Sunday, March 17, 2013

I probably won't be writing a travel guide any time soon

When I was in Scotland last summer, I kept a journal.  I've never done that on previous trips, but it occurred to me the first evening I was there (at Sandy Bell's) that there were things I really wanted to post on Facebook, but I didn't want to pay outrageous data roaming fees for accessing Facebook from my cell phone, so writing stuff down seemed a reasonable alternative.  I was re-reading the journal this weekend, and a lot of it really does sound more like a series of Facebook status updates than serious travel diary entries.  Here are some excerpts.

There was a guy at the end of the bar who looked like death personified.  He asked me if I had a kitchen sink in my gigantic purse.

So there's a Legionnaire's outbreak in Edinburgh.  Lovely.

Went to Scottish National Gallery (big art museum.)  Pretty much stayed in their Scottish section, because I didn't come to Edinburgh to see paintings by 15th century Italian artists.

At the cafe in the National Gallery.  Hot chocolate is literally that--like liquid hershey bar!  Could only tolerate a few sips.

I don't know exactly what clotted cream is but I am a fan.  It's like butter that you can eat with a spoon.

People wear tights here more than at home.  Maybe because it's cold, so if you're going to wear some sort of leg covering, instead of wearing hose you might as well wear tights.

Went to Surgeons Hall museum.  Mostly looked at the history stuff; only had a few minutes at the end to look at things like musket balls in people's skulls--those things are huge!

At Surgeons Hall, they have a display about Alexander Wood, who was President of the Royal College of Surgeons of the City of Edinburgh.  One of the things it says is that he was "often accompanied on his professional rounds by a tame raven and a sheep, and was the first person in Edinburgh to carry an umbrella."

On the way back to the hotel, there was a sign on a lamppost looking for a lost 20 year old panda.

Note to self: more mushrooms (and nutella) at breakfast!

Random thought: the Brits (not just Scots, because it was on BBC News too) use the term "funnily enough" a lot.

Had an extremely strange dream involving various members of the royal family and Ted Kennedy.  They and I were at someone's house, and they were helping around the house, like clearing the table and fixing a leak.

Poached eggs at breakfast--significantly underdone.  I think I should quit playing poached egg roulette and just get scrambled.

"Robert Burns: born in Alloway, died in Dumfries, but LIVED in Mauchline!"

Friday night I had a terrible, but luckily relatively short-lived, bout of vertigo.  Margaret Bennett ended the evening with a funny (but politically incorrect) joke that ended with "when you get home, I hope Snow White skelps your arse!" and I threw my head back and laughed, and then the world started spinning.  I think the head-throwing did it.

Petted a black lab outside of Heathergems.  Have waited 6 years to go back to Heathergems--it went much smoother this time.  (The first trip to Heathergems is an entire other blog post in and of itself.  Stay tuned.)

I'll never understand why, in all the hotels we've been in, the servers only count the number of things ordered, but don't record who ordered what.  Because then it's this ridiculous thing of them standing there saying, "Salmon?  Anyone at this table have the salmon?"  Oh well.  As our guide Charles said when I made that comment, that would be too logical.

Well, now it's Thursday 6/21/12--got home last night.  Not sure how, or if, to end this journal.  Maybe I won't.  Maybe it will be for my thoughts about Scotland and music and whatever.  NOPE--THAT'S WHAT THIS BLOG IS FOR!

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oh, so that explains it...

When people first hear about my obsession with all things Scottish, especially Scottish folk music, the questions they usually ask are, "Is your ancestry Scottish?" or "Do you have friends/family in Scotland?", and "Do you play an instrument/sing?"  My answers are "No" and "No, I'm just a very enthusiastic audience member."  Depending on how strangely they look at me, I either move on, or tell them some variation of the following story.

I have a couple in my practice--the wife is Scottish and the husband is English but lived in Scotland for many years.  In 2005, I happened to see them a few times in the early spring, and they mentioned that a festival they were involved with, the Houston Highland Games, was coming up in May.  I put the date in the back of my mind, but didn't have any firm plans to attend.  Then, coincidentally, my father was given tickets to an event put on by St. Thomas Episcopal School, an evening of bagpipes and Highland dancing.  He couldn't go, so he gave the tickets to me.  I went, and as I was leaving after the show, who did I see but my patient, in a kilt, handing out fliers advertising the Houston Highland Games.  It seemed that the universe really wanted me to go to this festival.  So, on a Saturday in May, my mother and I went to the festival. I sampled canned haggis (I don't recommend it), watched a demonstration of Scottish Country Dancing (and thought, incorrectly, that I would enjoy it--I wound up taking lessons that fall and did not like it at all), and listened to a few musical groups.  It was late May in Houston, so of course it was really hot, and as it happened the stage where many of the performers were playing was the only air-conditioned part of the venue.  So, my mom and I figured we'd just stay there for a while.  One of the singers was Ed Miller, who is a Scottish folk singer originally from Edinburgh, now living in Austin.  He does a funny song called Cholesterol (here's a version, although not Ed's), about the terrible Scottish diet.  My patients were in the audience, and requested the song for me (doctor, cholesterol, get it?)  After the set, I said hi to Ed, bought his Lowlander CD (which has Cholesterol, as well as another fantastic song, Prince of Darkness, on it), and took a brochure about a Folksong Tour of Scotland that he does every summer.  Over the next day or two, I could not stop thinking about the tour.  And, despite knowing pretty much nothing about Scotland and even less than that about Scottish folk music, I decided I wanted to go the following summer.  After checking with my patients to make sure Ed wasn't an ax murderer (he's not), and emailing Ed himself to ask for references from prior tour participants (he told me later I was the only person, at least up to that point, who had ever asked him for references), I sent in my deposit, and eventually my entire payment, and started looking forward to my vacation, which was to be in June 2006.

