Fare Thee Well

We leave Edinburgh today.

While we were sad, for a number of reasons, to leave the places we’ve let before (California and Texas), we knew we’d always need to come back (families, etc.).

Leaving Edinburgh is odd, then, because there might not be reasons to ever come back.  That’s five years of roots we will be pulling up when our flight departs.

In an act of serendipitous fate yesterday, as we were discussing these very feelings during our last walk around town, we received the perfect farewell.

As we went to cross the street, in the middle of an intersection of course (jaywalking?), a well-dressed older gentleman greeted us from the opposite side with an emphatic, one-worded yell:


It was, perhaps, the perfect way for Edinburgh to bid us farewell.

In that spirit, here’s a song for that gentleman, as well as for Edinburgh, from us:

***Whilst the lyrics of “Fare Thee Well” do not, perhaps, convey the exact message I’d like, I still believe the overall theme works here.  Also, go see Star Wars.***

Happy Christmas

Around this time of year, an occasional debate comes up about the ‘inappropriateness’ of saying either ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays.’  Here’s a funny anecdote.

A few years back I was working at a rather famous department store, before I got distracted with all this ‘academia’ nonsense.

It was the first day of Chanukah.  This wasn’t unknown to people.  It was on the news.

A phone call came in on our cash wrap desk and I answered it: ‘Happy Chanukah.’  This was, I admit, an unorthodox response, considering we were all told to say: ‘Happy Holidays.’  I answered the caller’s question, and all was fine.  About two hours later, I received a message to see the manager of our department.  It turns out a complaint was filed, and I was given a written warning.  I was told that I had offended a caller with an inappropriate holiday greeting.  I was reminded how to properly answer the phones, and was sent back to work.

Since then, and after all these years, I’ve come to a simple conclusion when it comes to this, dare I say, ‘nonsense.’  It is, admittedly, once again rather unorthodox.

In 1984, the United States Supreme Court announced its decision on the case of Lynch vs. Donnelly.  Here’s a brief description of the case from the IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law website, Oyez:

The city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, annually erected a Christmas display located in the city’s shopping district. The display included such objects as a Santa Claus house, a Christmas tree, a banner reading “Seasons Greetings,” and a nativity scene. The creche had been included in the display for over 40 years. Daniel Donnelly objected to the display and took action against Dennis Lynch, the Mayor of Pawtucket.

The lead question facing the Court’s decision is described as such:

Did the inclusion of a nativity scene in the city’s display violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

The answer they provided is described as such:

No. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that notwithstanding the religious significance of the creche, the city had not violated the Establishment Clause. The Court found that the display, viewed in the context of the holiday season, was not a purposeful or surreptitious effort to advocate a particular religious message. The Court found that the display merely depicted the historical origins of the Holiday and had “legitimate secular purposes.” The Court held that the symbols posed no danger of establishing a state church and that it was “far too late in the day to impose a crabbed reading of the [Establishment] Clause on the country.”

The key element of this case is the statement here: “legitimate secular purposes.”  In essence, the court had stated that the image of the nativity scene was just as secularly innocuous as that of a Christmas Tree or Santa’s house.  The sacred element of the image no lounger remained.  It, and what it stood for, had become secular.

 In a similar case in 2010, the court decided in favour of the placement of a latin cross on government property in the Mojave desert in California.  Originally placed by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars foundation as a memorial to those killed in battle in 1934, the cross became an issue worthy of the court’s attention as it appeared to challenge the disestablishment clause of the First Amendment.  A former member of the National Park Association, Frank Buono, eventually filed suit, and the case worked its way to the Supreme Court.

The decision of the Court was very similar to that in Lynch vs. Donnelly, namely that the cross itself, as a memorial, represented a secular image.

 So what does all of this have to do with ‘Merry Christmas?’

 By means of an explanation, consider the fact that we, as a western society, tend to not work on Sundays, and have built our culture around a particular calendar.  We take time off for Christmas and Easter, regardless of the fact that this often gets disguised by ‘winter’ and ‘spring’ breaks.  Now, this does not mean that these days are not still ritually ‘sacred’ to certain individuals.  It does, however, mean that they might accommodate two meanings.  After all, Sundays are used for football viewings and BBQs, as well as for church-going.

 In this way, then, and in taking the Supreme Court’s lead, there’s nothing seemingly wrong with saying ‘Merry Christmas’ as, like the nativity scene in Rhode Island, the cross in the Mojave, and our use of the ‘sabbath’ for secular purposes, ‘Christmas’ is no longer, or at least, no longer needs to be, sacred.  It’s a holiday we can all enjoy.  We can find pleasure in the twinkling lights, the trees, the markets, and even the nativity scenes, without needing to ‘believe’ in the myths that give these objects sacred meaning.

