“How maps may look stationary, but boundaries shift, worlds open up, other worlds and civilizations pass away. And none of us is stuck or alone, because coursing through us is everything that brought us to where we are.”
-Elizabeth Hay, Alone in the Classroom
This is a much-belated account of one of the odder experiences Kristen and I had while gallivanting all over the UK and Ireland.
It happened our first proper morning in Inverness. We woke up refreshed and excited to greet the day – looking forward to further exploration of the town and all it had to offer.
On this particular morning, after a good week of continental breakfasts and far too much cheap coffee (what we Canucks would see as proper filter coffee is not quite as common in the UK, though, to be fair, their stuff is probably a whole heck of a lot less diluted) we decided to treat ourselves to a nice big breakfast, if a little on the cheap side.
We made our way down to the harbour and, just as our stomachs were beginning to growl in earnest, stumbled upon an interesting little glassed-in porch with a sign in the window offering a full Scottish breakfast for only 5 pounds.
I hope you won’t judge us for how fast we jumped on this opportunity. There was not a single moment’s hesitation. Until we reached the door.
It was only then that we realized we were expected to ring a doorbell to even be let in to the establishment. Now, this would deter most normal people – what kind of breakfast, other than one enjoyed in a private residence, requires the ringing of a doorbell? And even breakfasts at a someone’s house seem, in hindsight, much more welcoming. The door to this place was well and truly locked.
However, quite hungry at this point and having already been teased by the prospect of so cheap a Scottish breakfast (see my earlier post about full English breakfasts if you want to understand why this was so irresistible a temptation) I reached out and brazenly pushed the button. A sharp jolt of sound following the pressure of my finger made me jump but then all we heard was silence. I wasn’t sure there was anyone around to even let us in.
Disappointment was already settling in when the door was timidly pried open by a young boy who looked all of 12 years old. I’ve never felt intimidating before but the look in his eyes made me feel like the Sheriff of Nottingham banging down his door to collect his last bit of coin after he had supposedly already paid his taxes – the kid looked absolutely confused and not a little scared.
After a few beats, I think it was Kristen that mentioned something about breakfast and he seemed to ever so slightly relax at this point. He opened the door wider and gestured us inside, shutting and locking the door immediately behind us.
Whatever we had gotten ourselves into, we were well and truly in it now. No point in turning back, I think the poor kid would have had a heart attack had we suggested he unlock the door again to let us out. Makes me wonder just what kind of people usually ring his doorbell…
We were ushered up a short flight of linoleum stairs and around a corner through an archway into the tiniest of tiny dining rooms. It was set up in a way that made it reminiscent of the waiting room of a hospital with an added little kitchenette and counter serving as the place where our food would presumably materialize from. But who would cook it?
We sat down and had a look at the menus the boy shoved under our noses. Again, by the way he tiptoed around us, you might have thought we were indeed the tax collectors and Robin Hood was hiding under our very noses.
Deciding on our food quickly, already feeling uncomfortable, we both ordered meat-filled breakfast platters and coffee. The sooner we got our food, the sooner we could get out of this guy’s hair so he could breathe easy.
And then the madness really began. One odd character after another entered the room: a people watcher or writer’s dream.
First came what seemed to be the boy’s boss, a casually-dressed older man who stopped in only to ask the kid if everything was all right, grab a coffee and a piece of toast, and then scamper away again as if he had dozens such odd dining rooms run by children to visit over the next hour. He looked like he could have come from a long line of absent Scottish landlords – only checking in on their properties to make sure money was being made and then scurrying off to do more important, less hands on, things. Now…I could be being unfair but, hey, it’s not like he took the time to explain his actions, or even to greet the two poor, confused, foreign girls sitting in what was presumably his dining room.
Next came an elderly gentleman dressed in full Scottish regalia (bear in mind we were there only a few months before the Scottish referendum) full of stories of the good ol’ country and why they needed to separate themselves from the English bastards (OK OK so I’m not sure he ever used the word bastard per say but he was certainly colourful enough to do so. And he definitely didn’t like them much). He was adamant that the Scots had once held a great civilization in their hands and could do so again, if only given the chance. His fervor suggested that the blood of his ancestors had never quite cooled in his system.
Finally, a troop of more economically-minded construction workers trudged in for what was probably their
mid-morning coffees, leading to a full-blown debate about the future of their homeland. Kristen and I pulled out a pack of cards and tried to look busy with an intense (not to mention guaranteed-to-be-long) game of Crazy Eights as we scarfed down our greasy, meat-laden breakfasts and gulped our coffee, still unsure of what we had walked into.
Had this happened a few hundred years ago, I would have expected a full-on clan war to have started then and there.
Luckily, it’s the 21st Century and the gentlemen kept their tones civil, finally (apparently) agreeing to disagree.
Kristen and I were appealed to a few times for our opinions on the whole independence movement – entirely unqualified to make any kind of comment. I’m pretty sure it was me who brought up Quebec. Huge Mistake. They’re not even remotely the same thing, I was told. And the gentleman who said so was totally right. It was the only thing, however, that I could come up with one the spot. Having demonstrated my complete ignorance, I proceeded to ask a few questions out of sheer curiosity, and to distract the debaters from my obvious lack of knowledge. It’s the best tactic, in my experience, when faced with a situation where you’re completely out of your depth. Everyone enjoys partaking in passionate discussions. What I like even more…is listening to them.
When Kristen and I finally finished eating, having happily accepted compliments about our lovely Canadian accents while striving to understand their Scottish brogues, we asked the skittish young man for our bills, which he brought in short order. I think he honestly just wanted to get rid of us.
Getting up to pay our bills, the man in full Scottish regalia wished us a very pleasant trip – he was a lovely man really. I just couldn’t always understand what he was saying. But then, he seemed to enjoy tripping us up with his slang-ridden language. He insisted in no uncertain terms that his countrymen were going to vote “Yes” to leave the Union that Fall. He was sure of it, or Scotland be Damned.
We smiled our agreement (not that it mattered whether we agreed or not) and Kristen made one final request of the clearly relieved boy behind the counter – “Would you mind filling up my coffee before we go?”
He nodded with a shy smile and took her travel mug… and proceeded to fill it with pure, scalding-hot water.
We may not have known much about the Scottish Referendum, but those Scots had a lot to learn about coffee. And possibly child labour laws.
And yet, I felt privileged to have been given a glimpse at the many layers of the Scottish past, warts and all. I found it fascinating that despite my own lack of a clear position, the argument and its participants made me incredibly uncomfortable. Like we were trespassing on one of those boundary-shifting moments, and weren’t entirely welcome. No wonder that door was locked.
Or, alternatively, we had found the door to a more democratically-inclined Narnia and had in fact met Edmund Pevensie, currently enslaved by the White Witch and forced to work in a tiny kitchen entirely outside his realm of comfort. The door to that intricately odd world may not even exist anymore. You never know…
Luckily, our discomfort or just plain confusion was soon to turn into joy as we ran into a little taste of home…
…Oh, and that Witches Coffin? I’ll save that for next time.