Anne de Graaf's blog: International-Intrigue-Injustice

19 June 2011

Zen and the art of golf: An inquiry into trust

There’s already someone who has invented zen golf, but what my title here refers to is the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (ZAMM), which is a 1974 philosophical novel, by Robert M. Pirsig. This book had a profound effect on me as a teenager. Since studying for a PhD has drop-kicked me into getting in touch with my inner geek, and reminded me of what it’s like to be a student again, the title of this post seemed appropriate.

I am back home. Scotland and the moist, northern light and ever-present sea and St Andrews and my wise, dear friends are there, and I am here, in klein kikkerland, or little frog country, as the Dutch call Holland. I stuffed my books into my car, drove four hours south through amazing beauty and the Scottish Borders–cattle on a thousand hills–sailed across the North Sea in a ferry from Newcastle to Ijmuiden, and was home. That’s me the day, they would have said in St Monans.

I fear my books have multiplied like rabbits in dark corners. As my car disgorged them, they quietly filled corners on all three floors of our house. They are there still, sagging in the plastic bags I had to pack them into when the cardboard boxes would not fit into my car. They have titles with words like peace and conflict and path.

The two weeks before I left were filled with playing golf. I played ten rounds of 18 holes in 14 days. And I got my handicap! But in the meantime, I memorized the wind and rain slapping my cheek and tearing my hair out of my visor. I recited the number of shots like a meditation as I watched the sun come and go, the sea turn from blue to gray, the gorse shine gold, and the far hills rise and fall.

And that’s where I got the idea of the zen of golf. I have learned many things during this year of being set apart for creativity and research. I have learned that one must let go to lay hold. That when we are afraid because we cannot control our world, then this fear is a friend because it signals the time to trust. I used to call them the foreign tribes of fear and think they had to be slain and banished from the land. Then I discovered fear as a friend, a warning system, a means of communication for my subconscious. How to befriend the foreign tribes? Sounds hauntingly close to International Relations. Listening, respect, trading stories, admiring each other’s children . . .

Some of you will know the motto of this season for me has been unexpected gifts at unexpected times. But to receive the gifts we must see them, anticipate them, trust in them. “I trust” are words like “I hope,” stabs in the dark that may just tear through the tapestry of terror to let the light in. I’m thinking Plato’s Cave here, which is another blog post all together.

What about the golf, you ask? Well just before I started playing my manic 180 holes in 14 days, I received my MA in International Relations. Somehow I managed to write a master’s thesis (they call it a dissertation in Scotland), and put together a research proposal for my PhD dissertation (they call it a thesis in Scotland). I don’t know how I did all that work. Dreading it in January, I remember calling my daughter and freaking. Now, looking back, all I can remember is sitting at my wee desk in my wee house in the wee fishing village of St Monans and watching the tide come in and go out as hours ticked by and pages were typed and books perused. Day after day after day. Until it was done. I woke every morning and thought, I trust. My friend and mentor here says this is a great gift. I agree.

In golf, there comes a moment during the swing when one must stop trying to control it, trust the muscle memory and surrender to the power as the head of the club smashes against the ball and sends it flying. The grip is important. My handicap-4 son tells me I need to keep my eye on the ball more.

In golf there are giant bunkers that swallow your ball. But you get down into the bunker, dig your feet into the sand, aim for an inch from the ball to dig it out, swing as fast and hard as you can and follow through, then do it over and over and over until the rescue is complete.

On golf courses there and here, I count up and down, walk up and down, swing up and down. It reminds me of the rhythm of the sea out my window in St Monans.

In golf a handicap is a good thing.

Now that I’m home, when I walk in my woods, I remember myself pre-Scotland, and see the memory of me in flat, sepia tones. But here I am in living color! The pending workload of continued research and reading and fieldwork, coupled with teaching would have terrified the old two-dimensional me. New me smiles softly and beckons.

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”–Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

9 April 2011

Awash with voices

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 6:22 pm

I just got back from a week-long road trip through the Scottish Highlands. My companion was my oldest friend–we’ve known each other since we were 15. And our birthday is the same day, same year. Which makes us both . . . 35 (for the 17th time).

We drove beside snow-tipped mountains with waterfalls like tapped veins, gushing on all sides. Reddish heather and dark maroon moors flanked us. Ancient castles reared up on the unlikeliest of tiny islands, whispering of betrayal and long-lost love.

The wee inn pictured here met us at the end of a long and winding road. It was built in the 1700s and offered a view of the loch that shifted like a dream.

At some point the snow runoff and horizontal rain meant a road I meant to take looked more like a boat ramp. With flooding on both sides, we splashed our way onwards, as the climbing took us over the pass and that same afternoon we wandered in Edinburgh in 22-degree warmth.

“If you don’t like the weather in Scotland, wait five minutes,” one of our hosts told us.

Say these places out loud: Isle of Skye, Cairngorms, Inverness, Loch Awe, Stirling. A litany of locations, ancient and modern. We saw the bridge the Hogwarts Express travels over, oddly pleasing. Mist rose and fell, hills became mountains became moors became coastlands.