 With that in mind, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!





Tourist Trap Sacred Space Revisited

10:10 AM, Saturday, The Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain

Our tickets permit us entrance at 10:30, so we have to wait another twenty minutes.

We walk the Christmas Market in the park, the Fira de Nadal a la Sagrada Familia.  Vendors are just starting to slowly open their booths.

We sit on a bench and eat an apple from the hotel.  We look up at the Passion Facade.

We watch as three people, likely father, mother, and son walk through the crowd of tourists, then return to a spot behind a booth, and retrieve two cloth sacks from outside the plastic liner of a trash can.

Are they dangerous?  Should we move?  Should we tell someone?

The son kneels on the sidewalk, right in the middle of the crowd.

He slowly unwraps the cloth, folding it open on the ground.  He begins to place items in rows.

A tourist comes up and hands him her phone.  He attaches it to a pink ‘selfie stick’ and she offers him a five euro note.

20:30 PM, Fira de Santa Llúcia, Catedral de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

At a stall, we purchase a small el caganer.

We marvel at the nativity scenes, at the many ways people can decorate or design their own.  Some are built of large bark pieces, others of tiny stone walls, designed to mimic old rock houses, with windows and half-covered straw rooftops.  Assorted animal statues are sold, as well as different depictions of Mary, Joseph, the infant Christ, the shepherds, and wise men.

You can buy flats of moss, pine branches, and whole trees.

There isn’t a single ‘German’ booth, like those which we’ve grown accustomed to in Edinburgh.  There are no fudge or marzipan sellers.  No bratwursts or pretzels.

Here, below the cathedral, the products are all telling the same story.

11:00 AM, Sunday, Mercado de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of people.  Pushing, fighting, yelling.  Ordering olives, oysters, paella, vermouth in a glass with ice, with lemon.

All are dressed in black.  Most have just come from mass, or are on their way, their rosaries still hanging out of pockets.  Crumpled prayer and scripture pamphlets on the floor.

An old man tries to sell us lotto tickets.  Later, an old woman does the same.

12:00 Noon, Sunday, Santa María la Real de La Almudena, Madrid, Spain.  

A few clanks of coins into a donation box.

Catholics rise from their pews, walk together, kneel, receive the host.

Tourists take pictures.

A woman, hidden somewhere within the dark places of the cathedral, is singing in Spanish.  Her voice echoes back to us.

We wait until the pews refill, then walk quietly to the door and back out into the cold, Sunday light.

12:45 AM, Sunday, Templo de Debod, Madrid, Spain.

Climb the stone steps, turn left into the entrance.

Enter the dark rooms and read about the hieroglyphs.  Wait in line and climb the wooden steps upstairs and wait to see a reconstructed map of Egypt.

Outside, amongst people taking selfies in the two archways that once led to the temple.

Sit with our feet hanging off the wall behind the temple, eating a stromboli of ham and mozzarella, purchased earlier at the market.

We watch the hazy light over the city.  People walk their dogs.  A young boy is kicking a ball back and forth with his father.

17:20, Sunday, Buen Retiro Park, Madrid Spain

Sitting in a cafe, drinking coffee and Campari on ice, watching people walk by.

Thousands of people are here this afternoon, speaking different languages, families of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

On our way to the Atocha metro station, we stop at the Monumento del Angel Caido.  At the top of the fountain, Lucifer is falling in place in bronze.  All around us are skateboarders and people on roller blades.

Someone is playing music far off in the distance.

19:00, Sunday, Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, Madrid, Spain 

Waiting for our flight.  Delays, delays, delays.

Sitting in a row of chairs facing a blank wall with a small door.  Over the doorway there is a sign: ‘Capilla.’

We share a can of Mahou beer.  We eat sandwiches with ham, cheese, and a barbacoa sauce.

At the gate next to us a plane is boarding for Turkey.  The usual noise of people standing in line, of children fussing about and adults complaining to each other in whispers.

12:10 AM, Monday, The 100 Airlink Bus from the Edinburgh Airport to Waverley Station 

We talk about the trip, about the things we saw, and how this will be the last trip for us to Europe for some time.

We talk about the people we encountered, about how so many of them seemed more concerned with pictures of themselves.

So many tourist traps, and so many sacred spaces.

Are we pilgrims?  Are we a new type of pilgrim?

