Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Ugly American's Guide To Britain, Part 2.

(When I'm not writing games, I love to travel foreign lands and write snarky and occasionally helpful journals about what I saw. This is the second of five articles about my recent two-week trip through Britain. Some of the content is a little more adult that what I put on this blog. If you are below sixteen or so, you should go here. Anything offensive should be blamed on a hormonal imbalance caused by too much haggis.)

General Notes on Britain, Set the Second

People in Britain have an accent. And, by that, I mean that they have about 400 accents. While watching the telly (or, as they call it, the "Looky Box"), I saw a comedian do a bit about how everything sounds more reassuring in a Manchester accent. So there is a Manchester accent, and that means something. Societies that develop on islands can get a little bit odd.

Still, just listening to people talk is one of the funnest things about coming here. I simply can't get tired of it. My main attraction is going to a pub (which is not difficult, as every building is a pub) and listening. I also try to talk to people, but I have to be careful and not say any of my opinions about the ridiculousness of soccer or how cute it is that they have, get this, a queen. Otherwise I might say the wrong thing, and someone might hear me and be feeling all drinky-punchy, and I'll hear someone behind me shout, "Oi!" Which is British for, "Pardon me, but I am about to give your ass a truly extensive kicking."

The language on this island is an intriguing dialect of English. They have lots of funny words for things. For example, the primary currency is the "pound", but they will often refer to it as a "squid." A sample conversation might go: "Can you give me change for this squid?" "Sure, luv. Here are one guinea, three farthings, two bob, a crown, six ha'pennies, a half crown, a mega-crown, a mecha crown, and a pennywhistle." "That's not enough! There should be another farthing. You have cheated me, m'lord." "Oi!" "(Sound of face being punched.)"

Also, the British, like most of the rest of the world, love a sport called soccer. I got to watch them watch a World Cup match where their team fought Algeria to a scorching, hard-fought 0-0 tie.

I know. I know. While I'm there, I'm supposed to call it "Football." But, if you live in the U.S. and are in the U.S., calling soccer "football" is truly affected.

Also, football sounds like it should be the name of a cool, kick-ass, exciting sport. Any sport where a 0-0 outcome is not only plausible but, in fact, common isn't sweet enough to have an awesome name like Football. Soccer isn't even cool enough to be called Soccer. I think it should have a more appropriate name, like "Fancy-pants grass-prancing."

I also got to be there when Germany beat England 4-1 in what was, based on the media reaction, the worst thing to ever happen to anyone anywhere. Apparently, England scored an unquestionable goal that would have tied up the game, but it was disallowed because the referee wasn't close enough to get a good look at it and there is no goal referee and no instant replay review. Hey, just because it's the most popular sport in the world doesn't mean they should drop a few extra bucks to actually get the thing officiated properly. After a couple weeks of exposure both to the alleged entertainment of World Cup soccer and to the people who love it, I've come to the conclusion that I could like soccer, except that I don't hate myself enough.

Stop 2 - Edinburgh

Before I start, I have to send a quick message out to the Scottish people.

I can't understand a goddamn word any of you are saying.

This is not to be taken as a criticism. I love ya', baby. Don't ever change. I am instead saying it as a way of fostering greater understanding between our peoples. I would only point out that the Scottish crime thriller Sweet Sixteen, which came out in 2002, had to have subtitles, and it was entirely in English.

I may be exaggerating here slightly. Most of the time, I could kind of understand what Scottish people were saying. But there is something about that accent that just lends itself to being dialed up to 11.

But I still completely love listening to it. I could listen to Scottish people talk all day, and since all of them that I met seemed inclined to talk all day, we were a good fit. For example, when my wife and I were sitting in the park, a crazy old woman just in from her tiny village in western Scotland, sat down next to us and started telling us all of her racist terrorism conspiracy theories, I just sat, back, relaxed, and let her brogue wash over me. Sure, her thick accent made it impossible for me to tell exactly what she was saying about the Jews. (My guess? Not a fan.) But it was still lovely until she started explaining how Barack Obama was a secret Muslim terrorist. Then we lied about our urgent dinner reservations and ran off. Sorry, crazy Scottish lady. We get enough of that particular shit at home.

