Glasgow Notes: From the Heart (By Way of Toronto)
Leaving Glasgow for good was never my intention. Moving on was akin to boiling a frog; if I had left with the sole purpose of settling elsewhere the pain may have been too great for me to bear. As it was, I spent six months here and six months there: London, New York, Hong Kong, Sydney. Before I knew what my life was about I was travelling further afield and for longer periods of time.
Now I refer to those years as my weaning years. I thought once I’d travelled long enough and far enough my curiosity to explore the world would abate, but here I am, twenty-eight years later, with a foreign accent in my local habitat of Toronto, and a local accent in Glasgow, a city now foreign to me in many subtle ways, and I’m not sure to which one I honestly belong.
I still call Glasgow home, and after all these years I cannot see that ever changing, anymore than I can see my accent changing. It’s very confusing to the people whom, over the last two decades, I am lucky to call close-friends in Canada. ‘When you say home which one are you referring to?’ is a common question.
Home! Where is my home? Every member of my immediate and extended family, my closest friends through school to adulthood, and all the memories that shaped me as a person are wrapped up and placed in a warm fuzzy compartment in my heart labelled ‘Glasgow’. I know I used to idolize the place unduly and, to non-natives of Glasgow, I would describe the city like a modern day Eden. So, what is Eden? It is a different place to each and every one of us. Now, decades later, I can no longer separate the fantasy of Glasgow from the reality of Glasgow for somewhere along the road they became one and the same. The beauty concealed by pollution and poverty when I was growing up is now proudly on display after the gentrification that took place in the eighties and nineties while I trekked the globe.
In Toronto I miss such daily phrases as ‘this thing couldnae pull the skin oaf a rice pudding’ articulated by a frustrated friend berating her car for its inability to overtake a line of traffic; or, ‘she wiz so skinny she only needed wan eye’ voiced by a friend over his concern for his cousin’s weight. On a bus, after hearing ‘Robert E Lee’ shouted from up front, I finally realized the driver was informing us we were approaching the stop for one of Glasgow’s main hospitals, ‘The Southern General’. Ah, the joys of the Glaswegian people. I am like a deer tick on a mangy mutt; I simply can’t get enough. I return home two or three times a year, often for a month at a time because I am addicted to ‘The Patter’.
Glaswegians are super friendly. When asking for directions in the town centre, instead of being inflicted by the usual diatribe ‘turn right, go straight for a block, turn left, then…blah blah blah,’ it isn’t uncommon for visitors to be personally escorted to their destination. ‘Nae bother wee man,’ might be the standard retort to any words of thanks. It may be the love of the gab or just plain nosiness that makes wonderful storytelling, but for whatever reason a Glaswegian’s retelling of a trip to the corner shop sounds like an adventure you’re sorry you missed. Our combination of genuine warmth and cheekiness may be why we tend to fare so well abroad.
On this 250th anniversary of the birth of oor National Bard, Rabbie Burns, Scottish celebrations echo around the globe reminding us that, although there are only 4.5 million Scots residing in Scotland, there are about 30 million worldwide; 9 million in the USA. and 4.7 million in Canada. That’s a lot of curious people. So I never feel too far away from my roots. And I’m the first to admit that the longer I’m away the more tartan I become.
Every year in Toronto, on or around Rabbie’s birthday, there are a great many annual Suppers given in his honour. A traditional Burns Supper begins with the haggis being piped in, the Chairman delivering Rabbie’s ‘Address to the Haggis’, and the ‘Selkirk Grace’ being read. After the supper ‘The Immortal Memory’ speech is followed by a toast to Burns, to the lassies, and if there are ladies present, a response to the laddies. Humour is a key component throughout the proceedings. The celebration concludes with a performance of Robert Burns’s songs and poems and at the last everyone sings ‘Auld Lang Syne.’
Atop the CN Tower, another party tried to claim the record for ‘the highest Burns Supper of 2009’, only to be informed that Scottish mountaineer Chris Dunlop had washed down his haggis with a wee dram at the top of Ben Nevis, disqualifying the party. (Although this year’s record went to a hot air balloon over Switzerland, Chris still holds the all time record.) At one memorable Burns supper I witnessed a drum duet between a four-year old boy and an old weathered Glaswegian that would have brought tears to a glass eye. With hundreds of tartan-clad guests looking on, the wee grasshopper of a lad locked eyes with his mentor and beat his drum with the passio of a man. There before my eyes I witnessed centuries of Scottish tradition being passed on to a first generation Canadian.
So with all this passion for my place of birth in my blood, why would I leave such a Garden of Eden with its mist-covered mountains? Well, Glasgow means ‘Dear Green Place’. You don’t have to be a gardener to know what makes a landscape so lush and green; lots of water and light. That translates to plenty of rain and long hours of filtered sun (subtle way of saying overcast). I’m being frugal by using the term ‘plenty’. I remember once it rained every day for two months and my mum kept repeating she had never seen weather the likes. Every time I am ‘home’ I hear the same thing. That rain has started and forgot to stop. So my choices are Scotland in the constant rain or Toronto with its six months of glorious sunshine. Ironically, the same rain that gradually drove me away has me returning again and again when it comes in the form of hypnotic Scotch mist, creeping over the Munros and Corbetts I love to hike across. I feel like a mistress trying to break free of an old love to settle in a new relationship, but I can’t make a clean break. Now I return more and more often for longer visits and higher climbs.
And fare-thee-weel, my only luve!
And far-thee-weel, awhile!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ ‘twere ten thousand mile!
– Robert Burns, ‘My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose’