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:

“GETTHEFUCKOUTOFTHESTREETANDFUCKOFF!!!”

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.***

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It’s All Relative

This week is graduation, and since it’s the only ceremony of this type in which I have allowed myself to be forced to attend, my family graciously came to visit.

Part of the fun of family coming to visit, is you get to see the city through the eyes of first-timers to Edinburgh.  Suddenly, all the places that eventually blended into the background of your mundane day-to-day, have regained the romance they had when you first arrived.

Whilst they were here, we enjoyed touring the Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, Rosslyn Chapel, Mary King’s Close, the High Street, the Christmas Market, golf at St. Andrews, and a few other spots.  At each of our stops, as we passed through the gift shops conveniently placed at every exit, we spent a bit of time looking over clan tartans.

Our sudden (or maybe longstanding) interest in all things Scottish tartan came with a reason.  It was perhaps quite convenient that just before my family arrived, a relative of ours discovered the following information about our Scottish heritage (on my father’s side):

westmore

The most relevant part of this new info is this:

In 1988, while researching an ancestor with Scottish lineage, I discovered that Maldred [my ancestral grandfather, d. 1045] was the younger brother of Duncan I, King of Scotland.  With this discovery, twenty additional generations were added to the previous documented 29 generations, resulting in 49 documented generations in this family.   

So, knowing now that we are descendants of Scottish Royalty, this last trip, with the whole family, felt extra special.

Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the content of this blog would know that I would simply write this off as a type of ‘fiction.’  In this case, however, and ever so briefly, I’ll let it slide.  I mean, I do in fact look a bit like Fassbender’s MacBeth, right?

https://www.youtube.com/embed/RgH_OnrYlCk?feature=player_detailpage“>

So, all hail me, Dr. Ethan G. Quillen, Scottish Royalty.


On a less ridiculous note, my family’s new info, and thus further interest in all things Scottish Tartan, got me thinking.  In fact, while waiting out the long list of names called at the ceremony today, and perhaps as one last chance to consider changing my Thesis topic, I threw together this idea.  I will present it here as a brief abstract, because, given the celebratory frivolity of this afternoon and evening’s events, I simply don’t have the time to expand.

It’s All Relative: An Ethnographic Analysis of American-Scottish Identity Constructions

Everyday in Edinburgh, visitors from America come to the numerous ‘Scottish Heritage’ shops conveniently placed on the Royal Mile.  These individuals are, in our contemporary context, a new type of pilgrim.  They are in search of a connecting thread, a symbolic link to an ancient past.  They spend hundreds and hundreds of pounds purchasing clan information booklets, kilts, scarfs, and clothing fashioned from a particular woollen tartan, their tartan, a physical embodiment of their ancestral lineage.  Why do they do this?  This analysis will attempt to answer this simple question with four case studies, while at the same time both establish a linkage between these pilgrim’s construction of Scottish ancestry and the notion that they further an intercontinental sense of imagined community, as well as challenge the perception that one’s heritage is nothing more than a type of identity artifice, of fiction.


***One last funny anecdote from this week***

When my parents arrived, a day ahead of my brother and his family, we took them to the Christmas market.  While standing at the bar in St. Andrews Square, I caught the attention of a rather sullied and drunken gentleman chatting up a young woman.  He looked at me, caught her attention, and announced to all in ear shot:

“Look eh this chap, ‘ere.  This is a Scotsman!”

Then to me, he said:

“I bet your name is Robert Robertson from the highest highlands!”

Back to the young woman:

“Look at him.  He’s the most Scottish I’ve ever seen!”

Taking a moment to let his declaration sink in, as well as to build a rather large pregnant pause, I responded, in my most Southern California accent:

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m just an American”

My fellow drinkers found it rather humorous, and the drunken fellow happily hugged me.

He then further declared:

“Eh, it’s all relative!”

 

 

 

Vanilla English

Leaving the XXI Quinquennial IAHR in Erfurt, I stopped off at the University for one last coffee before boarding the tram’s Liene 6 (Riethe, Erfurt) to the train station (Hauptbahnhof).  On the tram, a gentleman I’d not met at the conference shouted over the noise, “English?!”

It took me a few seconds to decipher whether he meant, “do you speak English,” or, “are you English.”

It was the latter.

He had seen that my name tag, which also functioned as a free public transport pass, had the word ‘Edinburgh’ printed under my name.

I responded, “No, American,” to which he asked: “North or South?”

I told him: “North, Southern California.”

His response, in a rather heavy accent which I, embarrassingly, was having trouble understanding, was: “Is it cold in Edinburgh?  Snow?”

