I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know enough to recognize that the air found where Wycliffe Hall’s courtyard spills into Norham Gardens smells like a gin and tonic. Sometimes I just stand there to drink it in.
I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know that I didn’t like the fruity slider I got at the Oxford Union’s club, the Purple Turtle. They have sliders named after every college and hall in Oxford, in addition to the houses of Hogwarts. Whoever came up with the blue-green bubblegum tasting shot for Wycliffe Hall—the Oxford centre for typically conservative Evangelicals—must have particularly savoured the irony of their concoction. Myself and a couple friends each downed one to commemorate the end of our first month at Oxford and the start of our first night out dancing. The decision to go out that night, for me at least, was both a horrible one and a wonderful one. Earlier in the day I had a hell of a time getting my new phone plan to work at the local branch of a UK mobile company, courtesy of their completely incompetent staff and shady business practices. It still doesn’t work. The next morning I needed to wake up at 6:30 to catch a train to Edinburgh, thus beginning the ten days of vacation between my pre-term classes and Michaelmas. I lied to myself saying that I would be able to get sleep on the train (I can’t sleep in moving vehicles), and danced until two in the morning, followed by a happy trip to a kebab stand—the staple English remedy for late night less-than-culinary cravings.
From my journal on the train to Edinburgh, via Birmingham:
I know where you are
but I can’t go there, so I’m
looking for you here
[the names and phone numbers of my contacts in Edinburgh]
I’d like to write something about the women in my life. Something about resilience and loud voices.
When I arrived in Edinburgh, after two hours spent in vain at the local branch of the UK mobile company, I took a taxi to the flat of the couple I was to sleep at for two nights. One perk of having a father who works in the world of academia is the network of kind academics that comes with him. The couple I stayed with are both professors at the University of Edinburgh, in theology and art history. After dropping off my bags, I went to find another couple that my dad arranged for me to hang out with (also professors, both theology). They showed me around the university. I have a disorder that kicks in when I visit most universities: I stop enjoying the place for its own sake and instead start enjoying the life I could potentially be living there—the people I’d know, the buildings I’d live and work in, the air I’d breathe. After a fairly thorough tour of Old Town and New Town, my guides took me to the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, of which they are members. I had a beautiful plate of (well raised) haggis and what will probably be the best whiskey I’ll ever have, which is depressing given that I’m twenty years old.
I don’t know much about alcohol, but I know the five steps of enjoying a good whiskey. Hold it up to the light, admiring its hue; swirl it gently, paying attention to how thickly the liquid coats the glass—the longer it takes for it to drip down the glass, the more alcohol it has in it, and thus, the older it is; tilt the glass on a slant and decorously sniff the top, middle, and bottom of the glass’ mouth—note the subtle difference at each location; sip the slightest amount and feel your face warm immediately; sip again after pouring in a couple drops of water, noticing how the water changes, sometimes drastically, the flavour of the liquor.
“Or you can just drink it,” my hostess said.
We then took a cab to the flat I’d be sleeping at that night. They dropped me off and continued on. That night was the first night I can remember in months when I entered a bed knowing that there were no pressing things I hadn’t accomplished in the day. So wonderful.
The next morning I attended church with my hosts. We took a bus to Leith, a harbor town once separate from Edinburgh that was absorbed into the city after years of development—more streets, more houses, more people. The Scottish Episcopalian parish they attend meets in an old all-purpose building next to the larger church they once used that had fallen into disrepair decades back—less people, less money, less pews needed.
Passing an elderly woman wheeling herself slowly to the door, we entered the brick all-purpose building, pausing briefly to look at the stone above the doorway that had a verse in an older Scottish English carved simply on it. Whereas the inside of the building itself was unremarkable (large open floor with some fold-up chairs facing each other in a circle, in front of an elevated stage with an altar) the decorations that adorned the walls were very unique. Empty bottles on shelves, dried flowers, and garlands of triangular flags cut out of various odd ends of fabric each found their place. “The church has a lot of younger people who are very involved with the arts,” my host told me on the bus ride to church.
I took a seat. A lady who appeared to be in her late seventies took the seat next to me. We spoke a little bit before the service.
“We’re a small church, you can see that. We’ve got a good mix of older people like me and young people who bring their kids.
“We’re a bit of a curious church. We have quite a few people from [an acronym I’ve forgotten]. Have you heard of them?” she asked. “No, I don’t think so,” I said. “It’s a group that takes care of people who are… different than others. In case you see any people who are a little bit slower…”
A few minutes she turned to me again. “Yes, we’re an odd church, but a happy one.” She smiled.
The instrumentalists arrived right before the service was slated to begin, tuned, and started the opening music. The band was comprised of a young man on the keyboard, an old woman on a drum, a middle aged woman on a recorder, and a middle aged woman on a viola. A final middle aged woman sat near the band and sang. The music was from a fairly new Scottish Episcopalian song book that incorporated hymns, songs inspired by Celtic Christian imagery, and songs from around the world. It was one of the only churches I’ve attended that sang an African praise song without the congregation feeling obviously uncomfortable, as if they were reluctantly humouring a worship leader set on bringing diversity to the church. This little congregation used their songs for simple, unpretentious worship.
The preacher for the service was one of the professors who brought me. During his sermon, a fellow with Downs syndrome got up and began shaking hands with those around him for a round two of the passing of the peace. During communion, he and the man next to him from the same acronym-ed program held hands. Going to church with friends is always a good thing.
After the service we stayed for coffee and biscuits before making our way back to the bus stop.
[This is Part One of a series of a couple blog posts about my trip to Scotland. Due to some bizarre glitch in the system, I cannot link to part two, but it is out there.]