Saturday, August 05, 2006

Country Mouse Again

The move to Scotland is certainly the longest, most dramatic move of my life, but not my first Big Move. Like many women of my generation, I have been a "trailing spouse", relocating to Philadelphia where my former husband had a teaching fellow position and a scholarship to study what he wanted to study while I reinvented myself as best I could eking out his fellowship to support the family, complete my own degree, and raise our daughter far from family or friends.

Having worked for Indiana University Press, I found a part time position at the University of Pennsylvania Press. Publishing then was a pink collar industry which routinely hired young, educated, literature-loving women and paid them very little with little or no prospect of promotion into the inner sanctum of publishing. No one challenged this for many reasons, not least of all the constant threat of a new crop of graduates ready to take the position of anyone disgruntled or foolish enough to let go of it. In short, I was glad to have it.

My colleagues at the Press adopted me as much as worked with me, and one woman dubbed me "country mouse" for my naivete and Hoosier way of talking. It was the era of Earth Shoes, the antecedent of Birkenstock sandals, and the beginning of the green revolution. I rode my bike to work with my toddler daughter in a seat on the back and bought our groceries at a Quaker-run food cooperative where I worked as storekeeper--helping to fill orders and asking fellow members what they did with thus and such. I learned what was in season and how to cook and made some friends. After a few agonizing months in the strange city, I settled into a routine and can now look back fondly on those years.

These thoughts came back to mind as I wandered around Edinburgh with my friend Harriet both because I feel, again, a perfect country bumpkin and also because it was Harriet who reminded me that I could draw on those experiences to deal with the Biggest Move of All. Harriet is one of those rare people who seems always to know exactly how to solve whatever is at hand and to do it with as much grace as wit. She was the first of my friends to visit me in the far north, and now she is in Edinburgh for a few days on her way back to Indiana from Malta and I have come to join her. It is a double treat for me. I am in the city and I am with Harriet.

For four days we walk and peruse and stumble into large and small adventures and both of us become very fond of Edinburgh. It is a city that is compact, accessible and full of history and cultural events, even without the festivals that mark the end of the summer in the city. When we stop at a National Trust of Scotland building, I am pleased to pull out my membership card only to discover that we are in the offices of the NTS. There is a free exhibit upstairs. I can show my card around the block at the Georgian House, they tell me patiently. I am only a little embarrassed. With my accent I can be either a bumbling American tourist, or I can be, more accurately, a country mouse again. The highlands are a long way from Edinburgh. It is the same country, but a different world.

In the Georgian House, I see little prickly metal leaves strategically placed on chairs to discourage any thoughts of sitting on them. They remind me of the prickly metal put on window ledges to discourage pigeons from settling there.

Peploe painitngs play a role as plot devices in Alexander McCall Smith's books about Edinburgh, which I have read and thus experienced the city indirectly. Now above the mantel I see three Peploes in a row. I am now one degree more urbanized.

Zebra crossings, pelican crossings, and toucan crossings all have slightly different rules for how one can navigate them, according to the Highway Code. The theory test has several multiple choice questions about the finer points between them which I had found baffling because I have seen only a zebra crossing--the zig zag stripes in the street where pedestrians can cross. Thurso, the nearest town to the farm, has one zebra crossing. In one day in the big city I saw both pelican and toucan crossings! Another giant leap forward for the country mouse.

Harriet leaves early Friday morning and I am left to wander on my own. I pull my small wheeled bag through the city streets, not unlike some of the street people. I pass a young woman artfully seated on the sidewalk as if she were posing for a portait of the Virgin Mary awaiting the annunciation. She has freshly scrubbed, pale pinky creamy skin, her blonde hair carefully coifed, her blue skirt spread out like a mantle in front of her accented with a few copper coins on the hem. If we cannot properly read these signs, she has a cardboard sign hand written telling her story as an innocent but unfortunate young girl. Her face is full of sorrow, but she seems less like the face of poverty and more like that of performance art, but I wonder what her story is as I roll my luggage down the sidewalk.

I walk through the green area in the center of Edinburgh. Yesterday there had been a wildly exuberant drumming performance and crowds of sunbathers, but today the park is just beginning to wake up. I come across a woman with a bag not unlike mine. She is sitting on the sidewalk with several bottles of water, an opened can of cat food, a cat that she is feeding by hand, and all these--woman, cat, bag, bottles and cat food, are surrounded by a ring of dancing pigeons. This seems more like the face of poverty. It feels more sad than the virgin on the sidewalk even though the woman and her cat and the pigeons seem perfectly balanced in an ecosystem of their own into which we have not been invited.