Our conversation then descended into the banal, yet polite, sort of back and forth conversation that people have when limited by language differences.  We talked about the weather in our countries, and the winters in Scotland and Lithuania, before he stood to exit at his stop and bid me a friendly, “Nice to meet you, enjoy English.”


When I arrived in Berlin, I dropped off my bag at a locker, and decided to ‘walk the streets,’ which really meant, walk from Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), through the Brandenburg Gate, and then the length of Unter den Linden to Museum Island and the Berliner Dom (Cathedral).

When I passed through the Brandenburg Gate, after deftly avoiding all the people taking pictures straddling where the wall once separated East and West Berlin, I entered out onto the wide expanse of Pariser Platz.  There, in the centre, intoning loudly and with sincere passion, was a bagpiper.

He was playing “Danny Boy.”

I took a picture, lamented the fact that pipers follow me everywhere now, had a pretzel, a few pilsners, and returned to the train station a broken man.


At the airport (Schönefeld, not Tegel), I squeezed into a small section of an Irish Bar, the only place to sit and eat and drink before one’s flight (Schönefeld is a terrible airport to fly out of).  I ordered a German beer, because a Guinness or a Kilkenny felt out of place.  I also borrowed a stool from two elderly travellers, who seemed rather put out to let me have it.  It turns out, they were saving it for their coats, for when their wives returned from the duty free shop.  They let me have it, of course, though grumbled in German.  After that we politely ignored each other for a few minutes.

When the gate for my flight was announced, I noticed they too began to gather their belongings.  I politely gave them back their stool (in case they needed it) and thanked them.

One of the gentleman suddenly asked, “Oh, you speak English?”  I answered him that I did, to which he responded: “Only English?  No French, or German?”  I told him a little French (Je parle un petit peu le français), and he smiled back.

“Oh,” he said, “just plain vanilla English.  Ok.  See you on the flight.”


A few minutes later, as I stood in line to board the flight, and as my new friends slowly made their way behind me with their bags of liquor and chocolate, I found myself feeling somewhat conflicted.  I was certain that his association of my language as ‘vanilla English’ was meant as an insult, likely referring to it as being bland or boring.  However, it also seemed like an intriguing thing to analyse.

First, I thought, why do we associate vanilla with something bland?  Vanilla isn’t boring.  It’s actually rather exotic.

It was originally cultivated from the Mexican vanilla orchid, which the Aztecs called, tlilxochitl, which was then introduced to Europe via the conquistador Hernán Cortés (alongside its dichotomous partner, chocolate) in the early sixteenth century.

Since then, it’s literally traveled the world, and comes from a number of equally ‘exotic’ locations: MadagascarRéunion island, and other tropical islands within the Indian Ocean (Vanilla planifolia), the South Pacific (Vanilla tahitensis), and the West Indies, Central, and South America (Vanilla pompon).

As well, the means to produce it outside Mexico have needed to adopt ‘by-hand’ pollination, as it was originally dependent upon, and could only produce, when pollinated by a particular species of bee (Melipona).  In fact, according to the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, it’s the second most expensive ‘spice’ after saffron.

Vanilla isn’t bland.

As my ticket was scanned I continued to think that perhaps this was a perfect metaphor: to call my language ‘vanilla English’ seemed, in fact, a rather apt description.  Regardless of whether or not he meant it, my new friend at the Irish Bar in Berlin was properly describing the diversity of English, exemplified by the fact that, in an Irish Bar, in Berlin, he was using it to describe my language as ‘vanilla.’

Likewise, maybe this distinction was meant as a way of referring to the English language as something accessible to all.  After all, not only is it universally used, there are in fact a number of different types of English: from British to American, Canadian, and Australian, a whole diverse world of Anglophone speakers adjusting and amending the flavour of the language with unique vernaculars and cultural and contextual influences.

Second, this association of my language as ‘vanilla’ is yet another reminder that, as a flavour, differences of perspective should not be seen as adverse to each other, but rather as individual and unique.  When combined, then, they create something new, a discourse of flavours coming together in a melange, an immersion of both likewise and disparate ideologies that develop and evolve and become something just as, if not more, meaningful because of their blending together.


On the plane, these thoughts were mixing nicely with the free wine and peanuts.  I started to think back to my presentation, which I wrote about last week, and about the differences between those of us who study Atheism (usually more history focused) and those of us who study Non-religion (usually more social-scientific).  These are like flavours, and like the idea that vanilla and chocolate are opposite, they are in fact extremely close relatives, introduced to the ‘western’ world at the same time, and from the same ‘exotic’ origin.

