Thursday 3 December 2015

Brave New Worlds

For an interesting--if depressing--reflection on how Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, seems to have been something of a prophet, have a read of Emily Watson's article in Quadrapheme. Because Nineteen-Eighty-Four is sooooo 1989, n'est-ce pas? I mean, now that we're moved on from Stalinism to kindergarten sex-ed, it ain't your grandparents' dystopia no more.

I was having a chat with a Fellow Foreign Wife yesterday, and I remembered my first Christmas in Edinburgh, the one in which I couldn't for the life of me remember how to make the Sacred Christmas Bun and ended up crying hysterically on the kitchen floor.

Sadly, too many of our Christmas holidays involve me crying hysterically on the kitchen floor, which is one reason why B.A. is so keen for us to go to Italy this year. I have made a private oath to do as little Christmas baking as possible during Advent, so the cooky-baking madness will not begin until our return.

Yesterday I pondered my need to cook and bake like a maniac in the last few days before Christmas, and of course I am trying to recreate the wonders of family Christmas. I am pretty sure when B.A. and I were courting he promised we would always go "home for Christmas"--and we never have. I was heartbroken about the first missed Christmas, but after six years, I am used to it. Little by little, I get used to my new life in Scotland and the drawbacks bother me less and less.

As I grew up in a town that saw wave after wave of immigrants, I looked forward (as an engaged lady) to discovering what it is like to be oneself an immigrant, and of course I was brought up with a bump against the realities immigrants to Canada often complain about.

The number one issue, since I immigrated for love, is work. Those delightful jobs in Catholic media that would have been my second choice after academia are none so many in Scotland, where Catholics make up only 15% of the population and of those maybe 30% go to Mass on Sunday. And, since I immigrated into my husband's Catholic traditionalism, I am not keen to become a lay chaplain, which is what my M.Div. qualifies me to do. Finally, the two sectors in Edinburgh in which workers are most needed are 1. minimum wage "carers" and 2. retail sales.

How I cope: Freelance for Catholic media and education in communities with more Catholics. Yay, internet!

What complicates all this is  (2.) the persistent British class system, which used to put working-class people at a hideous disadvantage, but now puts middle-class outsiders at a disadvantage. If you are deemed to "talk posh" or you obviously aren't "one of us", that stop-gap job can make you miserable. The do-as-little-as-possible-but-look-busy ethos of the latter union era which still persists in places is quite shocking to foreigners, as is the casually sexist and sex-obsessive "banter" that deeply shocked another foreign wife friend of mine.

How I cope: I channel my Scottish-Canadian grandmother, who, like many Scots, loved to chat with bus-drivers and other near strangers. If a Scot in a queue makes some remark about the weather, I agree that it is terrible. If a Scot mentions it is dark for 3 PM, I agree that the nights are fair' drawing in. If my shopping bill is strangely low, I joke about it with the cashier. And I almost always chat with cab drivers, who are fonts of information about a side of Scottish society I rarely see. At the same time, I hang out with the minority within the minority of my religious minority, which fortunately does not mean ISIS-sympathizers, but Latin Mass fans.

Then, of course, (3.) I sound foreign.  Thanks to the red hair, pink skin and charity shop wardrobe, I don't look foreign. But naturally as soon as I open my mouth, I can be pegged as foreign. Because the number one non-English group of foreigners in Edinburgh are Polish, I was asked if I were Polish even before I began to learn Polish. Occasionally I am asked if I am American, which can be a bit tricky, as Americans are not universally loved in the UK.

How I cope: Generations of Canadians before me have lost it on Scots assuming that they are Americans, as so in my experience Scots are careful about this. If they ask if I'm American, and I reveal that I am a Canadian, they apologize profusely. After all, if there's anything a Scot hates, it's being mistaken for English.

Meanwhile I am gradually changing my vocabulary and responses to match those around me, being careful, however, not to use any expression my husband does not use. "Ah dinnae mind" ("I don't remember) is right out. I have tried to say "I must go home and make my man's tea" but it sounded false to my ears. We don't have tea, we have dinner. Or supper. And usually after 8 PM, so that is not any kind of "tea" my great-grandfather would have recognized.

I live a pretty quiet life, though, so "Where-are-you-from" does not crop up all that often.

And indeed (4.) I am foreign. Sort of.  As my mother is a Scottish-Canadian, with a lot of east-coast Scottish assumptions about saving money, Christian decency, social dynamics, and that the Scots are the SALT of the EARTH, the Scots do not drive me crazy. They seem pretty normal to me, except for the class chippiness and, before the Referendum, any Scottish republicanism. (Horror!) However the Scots are generally too busy to hang out with under-employed foreigners. If I lived in Toronto, I would probably be too busy with work, family and old friends to go about making new foreign friends myself.

How I Cope: Polska! Polska! Polska! The Poles are foreign; I'm foreign. What better way to find togetherness in voluntary exile than hanging out with other exiles? As a matter of fact, though, my list of fellow foreigner friends and acquaintances also includes English, Americans, Italians, and an Australian. Meanwhile, I have gradually stopped celebrating Canadian holidays. As I have no Canadian friends here, it makes no sense to cook up a huge dinner whose special significance was lost on everyone but me. I needed them at first--Thanksgiving and Hallowe'en--but now I don't.

My Polish class has a fair number of other foreigners, and swing-dancing is incredibly pan-European.

IN CONCLUSION: Marrying a Scot and then whisking off to his flat in the Scottish Historical House for which he works takes some adjustment. My adjustment was relatively easy because my mother is a Scottish-Canadian whose Scots Protestant grandparents came from roughly the same culture I now live in. It's easy to like people who remind you of your beloved grandmother, and it's reasonably easy to channel your own grandmother. The biggest headaches are the job market and sounding foreign--although this latter problem is less of a problem now that I have started automatically making the appropriate responses to  Scottish questions. (e.g. "What do you think of X town?" "Weeeeellllll......")

That said, 21st century Scots are a lot different from 20th century Scottish-Canadians, so many contemporary realities confuse or trouble me, from public female drunkenness to sudden outbreaks of street violence to Scottish republicanism, for in my view it undercuts the unity inherent in being British. However, all places have their ups and downs. The important thing for me is that B.A., who does not have a migrant nature, is happy in his home and that I, who do have a migrant nature, get to leave Scotland from time to time, especially to return to Canada to see my family and old friends.


  1. I realise how many Australianisms I use when I get blank looks from my Canadian friends.


  2. I enjoyed this! I haven't moved to a foreign country, but to a different part of the USA, and a lot of this resonates with my own experience...not so much in terms of cultural differences (though I've experienced a measure of that, too) but adapting to new people, new colloquialisms, new traditions (and holding on to old ones)...


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