And then, in March 2006, my dog was diagnosed with cancer.

I couldn't let myself be excited about the trip anymore, because I didn't know if I was going.  I didn't know what was going to happen to Richard (the most wonderful chocolate lab in the world)--whether he would be well enough for me to go on vacation, or whether he would even still be alive in June.  I was quite stressed about Richard's illness, obviously, but I was also really stressed about the trip--was I going or was I not going, and when did I have to decide?  At some point during this period my sister said something that I thought was quite brilliant.  She said that I didn't have to decide not to go; if the day of the trip came and I didn't want to go, then I just wouldn't go.  That sounds pretty straightforward but it actually took a huge weight off my shoulders, because suddenly I realized I didn't need to stress over the decision, because there wasn't a decision that needed to be made.  So I settled in to the routine of taking my dog to the vet and giving him a regimen of medications, and, since he was actually doing pretty well, I allowed myself to start looking forward to the trip again.  I made plans for him to stay with my parents while I was away, and wrote out an extensive schedule of vet appointments and medication times.  Then I packed.

And then, two days before I was supposed to leave, my grandmother died.

She was almost 98, so it wasn't terribly unexpected, but it did sort of throw a monkey wrench into things.  She lived in Montreal, which was where her funeral was going to be.  So I had two problems. First, I really wanted to go on my trip, which meant missing my grandmother's funeral, and I felt guilty about that.  Second, if I did go on the trip (or even if I went to the funeral), I'd have to figure out something to do with Richard for a few days, because I had planned for him to stay with my parents and I didn't have a back-up plan for if they weren't available (I couldn't in good conscience board a sick dog, who needed special attention and medication and a weekly trip to the vet, at just a regular kennel.)  Anyway, that all got worked out, rather speedily, and on a Saturday morning in June, I jetted off to Glasgow.

The tour was PHENOMENAL.  I have never been entirely sure if it was the music or the people or the place, or the combination, but on about the second or third day, I had this very distinct feeling of "this is where I'm meant to be", which was odd, because up to that point it wasn't like I had felt that anything was missing in my life or that I was longing for something.  But I knew even then, early in that first trip, that I would go back to Scotland, and that it would be on Ed's tour again--and I have been back, four times, all on the same tour (the itinerary does change somewhat.)

Fast forward several months, and I went to a house concert where Ed was performing, and then a festival where he was performing, and then other festivals.  I started out specifically going to see Ed, and just filled in the time when he wasn't performing by going to other acts, but I gradually realized that the other performers were really good too, and soon I started looking forward to seeing other groups almost as much as going to Ed's sets.  I also bought a large number of Scottish folk CDs (from time to time I had to force myself to go on a CD-buying hiatus, because it was getting really expensive), and found a Scottish folk music radio show (which gave me a tiny bit of international celebrity!)  And, almost eight years after that first fateful trip to the Houston Highland Games (which will be April 27th and 28th this year), here I am, an obsessed but fairly harmless fan of Scotland, Scottish folk music, and recently, by extension, some Irish folk and traditional music as well.  I have found my passion.

At the end of Ed's tours, there is always a little talent show, where the tour members can perform a song or a skit or whatever.  Each year, I've written a song and performed it.  The second time I went on the tour, I wrote and performed the following song, to the tune of The Wild Geese.  I think it pretty much says everything I've just said in this blog post, but in fewer words and with a pretty melody.

The first time I went on Ed's tour was mostly on a whim
A highland games, a cool brochure, big check made out to him
And though I have no Scottish blood, I felt like I'd come home
And knew that I'd be back again as soon as I could come

And back home in the Lone Star State conversations seemed to start
With something I did on my trip, or a song I knew by heart
I know I bugged family and friends, but they kindly indulged me
And sometimes even listened when I played them Ed's CDs

And over time I came to know of Scottish fests and games
Bought CDs there and online too, and spent a chunk of change
And any lingering doubts I had about my obsession
Disappeared when I woke at 3 AM to drive to Arlington

So now I've come full circle and I'm back here once again
A different trip in many ways, but some things are the same
The songs and stories from this place will be with me quite a while
For it took three decades, but at last, I am a Scotophile

Monday, March 4, 2013

My Fifteen(ish) Minutes of Fame

Until about five years ago, the closest I'd come to being famous was being interviewed by a local TV news reporter during a community health fair.  I think she asked me about the importance of childhood vaccinations.  Not terribly exciting.  So what happened five years ago, you ask?  Scottish folk music happened.  Obviously.