Thus, our language, though different, should not be seen as wholly separate or divided, but of equal essence and quality.  As I argued last week, our differences of opinion or approach don’t represent a weakness, but rather a wider discourse, leading us to a better understanding about a subject and concept, and how those whom we study go about describing themselves in a myriad of different ways.

As such, and just as how a discursive approach to the study of ‘religion’ works to release us from the precarious and difficult task of theoretically ‘defining’ the term, I find myself once again in praise of polyvocality.

After all, who hasn’t enjoyed an ice cream cone swirled with both vanilla and chocolate?


As we made our descent into Edinburgh, and I strained my eyes to make out the two towers of New College (still tragically draped in festival banners), I noticed a fly buzzing around the edges of the window.  When we landed and they opened the rear door, I caught one last glimpse of this little stowaway as it escaped into the night air.  Later, as I approached the immigration desk, I thought to myself, do you think the fly’s first thoughts, as it exited the aircraft, were:

Was soll der unsinn?  Ich spreche kein Englisch.  Wo bekomme ich ein ticket für die straßenbahn?

A Day in the (Fictional) Life

The following is the ethnographic translation of the below field notes that you asked for, taken during one of my days of observation here in Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.  It is presented here as requested, incomplete, but I do hope that you find the details as riveting and nuanced as I do.  I also sincerely hope that my conclusions will be enough to justify further monetary support.

rule 1rule 2 rule 3


08:02 AM

I was applauded this morning whilst crossing the street by a group of women dressed in ornate pink and red costumes.  One was wearing a tiara, and I presumed she was the leader and/or of some lesser-ranked royal class.  I was embarrassed to have been a part of their group, and slightly disappointed that I might have too closely become a participant.  When I reached the opposite side of the street, I moved past the women and hid myself behind a tree so as to better view their actions without too destructively intervening.  As I did this, the lower ranked of the two smiled at me with what I can only presume was either a gesture of greeting, or dominance.

The two women were then greeted themeselves by an individual dressed in a dark green coat, long in the sleeves, and that reached down below her knees.  I thought this choice of garment was odd as it was neither raining, nor cloudy.  I have periodically found myself considering the oddity that is the dress habits of these natives, as they tend to adorn themselves in often drab woollen accoutrements based on an assumption (either via lived experience or prophetic divination) about what type of weather might actually occur, rather than for what is actually occurring.

The green woman handed the leader of the pink and red women a paper cup filled with a yellow-tinted libation.

This exchange, as well as the ceremony that followed, is worth noting in detail:

The crowned woman drank first.  She sipped lightly at the libation, then handed the cup to her subordinate, who equally sipped lightly.  They both seemed to have found the contents pleasing as they happily thanked the green woman.  Then, they each drank again in turn.  The crowned woman made an intriguing gesture, tipping the cup toward the green woman, who nodded her head forward in response.  The red and pink women then continued walking, sharing the cup back and forth until it was empty.  I followed, cautiously.  At this point, the subordinate woman crushed the cup in her left (dominant, it seemed) hand and dropped it against the wall of a merchant shop that specialised in a local delicacy the natives affectionately refer to as ‘chippy.’  (It is an acquired taste).  The two women then began to move quicker, laughing to one another.  When I examined the cup I noted the contents to be sweet and slightly chemical, like alcohol.  I tried in earnest not to disturb the cup, as I did not wish to interrupt, and thus become a part of, the ritual.  

Given the age of the two women, the colour of their garments, and their body shapes, I believe an educated hypothesis about this ritual might conclude that this was a type of fertility act.  In fact, from previous observations, I am confident in the assumption that these women were performing a liminal transformation, akin to a removal of oneself into the wilderness, only to return an acknowledged member of the tribe.  As I myself returned to my original position this hypothesis became even more valid as a large group of similarly dressed red and pink women appeared on the opposite end of the street.  I noted in my journal that the green woman excitedly began preparing more libations from a glass bottle with the label scratched off and a box of what looked to be some kind of juice.  As there is indeed much more that I could describe of the interactions and dialogues that occurred once this group of women crossed the street, I will leave here further confident in my impression that I inadvertently discovered a festival devoted entirely to a fertility act.

More on this to follow.


13:45

A few notes on the customs that I have witnessed in my time here.  I have broken these into ‘rules,’ because, as you know, it feels easier for me to delineate the imponderabilia of these people in particular categories.

Rule 1: There is always a hill.

