Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Identity, Scottish and Otherwise

Our final dinner with Michael, Karin, and Ruth on Thursday night
We boarded a fairly empty train to Edinburgh Friday morning at Kings Crossing. On Thursday three of Benedict's teachers actually assigned his class some homework that he planned doing on the train: math, French, and a writing assignment. Amazing.

The ride was uneventful until we reached Newcastle, about three quarters of the way to Edinburgh, where a large group of people led by a few overweight, overage, hooligan wanna-bes (or used-to-bes?) raided our coach and took over the both the physical and the audio space. They strode in like an irresistible incoming tide with a boom box carried by one of their 'birds' blaring 'Sweet Home Alabama' by Lynyrd Skynyrd, a Southern rock band popular in the seventies. They boisterously sang along with the chorus. You probably know the song. It was not yet noon, but they quickly uncovered open cans of beer they smuggled in. Their behavior seemed consistent with what one might reasonably expect at a rowdy pub on a weekend night but not on a train coach populated by at least few people who preferred their rail journey sober and appropriate for children. Loud, rude, sometimes funny, sometimes crude, and always annoying.

They probably didn't either know or care that 'Sweet Home Alabama', a classic of rock and roll, was Lynyrd Skynyrd's response to Neil Young's 'Southern Man'. In 'Southern Man' Young wrote: 'I saw cotton and I saw black/Tall white mansions and little shacks/Southern man, when will you pay them back?/I heard screamin' and bullwhips crackin'/ How long? How long?'. Young's song is clearly critical of Southern racism.

Skynyrd's response in 'Sweet Home Alabama': 'Well, I hear mister Young sing about her/Well, I heard old Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don't need him around anyhow'.

A little defensive perhaps. One might presume that Lynyrd Skynyrd disagrees with Neil Young. Until you come to the line: 'In Birmingham [Alabama, not England], they love the governor (boo, boo, boo)' a disapproving reference to Alabama's segregationist governor, George Wallace. Maybe old Neil and Skynyrd aren't that far apart after all.

We often like and even sing songs we don't know the meanings of. Listening to 'Sweet Home Alabama' with an incongruous group reminded me of a story kiltic tour guide, Mike, told us on our first trip to Scotland about how a well-known Scottish song came to be written, the one that begins, 'You take the high road...' During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745--the one to return a Stuart, the so-called Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, to the British throne--a Scottish Highlander and his son were captured by the Hanoverian supporters of King George II and were offered a devil's bargain. One of them would be executed and one of them would be allowed to go free. And they, not their captors, would decide who would die, who would survive. The son, though he had a wife and children in the Highlands, insisted on being the one to be put to death, arguing that his father should be able to live out his days in his beloved Highlands with his beloved wife. But after the younger man had gone to sleep, the father persuaded the jailers to let his son go free in the morning, to not wake him for his execution. The father would die in his stead. His son, after all, had a young wife and young children to raise, and his whole life ahead of him. That night, while waiting for his death, the old man wrote the words to the song: 'You take the high road [his son is to go to Scotland and live and prosper] and I'll take the low road [the road of death]/And I'll be in Scotland before ye [the father's spirit will soar and reach the Highlands before the son]/For me and my true love [his wife] will never meet again/On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond [his clan's ancestral home]'. With the dawn the old man was hanged and the son released.

The boom box kept playing loudly, relentlessly, popular music from the sixties and seventies. In this, at least, they had good taste. Something by the Supremes, among others, and only one by an English band, the Kinks.

One of the louder blokes stumbled past me and started some small talk with the people in the seats in front of me, carrying a dark can of beer in his left hand. London's Pride, I think. At one point, sounding like a version of Young's Southern Man, he said with some bitterness, 'I hate Eastern Europeans, especially Bulgarians and Romanians,' and raising his voice and head as if challenging anyone to shut him up, 'and I don't care who knows it!'

As I write these words it occurs to me that he could be speaking about my family and me. I so strongly identify myself as an American who happens to be of German descent that I often forget that my parents, brother, and a sister were born in Ukraine, today as far east as you can go before running into Russia. My ancestors lived there in German villages when Ukraine was part of Tsarist Russia and then the Soviet Union. They lived there from 1764 until the middle of WW II, almost 200 years. (For perspective, that's much longer than most American families have been in the United States.) I still have cousins in Ukraine. First cousins. Doesn't that make me an Eastern European? No? Maybe not. I was born and raised near the sun-kissed beaches of Southern California listening to the Beach Boys on Top-40 radio.

