She says something to me and her face looks kind. She’s trying to help me – us – though we didn’t seek it. But I don’t quite understand and without realizing it I just smile and nod and back up a bit. A companion is with me and he has the same cognitive disconnect. She looks between us, polite smile fading, and says (perfectly clearly) in her lilting brogue, “do you not speak English?”
For that brief moment when I cannot speak English I feel keenly my alien-ness, the solid fact that we are lost in a foreign country. But then other companions step up and assure her that we do speak English and she explains how to get back to the Water of Leith Shore.
Up to that point everything about being in the UK that was different was delightful – money with the queen on it, cars driving on the left side of the road, the legal drinking age, bobbies, haggis, lifts, knapsacks and hundreds – if not thousands – of years of human history under our feet. For days we let ourselves think we were walking through a funny looking glass where things worked only slightly differently from what we were used to.
Now, no one will ever accuse me of looking Scottish (although my dad would be highly amused), but as a kid in Southern California I did go to the Highland Games and other Scottish cultural festivals in the area. For heaven’s sake, when I was in high school we put on the Lerner & Lowe musical BRIGADOON. My dad has a certain appreciation for the Scottish character and he used to tell me stories about the “Ladies from Hades,” Scottish regiments marching boldly into battle, bagpipes wailing. Many of my classmates, neighbors and fellow church parishioners could have been taken for being of Scottish descent.
And so it was when I happened to tour the UK and ended up in a bank lobby trying to make sense of a bus map while it rained outside.
I’m now safely home in Southern California and hunting down tidbits of life in 20th century Scotland. Overwhelmingly this is over the Internet because the questions I have don’t work in the vertical direction that books typically do, but at cross sections, threading different facts together to understand how religious, economic and social factors would affect a particular character in a time and place. It’s difficult and at times incredibly frustrating because history tries to leave Scotland in the 19th century and insists that modern American history is all that I need to know about the 20th century. Any other place should simply be considered as a variant to America….
Even as my research went along for the first chunk of considering the play I didn’t realize that that assumption was in the back of my mind. I can separate out the much older history as a fascinating story of a people from long ago – Robert the Bruce and the Declaration of Arbroath – from modern life. If an event is well in the past it belongs to people quite unlike me. But the life that happens now, to people who look like my friends and who speak a language that (despite occasional difficulties) I speak as well, must therefore be somewhat similar to mine. When that assumption proves unfounded and I can only take the facts as they present themselves, without orienting them relative to facts about myself and my world, it’s then that I feel I am really learning something new.
It’s the same feeling that I get when I really listen, very, very carefully to men talk about themselves. But it’s only when they’re being as honest and vulnerable as they rarely get. We understand machismo, we understand self-reliance…we’ve seen it every second of every day. It’s as intrinsic to thinking “man” as it is to think “fellow wearing a plaid skirt” when we think “Scot.” But when I finally have the insight to what might be under the bravado the point of view is disorienting to me, and therefore fascinating.
But it requires listening, really, really listening. It takes removing every ounce of my own ego, every expectation that I might have to in order to hear what someone else is truly saying about his or her experiences, and not merely hear how their life might vary from mine. I do love exploring people’s lives in other times and places. I have a continual hunger to learn how other people do what they do, why and where they end up. But I let myself think I know that we have enough in common; when that commonality is taken from me receiving a foreign culture and point of view is no longer reflexive assumption but an active observation.
It’s not a variation from the American lifestyle that today a child in Scotland has approximately the same chance of being born to an unwed mother as to a married one. American births are only at a quarter unwed-to-wed mothers. Maybe in another generation that will become 50%, but who knows really. Scottish women aren’t living a variant of American priorities, they are making their own choices in their own society in a time known as “now.”
Linda McLean‘s play Sex & God is entirely concerned with women living their lives over the course of the 20th century in Glasgow, Scotland. The details of their life and times are intrinsic and barely worth the mention as they proceed through their experiences…and yet it’s those prosaic details that make their lives so different from what I know. We know the proud, strong Scotsmen, we know the tartans and bagpipes, we may know the factories and mines, the economic difficulties… but we don’t necessarily know how the women lived. How it affected how they loved and what work they did, we don’t know their internal lives, their thoughts, their spirituality, their motivations.
So it is that my mind is turned again to this far away land that has people much like you and me living their daily lives. And so it is I feel like I’m relearning how to speak English.
Sex & God plays with Lamentations of the Pelvis for an evening of theatre called WOMAN PARTS. Opens at Son of Semele Ensemble on Saturday 26 April, running Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and some Mondays.