete with long, fat sideburns. This ex-CIA Agent was hilarious.  He and his wife kept bringing up their life in America while he was serving in the CIA.  He har-har-harred about restaurants, parts of Virginia, and office SNAFU’s.  He sounded like some cowboy telling stories about the taming of the West. They mentioned the Langley site, a stone’s throw from where my wife grew up, and were telling stories about times back then.  All I could think was that if he kept secrets back then like he talked now, then every cover he was under would have been blown.

Justin Bieber

Actually, there was more than one.  Apparently, it’s normal for rich English school children to travel by train by themselves for months at a time. 
We boarded a Scotrail train in Kyle of Lochalsh.  Also in Kyle of Lochalsh is a popular Teen Hostel.  We found our reserved seats on the train and were soon joined by a hoard of young people all about 14 years old, both girls and boys.  They plopped down in a group of seats immediately adjacent to our seats and began a loud and boisterous card party. 

One boy, the smallest of the lot who looked a little like a cocky, tiny Justin Bieber, seemed to need to be louder than the rest, perhaps to ensure that he wasn’t left out by the more pubescent teens.  He was a short skinny kid with mop hair and devilish smirk.  He was LOUD and RUDE.  He’d shout, spit, make farting sounds, loudly eat “sammiches”, taunt the girls, litter, and generally annoy everyone on the train.  Every now and then, one of the girls would tell him to stop, but he would persist, and they sort of seemed to like his antics.

About an hour out of Inverness, Justin and his friends were forced to move far away from us when the rightful owners of the seats claimed them at one of the remote train stops along the way.  The rest of our journey on that leg was peaceful…

Bad Asses

…then came the “Bad Asses.”  These four boys were Mother Fuckers.  They’d likely tell you that themselves.

We had to switch trains at Perth to catch the Edinburgh train, our last of three train legs.  We rushed to make it and hopped on the nearest train car, much to our misfortune. After stowing our suitcases, we plopped into the first four-person seating area we could find.  This happened to be right across the aisle from the four bad asses. 

Over the next hour, we learned all about them.  They were teens who had traveled to Dundee on a Perth ticket, effectively screwing Scotrail out of extra fare.  They were well-pleased by their successful deception.  They were also well-pleased with their own homosexual tendencies.

Over the hour, they spat at each other, smelled each others’ arm-pits, cursed, talked about knocking girls up and abortions, wiped shit-covered fingers on each other, told foul jokes, and leered at us.  They reminded me more than a little of Alex and his gang of “Droogs” in A Clockwork Orange.

In short, we could see nothing redeeming about their existence on Earth.  In fact, I felt as though I could take all four of them on and beat them to a pulp.  My wife, however, held me back.  But when one of them attempted to wipe snot on his seat-mate, his seat-mate bolted from his seat and crashed into my wife.  She immediately glared at them and said loudly, “REALLY??”  There were other words, but the boys just laughed. 
Her glare must have had some effect, however.  A few minutes later, the gang got up and moved to the exit area.  There they awaited the next stop.  It was there that we over-heard their pimply leader say, (akin to Beavis from “Beavis and Butthead”) “We’re just a bunch of bad asses.” [heh, heh]. 

When the train pulled into the station, they hopped off with their bicycles and pedaled away.


Edinburgh is a city of spirits.  Bertie is the purveyor of such delights.  We had spent a whole day wandering the ancient, haunted city of Edinburgh when we came upon the whisky shoppe.  Bertie was inside and welcomed us into the tight aisles of fine whiskies.  At her table, she was serving up tastes of The Ben Raich12, a moderately priced whisky from Scotland.    I engaged her in a conversation, and she proved as smooth a salesperson as her whisky was smooth.

Bertie was a short, stocky lady of an age somewhat older than young and younger than old.  Her hair was short-cropped and her face was rounded with smiling eyes.

After her initial courting, we ambled out and along.  Later, after great reflection, we came back to the store and found Bertie.  She was pleased we had come back and immediately sold us a bottle of Ben Raich.  Then she helped my wife assemble a sampler of fine whiskies for her friends.  As I checked out, I mentioned to the cashier that Bertie was awesome, and he said, “We treasure Bertie.”

Pushy Lady and Her Daughter

Just below The Castle in Edinburgh is a lovely textile mill.  In it, you can watch craftsmen make tartan blankets, scarves, and kilts from scratch.  The mill is quite an exciting place and filled with excellent buys.
As we were shopping inside the mill, Jackie and Callan happened upon a rack of woolen blankets.  So they stopped and began looking through the various designs. Without warning, their shopping bliss was interrupted by a Spanish speaking lady dressed in her too tight pants with stylish boots and with her pancake make-up disguising her witch-like face along with her teen-aged daughter in tow.  They busted right in and shoved Jackie and Callan out of the way without so much as an “excuse me” or begging a pardon.  All we could do was simply stare, dumbfounded, at the two bold ladies.  It was quite obvious that the son (I assume he was the lady’s son) was highly embarrassed by his mother and sister.