Also, I have pretty much fallen in love with Scottish women. Bear in mind I am only writing based on my own personal observations, but they are all completely punk and scary and thoroughly tattoed and hot and ready to cut you at a moment's notice. I'm not saying I want to be 20 and single again but, if in some horrible Twilight Zone future I was, I would save up my pennies and hop a flight to Edinburgh. Then, in a bar somewhere, I'd catch the eye of some pierced lass and we'd talk and I'd swoon and the next three days would be a blur and I'd wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a broken heart and no kidneys.

Yes, the northern half of this island is pretty scrappy. Their women all look ready to get to it and breed the next generation of Scottish warriors. And yet, Scotland's birth rate is very low. Perhaps, inspired by the arachnid, they eat the livers of those they love in moments of unguarded coital enthusiasm. The theory sounds crazy until you see these women. They're pretty awesome.

And believe me, the Scottish don't mess about. Edinburgh Castle isn't just some frou frou toy castle where nobles ponce about at each other. That's one of those ancient occasionally-razed-to-the-ground spires where the shit gets real for real. And the National Museum of Scotland is a glorious and unapologetic monument to all things Scottish. Not just Roman artifacts but plants and stuffed animals and the curling stone they used to win a gold medal but also plenty of swords and thumbscrews and The Maiden, a big alarming pre-guillotine contraption used to behead people for several productive centuries. See, if you're going to build a big shiny expensive history museum, by God it's going to be full of the remains of Pictish human sacrifice and machinery used to kill hundreds of dudes. Scotland is a serious place.

Fortunately, I passed three days without referring to anyone as English. The Scots and the English have a ... complicated relationship. I'll put it this way. One display in the National Musuem mentions that Scotland's largest immigrant group is the English. Think about that one. Look at it this way. When someone moves from California to Seattle, they're not considered an

(I might want to call them that, but that doesn't make it true.)

The guy who ran our B&B was a loud, boisterous, opinionated Scotsman straight out of central casting. We were the only people staying there, so, based on the odor in the hallway, our innkeeper divided his time evenly between looking after us and smoking joints the size of my forearm.

Scotland's primary scary local delicacy is, of course, haggis. Based on what I could tell from those I talk to, it does get eaten. Not a lot, and often with other things (chicken stuffed with haggis is a common dish). I mean, they're not dumb, and they know Pizza Hut exists, so they aren't eating it every day. But it does get eaten, and the canned haggis I saw in the supermarket proudly proclaims that it is 45% lung.

We ate at one truly superb modern fine British cuisine type restaurant, where I had Scottish venison with venison haggis. I asked our loyely young waitress what parts they use in the haggis. She looked at me like I'd just asked her what the color blue smells like. "So what is in the haggis?" "It's ... haggis." "I mean, what organs go into the haggis?" "It contains haggis." She then braced herself for me to ask what the ingredients of the salt were. I guess, when you mince all of an animal's internal organs and boil them in spices for long enough, they are transmuted into a new, indivisible base element.

(And, in case you were wondering, haggis tastes like boiled, heavily spiced meat with that unmistakable tinge of organ meat flavor. Whether you would like it depends entirely on your opinion of organ meat. But, considering that they have no shortage of McDonalds, their willingness to tolerate lung meat in any form should be taken as an inspiration to us all.)

Also, you can walk into any pub and get a shot of 16 year aged single cask whiskey that will blow your face off with its awesome for four bucks. That alone would be enough to make me completely fall in love with this city.

It's gorgeous and the food is good and the people-watching is great and the accents are gorgeous. Pretty much took dynamite to blow me out of that place. But I had to go back to England, the only place on this island where you can say anything nice about England without getting beaten up.

Fun British Fact #2

The British words for 'crisis' and 'opportunity' are the same. And that word is "cripeitunity."


  1. Love it! As an expat expat expat (born in France, raised in Switzerland, Uni & some of life in England, now I'm in the US) it's always fun to read about how people encounter different places.

    You have a definite Bill Bryson thing going on there, which is nothing but a compliment.

    And it's all true, though as far as I know -- at least that's what it was 10 years ago when I left -- it's a QUID not a squid... though it can also sometimes be a squid (as in "I have five squiddleys in my pocket"), but I think the latter is a variant on the former. Now you know. ;)

    (I could expound on why losing a footie match to Germany is such an incredible disaster, only slightly less bad than losing to France, but that would take more time and space than are available here.)

  2. See how polite the Scots are? Even in your fantasy, that punk lassie was nice enough to provide ice to slow your bleeding.