Edinburgh is a city of hills.  There is always a hill.  Even when one climbs to the apex of one of the ritually sacred hills (I have counted at least four thus far), there still seems to be a hill to further climb.  I have noted that a number of the visitors who come here to explore the mysterious culture of the Scotspeople take to wearing clothing suitable to such a geographical landscape.  I have counted an immeasurable amount of hiking boots and trousers and jackets to match.  They seem to have all invested in large brim, thin, flopping hats.  I even once saw a man using two walking canes.  Such is the terrain of this environment.

The locals, of course, seem not dissuaded by the hills here.  Even to the point of stubbornness.  I have taken to using many of the transport options available to the native and visitor alike to make my way through the city, but the natives insist on walking.

Interesting point to support this: in the last few years, the tribal elders gathered and financed the construction and instalment of a tram system.  The natives have not taken to using it, to the point of insistence, and even protest at times.  Perhaps this is due, as I have decided, to the fact that it only leads in a single direction, and thus seems rather pointless.  Either way, their familiarity with the hills of this city seems ingrained within their genes.  It is indeed an intriguing aspect to their cultural identity.

Rule 2: Someone is always behind you.

I walk quite often here, making useful observations of the natives and their interactions with each other and the visitors alike.  However, I have found myself, repeatedly, and without fail, being followed.  This does not, of course, mean that I am actually being followed, but that there is always someone walking behind me.

I’ve found this to be such a frequent occurrence that I have named it the ‘Edinburgh phenomenon.’  I will look more into this through the remainder of my research here.

Rule 3: The heaters are always on.

It is no secret that the weather here can be a bit rain-soaked and blustery.  The natives have a number of terms for these weather patterns, ‘dreach’ and ‘haar’ being the most often ones that I have heard thus far.  The latter is a name given to a low and choking fog that rolls in and blankets everything in sight.  The former is difficult to translate.  One of my informants tried to roughly define it as: “the weather is terrible and cold and it is raining, I think I’ll have a lie in today.”

Given this type of weather, the natives tend to always have their heaters on.  They likewise will usually be adorned in woollen garments.  This makes it difficult for an outsider such as myself to acclimate to the sweating.  Even on days when the sun is out and it is warm, without fail, the heaters will be on.  While I have tried to guard myself from too subjectively being influenced by this, it has proven to be the hardest part of my observations.

I am always sweating.


22:00

This evening I took a bus to one of the city’s secular sanctuaries.  It is called ‘Usher Hall,’ but I believe the natives pronounce it ‘Oosher Heel.’  I’m not entirely certain, and will look into this more.

On the bus I noticed two oddities.

  1. An elderly woman was obsessively engaged in picking out the blue embroidery from a white towel.  She was using a pair of scissors and cutting it loose, then depositing the blue thread on the floor of the bus.  On closer inspection, I believe it was a hotel towel.
  2. An elderly man came onto the bus, muttering to himself in a native dialect that is difficult to make out, even with my extensive language study.  I’ve been told it’s what is called ‘Leither,’ but have yet to source from where this originates.  He remained standing during the entire bus ride, busying himself by the buses entrance.  I moved seats to better observe him and found that he was removing the discarded bus tickets from out of a red plastic bucket, flattening them in his hands, and then eating them one by one.

At Oosher Heel I sat amongst a few of my informants who had invited me to hear a reading from a fellow American, a humorist named David Sedaris.  They were quite fond of him, and I took this as a compliment based on their views of my own culture.  Overall I felt this experience definitely bonded me with them, and I look forward to the cultural observations I will achieve via this friendship.

During the reading a remarkable realisation came to me that I will transcribe in full:

At one point David Sedaris was telling a story about how he likes to pick up trash in the village in which he lives in England (apparently he is conducting his own research).  His deeds were so welcomed by the natives in his area that he was invited to the Queen’s Palace for lunch.  While the story he told was quite humorous, and while I do not intend to bastardise it here, what stood out to me was the reaction of a number of the natives in the audience.  When Sedaris said ‘the Queen,’ people booed in a critical tone.  I had been warned that these natives were no fans of the Queen of England, but I was not expecting them to be so vocal about it.  It then occurred to me that they were doing more than just booing, they were being supportive of their own queen, whom I had likely observed earlier this morning, the one in the tiara.  This realisation has altered my perception of this morning’s fertility ritual.  I will thusly be re-focusing my research on locating this queen, and will alert you further on my successes. 


Best from the field,

–E.G. Quillen

PS: please ensure the grant proposal goes through, I am indeed sure that I have stumbled upon an essential aspect of this culture and fully intend to further explicate its meaning.