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Scotland for Beginners

Author: Britta Benson

For me, Scotland begins in November 2000 with a suitcase. Let me take you to the scene. You won’t believe this.

I’m German. I’m 30. I’m single. I’m also feeling quite unmillenniumed. It’s the year 2000. Year of promises and then… Then? I’m working on a PhD in French Literature and I lecture at Frankfurt University. On the surface, my life looks great. I made all the right decisions. Minor detail, teensy, tiny flaw… those decision? They feel completely wrong. There’s something missing, I cannot even name or picture. For lack of a better word, I call it ‘happiness’.

My professor finds this compellingly absurd.

‘We can offer you more hours, more money’, he insists.

‘It’s not about money’, I reply and suprise myself. Is it not?

‘Why do you want to leave?’, he eventually asks, perfectly nonplussed.

Here’s why. The wilting non descript office pot plant that lives in the ladies toilet of the Romance Literature Institue currently possesses more mojo than I. Wouldn’t want to swap places, don’t get me wrong, but I want to feel alive!

This is the story I envisage for myself: German woman decides to have her midlife crisis early, quite sensibly drops everything, goes to Italy, paints watercolours, becomes an instant success and from them on drinks generous amounts of Chianti, while basking in Tuscan sunshine. Sounds good?

I make one rookie mistake. One! I ask myself, in my heart of hearts, where exactly I want to go. Of course my brain has already figured it out. I’ll go to Florence, where else? Still, I ask. This, dear reader, is the very moment things go pear-shaped and the seed of a thought lands in my soul. I can hear it. Kerplunk!

‘Glasgow’.

I shudder. God, no. Couldn’t possibly cope with the weather. Far too much of it there, comes in layers, all of them wet, wet and wetter. I want to see the world, but I’d rather stick to the dry side of the globe. Remember, Italy?

‘GLASGOW’.

The thought stubbornly refuses to budge, let alone go away. In the travel agent’s I hear myself say, ‘A one way ticket to Glasgow, please.’ I make a note to my self. So this is what it feels like to have an out-of-body experience.

The woman behind the desk seems unperturbed. ‘When for?’

I breathe in deep. ‘22nd November.’ That’s in two weeks’ time. Suddenly I have her full attention.

‘Wait, what?’ she shrieks. ‘You want to go to Glasgow in November?

I nod.

‘You sure?’

I nod again.

Eventually she offers me an expression of pity, like someone’s just died. ‘Do you have to go?’

Sensible people would say ‘no’. Loud and clear. I say ‘yes’. Yes, I have to go. This is my moment of clarity. My turning point. I think, what the heck. It’s not as though I’m going to stay. Glasgow in November? You kidding? I’ll start there and then slowly make my way down south. As planned. I’ll get to Italy. Eventually.

When I tell my parents and friends, that, yes, I’m still leaving, but no, not for Florence but Glasgow, I expect raised eyebrows. No. I guess, they think I’m well beyond saving. That I simply have to go wherever I need to, get it out of my system, and then be back in time for Christmas, forever done with that soulsearching malarkey. Apparently thirty is the new fifty!

I leave with one suitcase. In it: not a lot, plus a set of juggling balls and an inflatable armchair. The former a lifelong ambition of mine, the latter a gift from my best friends. ‘It’ll float in the rain, like a life raft’, they say. Never travel to Scotland without a suitable buoyancy aid!

The minute I land in Glasgow all the Scots on the plane put on their robust wind and weatherproof jackets. I’m decidedly underdressed. Should I get out the inflatable armchair? The doors open before I can come to a decision.

Wooooosh!

Rain hits me from all angles, even horizontal and from the ground upwards. I’m soaked. Welcome to Scotland!

I don’t understand a single word of what people are saying. They smile at me, then tilt their heads, squint their eyes and look at me expectantly. My school English is impeccable. I can recite blank verse until the Elizabethan cows come home. This, however, proves of limited use. Everyone sounds positively Klingon.

I book into a hostel on Bath Street, where I enjoy the company of the finest flotsam and jetsam the world has to offer. A Swedish girl on the run from an abusive boyfriend. A young Irish bloke, looking for casual labour. A broke and broken American divorcee. We watch ‘The Weakest Link’ together in the lounge. We chat. No judgement. Within weeks we disperse to seek our fortune.

I end up in a tiny bedsit in the West End, get a temp job in Gartnavel Royal Hospital where they teach me ‘Weegie’ every day. I learn about ‘dreich’, ‘clatty boggin’, ‘gallus’ and ‘crabbit’. My job is to answer the phone. For a while, this feels like an intergalactic line. Where am I? Mars?

A few months in, something happens. Inexplicable, like all things big and beyond belief. I almost feel like I belong.

Didn’t I have a plan? Remember, Italy?

It’s Sunday, the first of April. April Fools. Surely the best time to decide my future. I sit on the lawn in the Botanic Gardens. I juggle in the sunshine on this first truly nice day since my arrival. The whole of the West End is coming out of hibernation. It’s taps aff, now or never weather!

Turns out, it’s now.

I see a guy approaching on a pennyfarthing. He cycles straight at me. My heart goes ‘Kerplunk’ again. Would you believe it? These things don’t happen.

Thing is, they do. He steps off. Smiles. Tells me about the Glasgow Juggling Club.

‘A juggling club?’ I could stay in Scotland for a bit longer, couldn’t I?

Reader, I married him. Not there and then, of course not, but a few years later. And guess what? We went to Florence for our honeymoon. So yes, I do remember Italy now. We also started our own circus school together, bought a house, had a son, the lot. Apparently, life comes up with the best of stories and I write them down. I’m a juggler, what could possibly go wrong?

My happiness project is in full swing.