Sunday, April 7, 2013

A simple shopping trip? Not if I'm involved.

In my last post, I mentioned going to a place called Heathergems, which is a jewelry factory/store in Pitlochry, Scotland.  The 2012 visit to Heathergems was a long-awaited return for me.  I had gone in 2006 and had, shall I say, more of an adventure than I counted on--but I loved their jewelry and really wanted to go back at some point under slightly calmer circumstances. 

Here's what happened the first time.  I was on Ed Miller's Folksong Tour, and it was a day that we had a choice of things to do.  It was a Sunday, and some people were going hiking (I know, right?  Exercise on a vacation?  What's that about?) and if you didn't want to hike, the same bus that was dropping the hikers off would take people to the nearby town of Pitlochry, where there were lots of little shops and things.  I decided to go with the shopping group, of course.  We were dropped off in Pitlochry and told, quite firmly, that we had to be back at the bus parking lot at a particular time--since there were two groups of people doing different things in different places, the drop-off and pick-up arrangements were somewhat complicated, but the gist was, if you're not here at 4:00 or whatever it was, we're leaving you and you'll have to find your own way back.  I think our guide even stressed that since it was Sunday, public transportation ran on a reduced schedule and we would have difficulty getting back to Blair Atholl, where our hotel was, if we missed the tour bus.  OK, OK, I got it.  I had no intention of being late.

So Pitlochry on a Sunday is kind of slow.  I suspect that Pitlochry any day of the week is kind of slow.  I had gone off by myself, not with the rest of our sub-group of shoppers, and there wasn't a whole lot to do.  I went to a bookstore and bought a few books, then I had lunch at a tea room, then I just kind of wandered aimlessly, until I completely accidentally stumbled upon Heathergems.  It's a terrific place.  It has beautiful jewelry, and the story of how it's made is really interesting.  It's basically compressed dyed stems of heather (a purple wildflower that is ubiquitous in Scotland, to the extent that it is sort of a national symbol) that are cut and lacquered and then used in pendants and earrings and pins and things.  Anyway, I was in heaven in this place.  I wanted to bring gifts back for people, and this seemed perfect since it was a product that was unique to Scotland, and really pretty to boot.  I also had been tasked by a patient of mine with buying her some jewelry--she had given me money and told me very generally what she wanted, and it seemed like this was the ideal place to find some stuff for her, too.  It was getting kind of late, so I knew I wouldn't be able to browse as much as I would have liked, and I would still have to hustle to make the bus.  But, it would have all been OK--that is, until I got up to the counter. 

Something to know about Scotland (maybe about the entire UK?) is that there is this tax, called VAT.  If you are not a resident of Scotland, when you leave you can claim some of your VAT back, assuming you meet certain criteria.  You have to have spent a certain amount of money at one time in one store, and you have to have a special kind of receipt and form from the merchant.  Then, on your way out of the country, you give this paperwork to a customs officer and you supposedly get the VAT credited back on a credit card.  I say supposedly because of the two times I have tried this, I have gotten money back a total of zero times.  Whatever.  The point is, at the time I was at Heathergems, I didn't know that the system apparently doesn't work.  All I knew was I was spending more than 40 pounds or whatever it had to be, so I wanted to get the receipt and form that I needed.  The form had to be filled out by the merchant, with the details of what I bought, not just the total amount, and, at least at Heathergems, it was done by hand.  So, it was taking forever.  I was getting a little nervous about the bus situation, but I thought, it's OK, I'll just have to jog.  I also wasn't entirely sure how to get to the bus from where I was, but I chose not to think about that yet.  So finally, everything was totaled up and it was time to pay.  There were actually two clerks helping me--one checking me out and the other filling out the VAT forms--and there was a growing line of people behind me, so I was starting to feel a little self-conscious.  Pretty soon I started to feel a lot more self-conscious, because MY FLIPPIN' CREDIT CARD WOULDN'T GO THROUGH.  The credit card terminal was displaying some sort of code that neither of the clerks recognized, so they just kept re-swiping it, and it kept being declined.  Finally on like the third or fourth try, they figured out that the code meant they had to phone someone to get authorization, and they were ultimately told that I had to get on the phone with a Bank of America rep.  So, they handed me the phone (I was completely stunned--and pretty mortified at this point) and I talked to a very nice lady at Bank of America, who asked me the whole series of mother's maiden name questions, and then asked me to confirm my last two transactions.  Remember the bookstore and the tea room?  Yep, paid for them both with my Visa card.  Apparently, the fact that they were in, you know, SCOTLAND, got flagged, and the next transaction, at Heathergems, was therefore declined until they determined that my card had not been stolen.  Something I (obviously) did not know until this incident, but that apparently everyone else in the entire world knows, is that when you're going to be traveling outside the U.S., you're supposed to notify your credit card company (and your bank if you plan to use an ATM card) so that what happened to me doesn't happen.  Lesson learned.

