“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.”
I am seated at a makeshift table constructed from four bedroom desks as my Scottish neighbor Katie reads these words from a laptop in front of her. She holds a haggis in one hand, and on the table is a beautiful spread of traditional Scottish side dishes and bottles of wine.
This isn’t just how we open and eat every meal in Scotland. It was January 25, a holiday called (Robert) Burns Day to celebrate Scotland’s national poet. Being that Katie and one of her guests were the only actual Scots at this 12-person feast, however, our Burns supper was a little less traditional.
Before we dug into the haggis (meat and vegetarian), neeps, tatties, IRN-BRU, smoked salmon, Cranachan and shortbread, we all had to sing for our supper, or at least perform a poem, per Burns Day tradition.
The crowd of non-Scots gathered around the table delivered (to follow Katie’s beautiful rendition of Burns’ “Address to a Haggis”): two Shel Silverstein poems, a rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” the French national anthem, a four-line Malaysian poem, a sorority door chant, “The Ballad of Barbara Allen,” a Ludacris rap and Roald Dahl’s rhyming version of “Little Red Riding Hood.”
When I chose to come to Edinburgh, I really had no concept of the culture in which I was immersing myself. I had signed up for the UK EAP program, picked a city that sounded cool, and hoped for the best. I didn’t really question why I had decided to come to Edinburgh until I got here, and realized I had no connection with the culture, people or country whatsoever. I wasn’t a huge fan of bagpipes. I don’t eat meat, so cuisine was out. My heritage is about 50 different types of white European, so I guess that makes me something like 1.9 percent Scottish, but if I was choosing on the basis of that, I could have gone to Ireland, where more than half my ancestors originated from. I didn’t even really understand what the difference between Scotland and Great Britain as a whole was.
When I started considering all these things, about four weeks into my program, I actually asked myself if I even wanted to be here. But today, 16 weeks later, I paused during a run on a hill overlooking the city and reminisced about the beautiful Scottish meal I had enjoyed with my international friends just a few nights earlier. I still had doubts in my mind, but they weren’t about whether or not I wanted to be in Scotland. The only question I had was about how I was going to leave this beautiful country for good in just less than five months.
Going abroad isn’t necessarily about exploring a place you’re already connected with. It’s about developing those connections for yourself, or creating new ones if you already had some. I knew virtually nothing about Scottish culture before this year. But just as my European ancestors surely had to adjust when they came to the U.S. many generations before, I have found a special place in my heart for this city, this country, its people and its culture. The opportunity to go to a new country is like a Burns Day feast, you get a chance to bring your own culture to the table, and you get to dig into another.
“Ye pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware,
That jaups in luggies;
But if ye wish her gratfu’ prayer,
Gie her a Haggis!”
Image sources: Alex Matthews, Daily Cal