What about my brother and sister? They were born in a Russian seaport now part of Ukraine. I suppose according to the English bloke they would be Eastern Europeans, but are they? My brother and late sister became American citizens, my brother even serving a couple of years in the Army. There are no memories of Ukraine. There is no connection via language or culture, except for family there with whom our connection is tenuous. It just happened to be where they were born to German parents, and then they were whisked away to Berlin in the middle of WW II. Their native language, culture, and heritage is German, but they are, or were in the case of Klara, Americans.

What of my parents? The bloke would definitely regard them as Eastern Europeans. My father's father, after all, served in the Tsar's army. There is a picture somewhere of him in uniform. But the assimilation was weak. The Germans in Russia lived in insulated towns and villages where marriage outside of one's ethnic group and religious affiliation was regarded as anathema. Think of the German towns in Texas like Fredricksburg or in Minnesota like New Ulm where in the 19th century the primary language remained German for generations and children rarely married outside their community. That's how it was on the Russian steppes for the Germans who colonized them. My mother could speak some Russian, not too well. My father spoke Russian fluently and could read its Cyrillic script though he only had about a second grade education. He told me a couple of times he almost married a Russian and the relationship went so far that he was almost a regular member of her family. But he decided against marrying her because he didn't want his children to grow up speaking Russian instead of German. (The irony is that his children barely speak German anymore anyway, even I who married a German woman, favoring English instead.) The traditions in our family have their roots in 18th century Germany--probably the Palatinate, as well as I can figure--not Tsarist Russia and certainly not the Soviet Union. When my family moved here my mother picked up English fairly quickly because she took some courses to learn the language and she worked with Americans. My siblings picked up the language almost immediately in school, a Catholic school.

It took my dad more than ten years to become passably fluent. As a child I often had to translate for him when he interacted with Americans. For years he worked with other German immigrants, mostly in a factory, or painting houses for a German friend when he was laid off for a couple of months every year. Until we moved out to the suburbs we attended a German Catholic church where I was baptised and socialized with other German families, most of whom were originally from German villages in Russia. There was little reason for him to learn English right away. When he bought a car or a house, Frau Tobias would help him navigate through the negotiations and paperwork. It was a tight-knit community where everyone helped everyone else because there was not one else who would. It is also a community that is no more, gradually, almost imperceptively, dissolving over time like sugar in iced tea. It was only when he started his own business that my dad became fluent in English and eventually learned to read it well.

So were my parents Eastern European? That's how they were treated in the decade they lived in Berlin. The Germans in Germany changed in speech, manners, dress, song in the almost score of decades since my ancestors opted to seek a better life away from petty wars and religious prejudice. The dialect my parents spoke, the clothes they wore, the food they ate marked them as easterners, country bumpkins, and sometimes they were treated unkindly. Simply because they didn't conform, because the rules had changed, and they didn't know the new ones.

So maybe they were Eastern Europeans.

The train slowed because of some problem on the tracks ahead, causing us to arrive in Edinburgh later than scheduled. The party on the coach didn't let up the whole way.

We walked to our hotel from Waverly Station, a different Holiday Express than the one we stayed in during our first visit. This one was in Old Town on Cowgate, a block off the Royal Mile, the main street extending from Edinburgh Castle atop an extinct volcano to Holyrood Palace, the Queen's official Scotland residence, at the bottom of the hill. The hotel was just inside what used to be the medieval walls. Presumably Cowgate was the gate through which livestock went through when there was a wall. Around the corner, on the Royal Mile, is a pub called The World's End. The old wall used to pass by the pub and the reason people called it The World's End was that the city walls marked the end of the world and the beginning of Edinburgh.