  3. Really interesting post Jeff. You have a unique way for describing things. Have to disagree about your dislike of football though. While I agree some of the World Cup decisions, in particular the touch refs, were diabolical for the most part the World Cup was really exciting this year. I'm very proud to be a New Zealander when our team left the tournament being the ONLY unbeaten team. The All Whites far exceeding our expectations and there were a lot of other 'upset' games.
    Anyway back to your travels - after reading about your time in Scotland its made me want to go there even more. Looking forward to your next post.

  4. "I passed three days without referring to anyone as English. The Scots and the English have a ... complicated relationship."

    Yet you still managed to say:

    "Germany beat Britain 4-1"


  5. Large dollops of opinion, heavily seasoned with outright fiction. Which sounds suspiciously similar to a haggis dish.

    Rather than point out all your factual errors, which is pointless ('cos you probably intended to exaggerate) and, worse, boring to read, here's a few extra comments:

    I've never heard a TV called a Looky Box, though Goggle Box (or just Box) does pop up.

    Yes, we do have lots of accents, often for places just 50 miles apart. The Manchester accent is different to the Liverpool (or should that be "Liverp'youil") accent, for example.

    As for football, I vote that any game where feet actually kick the ball a lot, and other players only occasionally, should be awarded the title.

    If you went to Scotland and didn't go to a ceilidh, you missed out. You could have danced with pretty Scottish girls with safety pins in their sashes rather than their noses. Unless someone invited you to a 'kayley' and you didn't connect the pronounciation with the spelling.

    Edinburgh's museums are dead impressive. And most of the people they refer to were impressive and are now dead.

    If you visit Edinburgh again, try a day bus tour to the Highlands ... Scotland has mountains bigger than Arthur's Seat [that's the large lump of rock in the photo above].

    'Cripeitunity'? Whoever told you that was selling you a load of ... er, cripe.

  6. "The Scots and the English have a ... complicated relationship."

    Certainly you'd never get the English counting the Scots as immigrants, but then national pride is very Scottish and definitely not very English, and we just find it baffling.

    You may have had a distorted impression from all the England flags about the place, but that was due to the World Cup and at such times simply means 'I like football'.

    On the rare occasion that you see them not during a football match it's usually shorthand for 'I am a racist'.

    Being vocally proud of being English is a good way to show that you're probably not.
    If needs must, then the Union Flag is more acceptable.

  7. My sister-in-law married a Brit who has family in Scotland. We met them at the wedding and they might as well have been from Mars for all we could understand them.

  8. Oh the outrageous mistake! In Scotland, they don't have whiskEy, but whisky! Run for your life lad, there is probably a commando of Scottish Women of Doom after you!
    I know they exist, I had to fight my way out of Scotland after having asked too much questions about Haggis...

  9. Very amusing, but I seriously hope your fellow yanks don't take all the facetious comments literally! Otherwise they might get a bit of a warped view of our nation.

    One point though -

  10. If it makes you feel any better, I call association football "soccer" to avoid confusion with gaelic football (a vastly superior game).

  11. I mirror others here. I was born in England and now live in Canada. Football is where you kick a ball with a foot, not throw it around every five minutes. There is a reason (beyond most Americans) that it is the most popular sport in the world by far. All your other opinions were shite as well, but in your typical style, amusing to read.

  12. While driving around England I noticed several fields that had goalposts. I knew they didn't usually play our brand of football so what were they for?? Later a saw a game of hurling on TV. The players all had bats and, apparently scored one point for hitting the ball between the goal posts and different points for hitting it under the crossbar like in soccer where there was a goalie I believe. Later I saw a game like Rugby where they scored a point by throwing or kicking the ball through the goalposts. The athletes seemed quite good, but two more sports for those of us on the other side of the "pond" to scratch our heads about.

  13. I should also mention that the Scots are particular as to how you pronounce Edinburgh. I'm from Pennsylvania and we have Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and Edinboro,which is how the city in Scotland is pronounced. That was hard to get used to.

  14. I refuse to take s**t about football's speed from a nation that considers American football a sport.

    Here's a hint guys. You have a rugby ball. The ball needs to get across a line for you to score. Stopping every few minutes to chat about how to get it across the line is a waste of everyone's time and money.

  15. > Otherwise I might say the wrong thing ...

    Interestingly a group of people at the "Social Issues Research Centre" were so worried that you might say the wrong thing in a pub that they wrote you a book about it.

    It basically describes what typical British pubs are like. The book is largely true but I've never found one pub that meets all the characteristics combined.

    Bits of it are also a good read.

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