Friday, June 29, 2012

And where are you from, laddie?

“Where are you from?” is a question I was often asked in Scotland.
How do I answer that?
Canada? Israel? Does it really matter what I choose? For so long, my only  travelling was short visits to Canada and back, where both Canada and Israel stake their claim to who I am.
But here, in Scotland, I was in neutral territory.


Canada would have been the simpler choice. Few people have reason to take any interest if you say  you are from Canada. Even less reason to throw stones. When was the last time Canada really pissed somebody off?

But to claim to be from Canada would be to deny so much of what I have become.

“I live in the desert,” I added.
That was a nice finishing touch, providing me with added immunity. For some reason, people living in deserts appear to be  beyond borders. Just ask Israelis who ask to have their passports stamped when they make their way south of Beer Sheva.

“You speak English really well.”
“I’m originally from Canada.”
That tended to conveniently confuse the issue. No talk about politics tonight.

Scots, as we all know, are not new to questions of identity. They have had no reigning monarch for 300  years, are no longer considered an independent country but rather a part of The United Kingdom, and their “Pound Scots” was abruptly abolished in 1707 and replaced by Scottish money similar in denomination and value to the English bank notes, although the Scottish notes are not of legal tender.

“You see that?” I was asked by one B&B owner, as a Scottish ten pound note was flashed in front of me. “We print our own money now. And it is as good as any other. But there are always a few bastards down south who refuse to take them. They will get their comeuppance.”
I have always wondered why many Scots keep old swords hanging on their walls, swords which they also keep well sharpened.

On our last day in Edinburgh, I saw a shirt that read - “I’m for Scotland, or for anybody playing against England.” That pretty well says it all, doesn’t it.

But the Scots have their own way in getting in the last word. Long ago they discovered that if you take anything that still resembles a castle,  palace, or formidable edifice - hang up a few explanations in the various rooms as to their historical importance, you can cash in for about 6 pounds a head. And, if you can display the pivotal role that this edifice once played in the struggle against English suppression of rightful Scottish national aspirations, you can get much more than that. And for a few rousing stories of time past, you can even get 4 quid a head for a few ruins of crumbling walls and stairs leading nowhere. Factor into this that many of the tourists are from England down south and ... need I say more?

Of course, the complexity of Scottish identity is not all about the English suppression. Other factors also need to be taken into account. The Picts, for instance. “Whatever happened to the Picts?” All that appears left are inscriptions on stones.

And then there are the clans. We can never forget the clans.
I envy the Scots their surnames. My last name - “Lloyd” - is of Welsh origin. But having a Welsh name isn’t anywhere as much fun as having a name of one of the clans. With a name like “Montgomery”, you get your own coat of arms (family crest), and can purchase cups, saucers, shirts, keyrings, kilts.... you name it ... all with your coat of arms proudly displayed. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find proof that you are the next legal heir to the throne of Scotland, if the throne were ever to return. So much rich historical tradition surrounding your surname and the only question I ever get about my Welsh surname is whether I have any connection to the bank. But don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my Welsh ancestry. And don’t even get me started on how we Welsh were exploited by the English.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Edinburgh doesn’t like Wi-Fi

Sixteen years ago, I travelled through the United Kingdom for two weeks with my youngest son, Noam. This summer, I travelled with my elder son, Edan, for close to three weeks throughout Scotland. Many things were different in the space of 16 years, but perhaps the greatest difference of all was the ready presence of Wi-Fi.

Now I know that some of you may romanticize the days when there was no such thing as “instant communication” no matter where you were in the world. Backpacking in Europe in the 70’s, letting loved ones know that you will be in a certain city at some time in the future and when you arrive there you head for the “post restante” section of the local post office to find a letter waiting for you. Yes, that thing made out of paper with the musty smell. This way you managed to  communicate with back home about once a month. Of course, by the time the letters were read, the events described belonged more to “history” than to “current events”.

But now you can exchange countless emails per day, text chat or even Skype with video. And all this on something as small as a smartphone or iPod. Not to mention taking pictures with your smartphone or iPod and immediately uploading them to your facebook profile for all to see. And all this for free. Is this a good thing? I think so, but then you may consider me an Internet junkie.

When leaving for Scotland, I wondered how much Wi-Fi access we would have. I soon discovered that almost all Bed and Breakfasts have Wi-Fi. Some worked better than others, but you were always assured of some sort of connection. We also discovered that Wi-Fi was available in many coffee and lunch spots along the way, even in the local coffee shop of a small town in a remote section of the Cairngorms National Park. Edan and I got into a routine whenever we “landed” for a coffee or lunch break: order coffee/food, bathroom, and out came his smartphone and my iPod and it was time to check mail and upload that last picture.

And then we got to Edinburgh, the tourist hub of Scotland. A magical city, with plenty to see, not to mention the unique pubs. We spent the last two days of our trip there.

The first day we settled into a pub for a late lunch after walking through a surprisingly warm day (the sun was actually out most of the time).
“Do you have Wi-Fi, we asked?”
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”
So, there we were, waiting for our food and sipping a pint, while fidgeting, our fingers tapping nervously on the table, not able to text, chat, or upload.
Now, don’t get me wrong - we are not that obsessed. We can get through one meal without wi-fi access. We simply put this down to our wandering in by chance to a pub that didn’t have wi-fi - a surprise occurrence after finding it in the most remote locations.
But it was later in the day, after a short rest at the B&B, when we made for another pub to watch the EuroCup that we began to suspect a pattern.
“Do you have Wi-Fi?”
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”
The fidgeting increased, but once the football game started, it eased up.

We decided the next day that we wouldn’t order a pint until we found a pub with wi-fi. Well, none was to be found. “No, sorry. Not yet, we will soon.” We did find a sort of underground connection at the Caffe Nero on the Royal Mile. It was called something like “Free Scotland”. I wasn’t sure whether this meant the wi-fi connection was free, or whether it was a part of an intricate plan to reclaim Scotland’s independence.
“Hey, they have an Internet connection here,” I announced happily to Edan.
“Shhh...” came from a nearby table, as its inhabitant looked around nervously. I understood then that there were some things that you didn’t talk about in public - at least not in the streets of Edinburgh. Was this a part of a cartel? Were the drinking and eating places of Edinburgh joining together to ensure that they didn’t need to offer wi-fi, and wouldn’t need to worry that the competition did?

Or is there a message here? A reason why a city like Edinburgh would shun offering Wi-Fi when it was present almost everywhere else - other than the evident cost of such free offerings? Did it have something to do with the flavour of the city? Is Edinburgh a modern day Brigadoon, wanting to let time flow by and remain changeless?

Somehow I think that if I visit Edinburgh in another 16 years time,  they still won’t have wi-fi.
“No, sorry. Not yet. We will soon.”