A man with a mustache I assumed was part of the hotel staff stood near our room as we took temporary possession of it, nodding a greeting. Right away we discovered that the bathroom sink's plug was stuck and water could not flow down the drain. I went out to the hall to ask the man if he could find someone to loosen the plug. I assumed he was Scot. But he didn't understand English. Fortunately a woman on the staff came by and I told her about the problem. She inspected the sink, couldn't get the plug unstuck, and then spoke to the man in a slavic language that sounded like Russian. Hmm. Eastern Europeans. Native Scots weren't doing the housecleaning and maintenance, at least in this hotel. Immigrants, some who spoke no English, were. If the English bloke on the train was in a hotel, odds are some Eastern European was cleaning his room and serving him the complimentary breakfast. Poor man must be seething with anger at the very effrontery of some bloody foreigner taking care of his needs.

It isn't unusual for the immigrants to do the drudgery and cleaning in wealthier societies. It's a great entry level job, isn't it? One that many natives don't want to do.

By the way, the work my mother did for about a dozen years after arriving in America was cleaning the offices on the 6th floor of a building in downtown Los Angeles. It was the only job I remember her having. And my father's business was maintaining and cleaning up other people's yards. That's what he did until he retired. They were uneducated immigrants with minimal language skills. Their efforts made it possible for me to teach college today.

We quickly got ourselves out of the hotel because we wanted to spend some time in the National Museum of Scotland before it closed at 5pm. We were only a few blocks away and only had a couple of hours to explore before it closed.

The museum tells the story of Scotland's history, and it does so very well. We only had time to go through the exhibits dealing with Scotland's development through geological time (Scotland and England, though on the same island, are on different geological plates; oddly, Scotland is rising in elevation while England is sinking), its ancient history, and a little of the medieval history. The two biggest take aways I took was how long the Romans were in Scotland and the amount of treasure and artifacts they left behind, and my image of the Vikings, which had been gradually changing already, altered completely.

The Romans built forts, were outnumbered at the Battle of Mons Graupius and still beat up the Caledonians, left behind coins, silver jewelry, religious shrines, statues, gravestones. The exhibit of the Romans showed how varied the material they left behind, and how much. What's remarkable is how small in impact the Romans had on subsequent development of England and Scotland. No linguistic influence, it seems, until the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror. Yet I bet that most Scots have a gene or two in their strand of DNA inherited from the Romans.

The usual picture of the Vikings being fierce and vicious marauders does have some truth, but is incomplete. Anyone marauding in the middle ages was probably going to be fierce and vicious. But the Vikings also sought to establish trade routes and farming communities in Scotland and England. Many were Christians. The Viking King Cnute even founded a Viking kingdom in England. So my views of the Vikings have been forcefully revised.

Another surprise: I  learned that the original Scots invaded this land in the 4th and 5th centuries from Ireland, skirmished with the Picts for a few decades before making peace and becoming the more dominant cultural force linguistically. The Pict language, aside from a few names of places like Aberdeen, has disappeared, outlasted by the Gaelic brought over by the Scots.

The Scots are an amalgamation of different cultures: Pict, Scott (Gaelic), Norse (Viking), Anglian (German), and Breton, plus a wee bit of Roman perhaps. Those Eastern Europeans are joining a pretty mongrel group, aren't they?

For dinner we ate at the White Hart Inn on Grassmarket beneath the old castle, the same street as Cowgate. The sign outside the inn claims it to be the oldest pub in central Edinburgh, dating back to the 16th century. I tried the haggis, and I must admit that I liked it. I don't know if they use the traditional recipe or not.

Benedict elected to stay in the hotel while Erika and I took the ghost tour. The guide didn't tell us about any ghosts or haunted place. We heard stories of murder, torture, hangings, cannibalism. Gruesome stuff, but nothing to get spooked about.

Our final act of the day was to visit a second-hand bookstore where I bought a used copy of Adam Smith's The Theory of Moral Sentiments (must buy at least on book by a Scot while in Scotland and it may as well be a philosopher) and a book about ancient Egyptian herbs, including how they took the essential oils from them and how they used the herbs and oils as medicine. It turns out that they employed the same medicinal applications for herbs we have today the Egyptians also had. The biggest surprise was that there was no entry for frankincense. Hard to believe they didn't know about it or use it.

Back here in Ealing I'm listening to my neighbor next door practice the piano. He's playing something classical. Lately he's been practicing more often. Though wall between us muffles the sound, I can hear that he is an accomplished musician. He's Polish.

Good night, good bloke, wherever you are. May your sheets be washed by a Romanian and your breakfast served by a Russian.

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