At this point there had to have been fifteen people in line behind me, none of whom were being helped because I was monopolizing both clerks.  Right then is when I knew that I loved Scotland and Scottish people, because while I was standing there feeling terrible about inconveniencing all those people, and feeling stupid because it was my own fault, an older gentleman behind me in line said, "Och, I hope this disnae ruin your trip."  He felt bad for me and wanted to make sure I didn't have a bad impression of Scotland because of the situation!  (And he said it using some Scots dialect, which I totally loved.)  Seriously, some of the nicest people anywhere.

By the time everything was finished, it was like a minute or two before I was supposed to be at the bus, which I still didn't know how to get to.  Oh, and it was raining.  I figured at that point there was no possible way I was going to make it, so there was no point in running.  Once I figured out how to get to the bus lot, I decided I would go there anyway, and maybe I'd be able to get a public bus that left from the same lot, or close to it.  So, I was strolling along in the rain, when it occurred to me that if the bus hadn't already left, that it might leave in the time it was taking me to leisurely stroll to the bus lot, and if it didn't, it wouldn't look good for my fellow tour members to see me just casually walking and looking like I didn't care that I was making them wait for me.  So, I broke into a full-out run.  And of course, the bus was still there, and no one was upset with me (the fact that I was all wet and out of breath probably helped), and I had fodder for the talent show that I knew would take place at the end of the tour.** 

Of the jewelry I bought, I kept one necklace for myself.  It is my absolute favorite piece of jewelry, even more than the diamond drop necklace that my parents gave me for my thirtieth birthday (don't tell them that.)  I always think of that story when I wear it and when anyone asks me about it or compliments me on it.  Of course, I think one of the reasons that it is my favorite is because of that story!

A nice cherry on the sundae of that day is that when we got back to the hotel and got off the bus, I heard bagpipes (because, hello, it was Scotland.)  I went looking for the source, and found a pipe and drum band rehearsing outside (and fundraising--I had to borrow a pound to put in their container, because I somehow had only 10 and 20 pound notes, and don't get me wrong, I'm all for supporting musicians, but I wasn't going to give them 10 pounds!  Actually, I think I still owe one of the other tour members a pound...oops.)

This past June when I went to Heathergems I took a public bus to Pitlochry (because there wasn't an option to go as part of the tour, but we had a free afternoon.)  There was no drama.  I browsed, chose what I wanted, paid for it, got the VAT form (because I'm a slow learner and I still believed it would work), and that was that.  Somehow, even though I got some lovely pieces of jewelry, it wasn't nearly as much fun.

Have I mentioned how much I love Scotland?

**The song I wrote and performed for our end-of-tour talent show is called "Ode to Tablet."  Tablet is a type of Scottish candy that we had a lot of on that first tour.  One of the verses, sung to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands", goes:
If your credit card's been declined, have some tablet
If in Pitlochry you're almost left behind, have some tablet
If the lamb you saw at play could be your dinner later today
Please don't fret, it's all OK, have some tablet


  1. this is why i always drive my husband insane with wanting to carry - possibly unreasonable amount of cash in local currency. they do sound quite nice the Scottish.

  2. That trip I also had travelers checks--it was all kinds of difficult trying to cash/exchange them. The last couple of times, I used ATMs. Much easier!


I'm new to this blogging thing, so for now, I've enabled "comment moderation." This means that before your comment actually shows up, I'll have to approve it. Unless you're psycho, I probably will. Maybe even if you are psycho.