I love my job. Nearly everything I like to do is deductible as research. Especially I love to take trips to the U.K., which are research because all of my books are set there. I’ve been to Scotland three times, England twice, and Wales once.
Before my first trip, I’d read quite a lot of Scottish history. I had this image of Scotland as all craggy mountains populated with pink-cheeked people wearing cable-knit sweaters, smoking carved pipes and sitting around peat fires. When I went to the Scottish Highlands in September of ’99, I’d thought of myself as closely akin to the Scots. I have Ross on my father’s side, and on my mother’s side Noble, so I expected to find my “roots” in Scotland. But what I found instead was my own Americanness.
One thing that struck this forty-two-year-old, long-married mother of two early in the trip was that I was no longer invisible to men under forty. That is, men in the U.K. talked to me like a person and looked me in the eye, and didn’t dismiss me as inconsequential the way most young American men do. This one Irish boy working in a souvenir shop helped me look for a clan badge, and he did it with such enthusiasm it became a game. We searched through baskets of cheap badges as if on a treasure hunt, chatting about the other areas in Scotland I would visit during the next couple of weeks. When he found the badge I’d asked for, he held it up and shouted in victory, as if the thing were solid gold. I couldn’t imagine a Tennessee good old boy that happy to find anything for me, even if it was his job.
Of course, the most daunting difference between U.K. and U.S. is that driving-on-the-other-side-of-the-road thing. My very first experience in a right-hand-drive car was getting out of Edinburgh from the train station. I got in, and felt like a left-handed person in a right-handed world. It was a standard shift. It was all backwards. I like standard shift, but when I tried to put this one in reverse I couldn’t figure out where that was. The gear shift would go to all the gears, but I had no clue where the one was that would make the car go backward. I finally had to give up, shut off the car, and go back inside the rental office, feeling like an idiot.
I said to the man behind the counter, “I’m sorry, but I need someone to help me find the reverse gear in this car. I’m sure it’s got one, but I don’t know where it is.”
They all looked at me like I’d just stepped off the short bus and announced I’d arrived from Jupiter, but once they realized my predicament—that I was an American just off the plane—they were gracious enough and showed me the little collar on the stick I needed to lift to allow it to go into reverse. I then sallied forth into Edinburgh to menace traffic.
I got lost three times before making it out of town. Every time I came to a roundabout I was shunted onto a side-street and had to turn around and find my way back. As a directionally-challenged Yank I had trouble figuring out which side of the street to turn off of and then back onto, and then I had to relocate the roundabout that had tossed me off and figure out which direction I needed to go. The third time I was lost, I had to stop for directions and finally made it far enough out of town to no longer be a threat to anyone. Of course, on my way to Glenfinnan I missed a turn and ended up taking the long but very scenic route through Glen Dochart. And I lost a hubcap on a curb somewhere that day. Rental car insurance: $80. Not having to worry about replacing the hubcap: priceless.
Besides the obvious, there were the not so obvious things. Ice was an issue. Everywhere I went in Scotland, sodas were served at room temperature. Which, in Scotland in September, isn’t exactly warm but neither is it frigid. I learned to order soft drinks with ice, and forget about iced tea. Cheeseburgers could only be had at American fast food restaurants ironically called “McDonalds.” Everyone knows that in the U.K. fries are called “chips” and chips are “crisps.” But then everyone in the U.K. knows that Americans call chips “fries” and crisps “chips. So if a waitress recognizes you’re an American and you order “chips,” you’re liable to get potato chips. I learned it’s best to use both words to be sure there’s no misunderstanding.
Since the U.K money system went decimal half a century ago and there are no more shillings, I was spared my head exploding with that math. So using money was a simple matter of recognizing the coins. It seemed to me that the bigger the coin, the lower the denomination. To me, the enormous copper two pence piece is a mystery of “why did they do that?” I love the pound coins. They’re so chunky. Little hunks of metal that just feel right in the hand. Easy to recognize by feel in your pocket. And they make a satisfying “clink” when you set them down on a counter. Americans might have more money, but theirs is more fun.
Each time I hop across the pond, I discover another little bit of Americanness in me. On my first trip I finished the final 6,000 words of my first novel in Glenfinnan, with a view of the Prince Charles Monument, and on a clear day Ben Nevis off down the glen. As I wrote, it occurred to me that though I might be of Scottish descent, and as much as I love the place for its beauty and its gracious people, going there was less like going home than like visiting distant cousins who consider you just a little weird.
After my first visit I returned home, and understood it was home in ways I’d never before realized. They say there is no American culture, but I know better. The first thing I asked for when I got off the plane in Nashville was a big cup of ice with a little bit of Diet Coke.