The trash cans that were overflowing yesterday have been emptied. The trash truck is moving slowly down the last of them as someone drops an empty coffee cup into the first of them. I move one rung further into the center of the green land. I walk past a long line of identical benches each of which has a small plaque telling a story of love and loss. I wince at the ones that promise "eternal remembrance," some of them dedicated nearly a century ago by spouses or sons and daughters. Where are they now? Is anyone left to look after the bench? Will someone come along and buy a bench for another story? What will happen to the first plaque? And more prosaically, did anyone think of leaving money to sand and repaint the benches?

The next level down into the center has older, more elaborate forms of remembrance-- a statue of a woman that I think may be Queen Victoria with two young boys at her knee. She looks at them proudly and affectionately, but there is no plaque or inscription. In one corner I find a complex memorial to the first highlanders with steles highlighting their battles since about 1600. Uniting the steles is a background of steel with the Arbroath statement about fighting not for glory but for freedom. Especially now I find war memorials deeply saddening. All too often, "support for the troops" serves primarily to keep alive a war that should never have begun. On the bumper of my little green car back in the US I had a bumper sticker that proclaimed: "Support Our Troops. Bring them home," but bumper stickers are not a part of this world and I am still too much of an outsider to have opinions except among family and friends.

At the opposite end of the bottom of this great urban green space is the National Gallery of Scotland. I am confident that I can find the train station in good time, so I decide to spend my last hour in the city looking at formal art. I leave my wheelie cart with a volunteer in the cloak room and head into the nearest gallery where I am greeted by enormous, room dominating oil paintings of elaborate scenes from the bible or Greek or Roman mythology played out against medieval backgrounds. I like Poussin's mystical marriage of St. Catherine first because the blue of Mary's robe is startlingly blue, and then the cherubic figure of baby Jesus with its warm pink tones catches my eye. Finally I am gratified to see St. Catherine in something other than her martyrdom.

Unfortunately, St. Sebastian is portrayed with an arrow in his neck. Such obvious iconography transcends the ages, but it is not appealing. In contrast, "young man tying his garter" is baffling. The caption suggests that tying the garter may have had some specific, aggressive meaning at the time of the painting. Alas, now, as with the plaques on the benches or the iconography of the statue of the woman and the two children, the original story is lost to us. Whatever tying the garter meant, the young man looks like a glowering bully boy and I move on quickly.

The dark red walls contrast sharply with the colors of the paintings, and the heavy gold frames gleam and glare in the lights. The rooms have high ceilings and paintings so far up that they are virtually invisible. I get warm and begin to feel as if I have fallen into the mask of the red death as I move from room to room. I want out. Images swirl at fantastical angles. I think of my friend who could not go to museums because they made her faint. I quickly find the way out of the galleries back to the cool fresh air of the marble entranceway and the relief of its open, anonymous spaces.

More than out. Now I am ready to be Home. I miss Harriet, I miss my husband, I miss home, I even miss "landscape with cattle" as I christen the view out my window with a grander, more urbanized title as I pull my wheelie luggage, thunkety thunkety ker thunk down the same sidewalk I came up just four days ago.


At 10:05 AM, Blogger afp763389 said...

:) travellers have a great ability to make home whereever they step by... intrigued to meet here...

take care & great day

At 6:31 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

hello, this virtual landscape is terra incognita to me but it has proved to be good meeting place

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Shannon said...

Hello Sharon:

I get carried away when reading your blogs. The are wonderful and take me to a place where I felt so comfortable. I have wonderful but sad memories of Ireland and the love I left behind. I remember how 'at home' I felt for the first time in my 40 years of life. But also the feelings of lonliness remembering the family you left behind. I am so happy for you, what we won't do for someone we truly love. I miss you and wish the best for you and Morris.

I'll be visiting this sight again!

At 7:06 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Dear Shannon, I am so glad to hear from you. It makes me ahppy to think that my blog gives pleasure to folks. I am reading a book nowe that you might like. It is called Ignorance by Milan Kundera and it about nostalgia and memory and being an ex pat. I love his writing, which is quirky and honest. He is a Czech writer and his stuff used to be hard to find, but I think now it is available. Let me know if you read it. I'd like to know what you think.


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