I thought, Is this the landscape of my heart?

The food! Banoffee pie, salmon served seven ways, scones with double cream and homemade strawberry jam, and my favorite: caramel and chocolate-covered shortbread, called shortcake. Oh yeah: a shiraz that haunts me still and don’t forget the gin and tonics!

But the best part was letting the land seep into my soul: the peace, the unexpected gifts at unexpected times, like the castle where we ate lunch and the waiter described his clientele as “brand new.” I thought he meant honeymooners and said, “Just married?” He laughed. “No, no, it’s Scottish, sorry. It means they’re the greatest.”

This poem by the Scottish poet of the month, echoes my own reaction to the stone and water I witnessed on this journey. And my title is taken from another modern Scottish poet, A.B. Jackson.

on the senses

little saints buried saints
finally kissed by the earth
lilies from your parched mouths
from your salt lips
rise white and tall
scented but with which world

tonight your funeral mass
is being chanted again
in the drowned city
its incense fills us
spume and lightning

Alasdair Paterson © on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010)

18 March 2011

Light years

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Write on — annedegraaf @ 7:09 pm

This is me. I picked up these cards this morning and said to the lady at the print shop: “I’m official.” And because all good things work together, today was the first day I didn’t think as I woke up: “What will I do next on my research proposal?” Why? Because I turned in my research proposal last night. Oh yeah! (Picture me doing the happy dance–It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday!)

What’s a research proposal? Ten thousand words mapping out the next 2+ years of reading, writing, interviewing, analyzing, reading and writing 80,000 words (not including the bibliography, but including footnotes, but at this stage-hey! Who’s counting?) for my PhD thesis (UK)/dissertation (N. America).

Way back in October I wrote a blog entry hoping and trusting in a shaky way that this day would come. Now I have a roadmap. So if I deviate, at least I’ll know where I’ve deviated from. The general direction has become a bit more focussed: To go where no man has gone before, to explore new worlds. . . . Sorry, got carried away there.

My research will explore the place of voice–specifically young people’s–and its role in conflict and peacebuilding. And my case study is South Africa, where I’ll be visiting for two months in 2012. But I’ve also been interviewing NGOs and individuals involved in youth policy here in Scotland. Which brings me to my business cards. Monday there’s a conference here at St Andrews put together by my wise supervisor, on violence and circulation of children. And Wednesday I’m going to Edinburgh for an “event” about Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has become EU law. Article 12 is about the voices of children, and requires that children be consulted on decisions that affect their lives. So since I’m looking into how youth narratives can be used as tools for policy assessment and policy design, this is my kind of event. I hope to meet Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, who has called for widespread interviews among young people before determining future Scottish policy. The last time young people in Scotland were asked what was most important to them, was by the NGO Children 1st. The overwhelming response–surprising to the adults who run this world–asked for one thing. What was young people’s number-one priority? To spend more time with their parents. Hmm. Anyway, for these two events next week I needed business cards. As I told my husband, next week I’ll have to be smart and pretty. He told me I should go to bed early.

I think I’ve been spending too much time around my PhD colleagues. The other day I ran into one and immediately we started discussing the socio-economic ramifications of a social-constructivist epistemology. What were the ontological implications? Was this rooted in Aristotle or Plato? Hegel maybe, pre-Marxist, that is. And was it too early to go to the pub? Well, those of you who know and love me have probably realized I’ve always been a closet geek. What’s worse, I may now have become a recovering academic.

Ok, enough. Onto Life in Scotland news: I love living in a small fishing village. I’ve introduced you to Bob the postman, but have I told you about Peter? He works at the post office, and whereas I stand in line for whole half hours at the post office in St Andrews, when I go to the one in St Monans, Peter is often sitting with his feet up on the desk, waiting for the next customer. He works with the door open so he can look outside, across the harbor at the wide expanse of water to the other side of the firth. Every time he sees me, he says, “Hello, young lady.” Speaking as someone who’s turned 35 17 times, this is music to my ears. I eavesdropped once when another woman entered the post office to see if he says this to all the girls, but he didn’t. So I’m convinced he’s sincere. The other evening I was out for my daily walk along the harbor, when I found Peter sitting outside. “Look at that light,” he said. “Aye,” I nodded in my best imitation Scottish way.

And this brings me back to a previous Scotland theme: the light. These photos are of my favorite walk. It starts the moment I leave my little house. I close the door behind me and look up, and this is what I see.

I walk along the harbor and say, “Hiya,” to everyone. Did I mention that we don’t lock our doors in St Monans? Took some getting used to, until I had to go twice to the package center in the next town over after I missed shipments from my drug dealer (amazon.co.uk–free shipping in the UK!). I noticed that on sunny days some people simply left their front doors wide open. So I stopped locking mine and voila! I come home from a hard day listening to seminars and reading in the library to neat stacks of packages and boxes on my living room floor. Bob cometh, he leaveth and he goeth.