There used to be a program on BBC Radio Scotland called The Reel Blend (get it--reel, as in jigs and reels?), which was a two hour show on Sundays that featured Scottish folk and traditional music, as well as some Scottish dance music.  The host was a guy named Robbie Shepherd.  I listened to it on the internet, usually after it had already aired, because it was on at 7:00 AM or something here (early in the afternoon in Scotland, WAY too early in the morning in Houston) and it was available on the web site for a week after it had aired.  I forget how I originally found it--I know for a while, before I had internet at home and when we still had dial-up at my office (yeah, I know), I would go to the office to listen to it, and it would buffer, and buffer, and buffer...Dial-up sucks.  But I digress.  Anyway, I somehow knew about it, and I listened to it most weeks.  From time to time they would have "theme" shows, about a certain topic or a particular artist, and they'd ask for suggestions--"send us an email with your favorite songs about animals" or something like that.  Anyway, I would periodically write in with suggestions or requests. 

So, in January of 2009, they were doing a special show about Robert Burns, in honor of the 250th anniversary of his birth, which was January 25th.  (If you can't remember the date, there is, of course, a song that will tell you--"Rantin' Rovin' Robin", which has the line "Our monarch's hindmost year but ane, was five and twenty days begun...", which I suppose really only helps with the January 25th part, and not the 1759 part, unless you know, and can remember, what year "our monarch's hindmost year" is [and then subtract a year, I guess???])  Anyway, they asked for suggestions for Burns songs.  At that time my favorite Burns song was, and probably still is, A Man's A Man for A' That, and my favorite version of it is this one, by Jim Malcolm.  So, I sent an email to The Reel Blend suggesting it.  They replied, and asked if I'd like to be on the radio with Robbie Shepherd, talking about my request.  Uh, YEAH.  They were pre-recording that show on a weekday, so they phoned me at 5:00 AM and I had a brief conversation with Robbie about why I liked the song ("it has a great message") and why I specifically liked Jim's version ("it's a more upbeat version, and I really like the harmonica") and whether there were any Burns Night celebrations in my neck of the woods ("there was a big one last night, which I'm told is the biggest in Texas, but I didn't go to it.")  It was super cool (because I am super geeky), so I put the link on Facebook and figured that was that.

Over the next nine months or so, I continued to request songs from time to time, usually by Jim Malcolm and sometimes by Ed Miller.  For my nephew's first birthday, I wrote in and requested a song I used to sing to him (Coulter's Candy, which up to that point I had only ever heard sung by Ed), and Robbie read my email on the air, wished Andrew happy birthday, and then played the song.  It was really neat, for me at least--I don't think Andrew especially cared.  Then, one time Jim Malcolm was being interviewed on the show, and Robbie said something like, "You know you have a really big fan in Houston", and at the same time he was saying my name, Jim was saying someone else's name.  Then there was an awkward pause, while Jim tried unsuccessfully to figure out who the hell I was.  (I'd like to think it wouldn't be quite as long a pause now, because I've seen the guy in concert in intimate venues ten or twelve times in two different countries, and have had several conversations with him, but you never know.)

Then, the following fall, The Reel Blend did another theme show, about seasons.  This time, I sent in three choices--The First Cold Day (Jim Malcolm), Yellow on the Broom (I like Ed Miller's version best but this one is performed by the songwriter, Adam McNaughtan--he's the guy without the crazy eyebrows), and Festival Lights (this last one is because I mistakenly thought it was called Autumn in Edinburgh.)  And, lo and behold, they invited me on the show again.  I decided I must have been their token American.  They chose The First Cold Day, and Robbie chatted with me for a couple of minutes about how I got interested in Scotland and Scottish music.  This time it was live, and when I listened to it later, I realized I was talking ridiculously fast, about kind of irrelevant things--such as, Robbie said something like, "Well, you're American, so how did you get interested in Scotland?" and I felt the need to explain that I was born in Canada but am a naturalized American.  Why I thought anyone needed to know that, I couldn't tell you. 

A few months after that show, The Reel Blend went off the air, thus ending my budding career as a professional Robbie Shepherd guest.  He still does another show, called Take the Floor, which is almost completely Scottish dance music, but I never really got into it.

I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame--although, while looking at the stats for my blog (like how many pageviews and from what countries), I discovered that at least one person in Australia has seen my blog, so I figure that pretty much makes me an international celebrity.  I'm sure the paparazzi will be coming after me any day now.