In the contemporary world, with terrorism and secularism and ever-changing religious diversity, what does it mean to visit a sacred place?  What will it mean in the future?

Moreover, has our idea of the sacred changed, or, have these places become a hybrid?

A place to worship, as well as a place to take a selfie.  To say: here I am, I was here, here’s my proof.

What, then, is the difference between a selfie, and this sort of writing?

Is this not, in its own way, a literary selfie?

I went to these places, I am writing about them, here’s my proof.



Everything is Temporary

I’m standing at the bar in the lobby of the London Heathrow Ibis Hotel, ordering a sandwich, when the television behind the register flashes in bright red letters: BREAKING NEWS.

I hate that phrase.

Or rather, at this moment, I find myself having a deep and profound hatred of that phrase.

About five hours ago, I was sitting alone at a cafe in London Heathrow’s Terminal 2 (the Queen’s terminal), when out the window I watched as United Airlines flight 96 sped down the runway and lifted off into the air.

It’ll be about another 5-6 hours until I can stop worrying.

On that flight are my wife and dog, heading back to America.

About two weeks ago, I told my wife that there are a number of dominoes that we’ve lined up: her last day at work; the family arriving for graduation; the ceremony itself; sending our dog back to the States; our last flight out.

As of last week, we tipped the first one over.

This is the fourth domino.  Only one more to go.

So while I’m sitting here, eating my sandwich and waiting to find out if the two most important things in my life made it safely across the Atlantic while simultaneously refreshing United Airline’s flight tracker, I thought I’d take a minute and write about the temporariness that has been our lives these last five years.

When you move to another country as a student, your life becomes a temporary thing.  Right there, in your passport, your life has an expiration date.  Ours is 31 December 2015.  This is the time within which you must complete your degree, then go home.

So, though you might get a job, make friends, build a life, you know that it isn’t meant to last.  In that way, while it’s a great metaphor for life in general, it also teaches you, from early on, not to get too attached to things.

Thus, you spend your time as a marginal person.  You know, from the outset, that the things you love will have to be left behind: sitting on a particular bench in the Botanical Gardens, an odd little Mexican restaurant that has felt like home, pretzels at the Christmas Market, drinks outside on summer days, taxi rides in the rain, watching Scotland pass by through a train window, our seats at the Cameo.

That, and the people who come into your life slowly fade away.  In fact, it’s amazing how quickly those who were close friends become acquaintances, and then complete strangers.  Many of them becoming nothing more than Facebook profiles, like all those you’ve left behind.  Some, by their own doing.

What’s more, you start to realise that you’ve become a different person as well.  Sure, you’re still an American, and nothing will change that, but you’re also a bit Scottish.  As much as you’ve tried to respect your hosts by not mimicking their accents, or colloquialisms, it’s been almost five years, and things have rubbed off on you.  This happened when you moved from California to Texas.  Will these things change when you go back?  Will you find yourself adapting these adaptations to a foreign, yet inherently familiar, context?

As you might expect, within this liminal stage you guard yourself.  You protect yourself from getting too close to things, because you know they won’t last.  Interestingly, when you look back over the years and think of those fellow Americans who lived here but never really seemed to embrace Scotland, who always talked of the things they missed, of the differences between this place and ‘home,’ and who also seemed to be back in the States every Christmas or summer break, you start to realise this was their own way of protecting themselves as well.

Yet, it also isn’t just those fellow Americans with whom you find yourself empathising toward the end.  It’s people here as well.  You come to realise that perhaps those with whom your were close all this time, who have turned away from you when you needed them the most, are doing this to protect themselves from the disappointment or sadness of the reality that your relationship was a temporary thing.

The end of something is always difficult.

In fact, all in all it isn’t easy.  None of this is easy.

Yet, again, none of this is all that surprising.  It isn’t as if you suddenly, one day, realise that your time is up.  You have years to prepare.

This is the essence of ‘everything is temporary,’ and again, I think it’s an excellent lesson for life in general.  There will always be moments when things feel like they’ve become permanent, when, even against your better judgment, you might find yourself bored with the monotony of life.  That doesn’t matter, because things will change.

Which also reminds me that while our time here has been measured by a stamp in our passports, we’ve also had the luxury of knowing when that end will come.  Some, if not most, don’t have that.  For them, this realisation comes suddenly.  Loved ones die, jobs end, love fades.

At least for us, the end has come just when it said it would, and though it is sad for its own reasons, it also means we get to move on into the next temporary stage which, if it’s been anything like this one, should prove equally rewarding.