We grumbled a bit, but then moved on with our life.  After all, we had much more city to explore.
About an hour later, we had moved several blocks away and were standing in line to order lunch at the famous Elephant House.  This restaurant is the home of J.K. Rowling.  It’s where she wrote the Harry Potter series.  She was a struggling writer who couldn’t afford heat in her apartments, so she would come to The Elephant House, buy a pot of tea and sit all day writing her masterpiece.

These days, The Elephant House is a Potter destination, plus they serve excellent baked potatoes dishes.

So there we were in line for about ten minutes when who should appear at the door?  Yup, the rude Spanish lady, her daughter and son.  Immediately, the two ladies busted in line right in front of us-no kidding!   We were amazed at their audacity and our misfortune of having to meet these weird people again in such a large city.

After a couple of minutes of enduring our icy glares, the son got the hint and ushered his sister and mother in line behind us.

It took another ten minutes to wade through the line to the front to place our order and the whole time the pushy broad kept banging and poking Callan and me.  Callan eventually had enough and went to our table to sit with Jackie.  I manned the space and fought off the lady’s physical assaults.  At one point, she speared me in the ribs with her finger.  I quickly turned and said, “Yes?”  in a strong voice.  She stammered an apology and backed off a bit after that.

Lucky for us, they placed their order and moved to a different part of the restaurant, and we never saw them again.


She made her appearance in our lives at the bus station in Edinburgh.  A 6’2” transsexual in heels, bobby socks, and delicate pastel knee-length skirt with a small white shawl. Her speckled gray, stringy, and unkept hair ran down to her shoulders and needed to be whipped away from her hooked nose and stubble-covered face.  She strode up and down the bus station corridors, moving here and there with singular purpose, one that wasn’t readily apparent to the casual observer.  Little did we suspect that she would share our bus and sit right behind us.

As was usual, I was ceding to my more obsessive side and was watching the departure clock very carefully every ten seconds or so.  Like other passengers, we were awaiting the signal from the bus driver to board the bus.  It appeared that she wasn’t quite ready, so we were like patient sheep and waited.  That’s when the transsexual in heels came striding to our gate and pranced purposefully right up to the bus and boarded it.  A decisive and bold move.  One that made everyone’s jaws drop.  Surely, the bus driver would deny her admission for such a breach of queue etiquette.  Once she got on, we all got up and headed for the bus.  Our long-striding leader had shown us the way.

I sat by myself in the row in front of the strange lady when my wife, daughter, and I got on the bus.  The lady sat alone as well.  Since we were traveling at rush hour back to Glasgow, the bus began to fill up stop after stop.  Soon a person sat beside me and all the other seats filled up except the one next to the transsexual.  No one wanted to sit there.  It was too risky, too scary, too weird.

Finally, a passenger joined the bus just outside of Edinburgh, and she had no seat left except beside HER.  I could see her look of discomfort when she realized her lot.  But to her credit, she troopered on and plopped herself down in the only seat available.

I immediately learned that the transsexual’s name was Leia when she introduced herself to her seat-mate.  Her seat-mate politely introduced herself as Jackie.  That was the beginning of an hour-long conversation between the two of them about everything.

At first, Jackie was reluctant to talk.  But Leia persisted.  She talked about the weather at first.  The she asked some questions about Jackie, and listened carefully to her quiet answers.  Jackie was a single mother whose husband had left her with a child.  Leia was compassionate and caring and soon Jackie opened up some more and began asking Leia questions.

I learned that Leia was so very fond of her mother and tried to emulate her.  Her mother had passed away three years ago and Leia was still heart-broken.  Several times, she brought up her mother.  Leia told about her addictions and how she beat drugs and alcohol, how she came to realize who she needed to be, and how she bolstered the courage to just do it-to just accept that she was a she and not a he.

She said that many people made fun of her, but Leia was undeterred.  She realized that humor could overcome any adversity.  She lived by one rule, to try to invest herself in every minute of every day.  She believed in living each moment to its fullest, even on a bus.  That’s why, she said, that she enjoyed “…getting to know complete strangers like you, Jackie. Because after you get to know someone, they’re no longer a stranger, and they are your friend forever.” 

Leia’s take on life was refreshing.  She talked about her mother and her supportive brother.  She talked of moments in time and places she had visited, including the USA.  She had strong opinions, but had honed a very successful personal philosophy, one that emboldened her and allowed her to succeed in a skeptical world. 

“Jackie, let me tell you something if I may… Jackie, I’ve discovered that you have to be able to laugh in life.  My Mum taught me that, and I know she’s looking down on me now and smiling.”
“I’m sure your mother is proud of you, Leia,” said Jackie. 

An hour before, they were strangers.  When they left that bus, they were friends for life.  I feel fortunate that I was able to listen in and experience something very special on that bus ride.