Later this year, Scotswomen and men will be queuing up at polling stations to have their say about what’s probably the most important decision they’ll collectively make in their life time. Given the historic importance of such an event I decided to do something absolutely meaningless for the future of the country, i.e. gathering my memories around what lies north of the Hadrian’s wall in a couple of dispatches. Here’s the first.
I always liked Scotland, and I always liked it because of many things. Firstly because, as a non native English speaker, the moment you get 80% of what a Glaswegian said to you it’s also the moment you know you have finally made it. Secondly because they always were the underdogs, and who doesn’t like underdogs? Thirdly because I could hardly remember the last time I had met a Scot who wasn’t drunk and willing to share with me his booze. But mainly because the orography of Scotland is simply awesome.
You see, I’ve grown up in the Alps and my most loved bit of the Alps is the one where you’re already too high up to see any meaningful vegetation, or anything taller than grass, but you’re still low enough to allow grass to grow. Basically it’s the bit between, roughly, 2600 and 3200 meters of altitude and, since mountains are pointy at the top and fat at the bottom, this means that this environment is quite small compared to the overall dimension of the Alps. In Scotland, though, this sort of habitat comprehends, well, the vast majority of all the land you can walk on. And there’s sea.
So, all things considered it comes as a surprise that I hadn’t been in Scotland at all until a couple of years ago, especially given the fact that I lived in the capital of its not-so-loved Union. But that was due to change: a friend was spending some time as a visiting professor in Dundee and Interpol were due to play at Corn Exchange on a Saturday. So one fine day I booked a plane ticket (the UK being not interested in fast trains) to Aberdeen, and an outbound from Edinburgh.
It was a cold bitter winter, that one. Tabloids used the “London colder than…” line about four thousands times, and the city received one inch of snow twice, triggering mass panic amongst Chelsea tractor owners and train operators. Yet, undeterred by the impending Ice Age, my little plane was boarded pretty much on time, sprayed with plenty de-icing liquid and dispatched on its way up North.
Aberdeen is the second wealthiest city in the UK after London, or so I’ve been told, and the reason for this is all due to the North Sea oil. Much of the traffic at the airport is made up of Sikorski helicopters ferrying manpower and supplies to the rigs and it seemed that a city council decree had obliged every man and woman in working age to be wearing a fleece jacket emblazoned with the logo of some oil & gas company. Extra points given to those who also went on to cover their car with the same stuff.
Dundee was somehow different, a city of grand stone buildings sat in the shadow of a spent volcano, a place with an important industrial heritage – shipbuilding, mostly, and a tendency to send missions to far-flung places that usually returned with half of their crews – but trying hard to reconvert to activities more in tune to this century. The university was one of those, as well as pharmaceutics and computer games.
All this mattered almost nothing to me when I arrived in town aboard a massively delayed train, hugging my friend and then heading straight to the local church, the pub. The cobbled streets were deserted and, almost everywhere, frozen solid. I enquired with my friend, a fellow Alpine expatriate from Savoie, why such an intelligent bunch of people hadn’t realised that salt, or grit, could’ve been handy and got a somehow surprising answer back: “The fuckers just don’t know what to do with snow. It snowed four times so far and I hardly seen a snowplough”.
This wasn’t good news to me as it’d have spelt trouble for my flight back. Normally I wouldn’t have cared much, dor of the (very few) perks of my job is the ability to work pretty much from anywhere: provided I had laptop and broadband, I would’ve been fine. But next Monday wasn’t a day like all Mondays: I had taken it off in order to fly down to Italy for a very important job interview, something that – I knew – I couldn’t reschedule at a day’s notice.
Now I know what you all might be excused for thinking: “So why the fuck have you decided to go boozin’ the weekend before an interview?” and, in fairness, you’d be right. All I can say in my defence is that the interview was scheduled to be happening within a 2 weeks period and, obviously, the gods of HR decided to make it happen on the first Monday of such period, all whilst telling me about it quite late, after I had booked my non refundable tickets.
We spent an evening in St. Andrews, a village that also happened to host Scotland’s oldest university, established in 1410 and celebrating alumni such as Jean-Paul Marat, Jacques Costeau’s grandson and Prince William. It’s also full of young good looking gals, something that caught our attemption more than its army of illustrious former pupils. Night fell soon and we made our retreat to a pub on the main road, awaiting the main event of the night, the St. Andrew celebration, which happened on that day.
A few hours and many pints later the whole village, it seemed, was congregating outside our pub. We moved with the crowd, bouncing under the snow to the Red Hot Chili Pipers (yes, you couldn’t make this up even if you wanted to). It developed into an interesting evening spent drinking whisky donated by absolute strangers and trying to calculate the air capacity of the bagpipers’ lungs, who went on to blow their own personal version of Hey Jude, We Will Rock You and Flower of Scotland.
It ended up too soon, too quick. We then moved south to Edinburgh, where the Interpol gig was as good as we hoped it’d be, as well as the ensuing pub crawl. Unfortunately, though, the views from our 60-beds hostel dorm room wasn’t on par: thick snowflakes were falling down on the already whitened streets, like a small parachute army attacking Edinburgh.
It looked menacing but luckily, once I got to the airport and the sun came out, we didn’t have more than a couple of inches of – rapidly melting – snow. Despite that the airport was at a standstill, and that meant one thing: flight cancelled. What followed was a mad dash through the least prepared country in Europe when it comes to snow, trying to be a step ahead of the cold front moving South: first a night train journey, eight hours on a seat up until Peterbrough, then another train to Stansted, where I slept rough on the floor before catching the most expensive Ryanair flight ever to Milan and, following to that, another train.
I arrived in Italy dirty, red-eyed and tired but also boosted by all the random act of kindness I saw during the journey, from the ticket inspector who suggested me to stop a Peterborough and ensured I made it onto the next convoy, to the family who shared their Kit Kats on the train, to the police officers who ran after me when I accidentally dropped my wallet at Stansted, and all those who wished me good luck and just listened to my issues. They made the difference, even though the interview went, well, bad.