My walk winds up, past coves, and toward the Newark castle ruins, the origins of which date back to the mid 1200s.

Look at this stonework:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heading back, this is the view:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The St Monans church, which was built in the 1300s, is still standing. In all the UK, this is the church located closest to the sea.

And when I come home, before opening my unlocked door, I turn once more, because the light, which is so unique here, I’m told, because of the angle of the sun when you’re this far north, often has one more surprise for me.

I watch the water and the sky here all the time. Can you see in this photo the snow-covered hills across the firth? That’s North Berwick on the other side. As I write this, its lights twinkle across the water in sunset like fairy promises.

In the mornings as I drive to school, the snow on the distant hills sketch an anti-shadow against the treeline. Mist rises and falls. I watch for birds of prey, my sea eagle Norbett, buzzards, which are like hawks, and wonder why I haven’t seen the first lambs of the season yet. In Holland they’d be bouncing straight-legged beside their mothers by now. But maybe it is because of the eagles, maybe the farmers here keep them indoors. Or maybe it’s because it still drops below freezing at night. On these drives I count the hillsides with centuries-old cascades of daffodils, and listen for brooks thick with the spring run-off, until the spires of St Andrews rise to meet me.

This place tells me, time comes and goes, like the sea, an ebb and flow of ideas not set in stone. What is 600 years?

25 February 2011

Prince William shook my hand

Filed under: PhD: Scotland! — annedegraaf @ 7:03 pm

Touched by royalty–I know I’m not supposed to get overly excited about celebrity proximity, but I am, as one woman said in the crowd, dead chuffed that Prince William shook my hand today. I came down with the flu yesterday and this morning I had to stagger to the pharmacy and then buy some food, but most important–I still had to get some whisky so I could make a hot toddy–I mean, here I am in Scotland sans whisky–not done. So I thought I might see if I wasn’t too late to catch a glimpse of the royals.

To find out why Prince William and his lovely Kate Middleton visited St Andrews, read the BBC article here.

Some people had been waiting to see them since 7 a.m., waiting in the rain, I might add. I come strolling up and 15 minutes later, he’s shaking my hand.

There was a heavy police presence as they filmed us.

And I even spotted a few lookouts on the tower roof.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But as Will and his lovely Kate came toward me, I suddenly thought, I should stop taking photos and stick out my hand. So I did. And he took it. And he looked at me. And call me crazy, but what I saw in his eyes was that he cares. I had expected some politician’s hand pump, and a turning away, a wall even, glazed-over eyes, not connecting, shyness maybe. Instead, he cared. Maybe he was caring about his wife-to-be, hoping she doesn’t turn out like his mother. Maybe he’s so new to this he’s still moved by a crowd’s adoration, but I broke out into a grin and felt singled out, special even.

I know my Irish grandmother is turning in her grave that English royalty would have this effect on me. Plus I’m just not into the whole fame cult. But here was romance and tragedy and hope and youth and 600 years plus royalty, all wrapped up in one intriguing man.

Those of you who know me well will also know I’m a shameless eavesdropper. And the invention of the mobile phone has been a great boon for people like me. I have overheard the most intimate of conversations, mostly on Dutch trains. Today, however, I heard people laughing into their phones: “He shook my hand!” “She’s so lovely!” “It’s a mild day!” And my personal favorite: “Don’t forget to transfer money!”

The lady in front of me called her mom, then turned to the agent patrolling us and said, “My mum wasn’t impressed. Who can I call who will be impressed?” I then called my husband and told him I’d shaken hands with the prince, just to hear my own Prince Charming reply, “Can I get back to work now?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Kate, when she passed by, she said in a very posh accent, “Oh, there’s so many hands.” And I thought, it gets worse, sweetie.

The Asian students were the most excited, clicking away on their i-Phones. But the American students, especially the women, made the most noise. One Scottish woman said, “I’m here because I worshipped his mother.” That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? The Diana cult continues. Right down to the sapphire ring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So where does that leave us? With the press, and with a future king and queen. Just look at the wistfulness on the faces of the girls here. Don’t we all just long for a fairytale ending?

An hour later I was back in bed with my hot toddy. You have to love a country where you shake the hand of a prince one moment and the next, you can buy Bunnahabhain Islay whisky–in a supermarket.

Long live the queen.

 

15 February 2011

Sea eagles

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others — annedegraaf @ 7:47 pm

Today I saw something I’ve waited 26 years to see. I left behind the books and drove an hour west. It was supposed to snow again this morning, but I think I must have spent too much time in Scotland since I thought because the temp was above freezing (by 2 degrees), and it wasn’t raining, I had myself a fine day.

Hemayel with me and feeling nervous about my husband at sea off the coast of North Africa, after an extremely productive weekend, I knew I had to get out. Oot an aboot, as the Scots say. Or, as my previous posts will explain, into the muckle furth.

My destination: a nature reserve 10 miles from the place where 19 Norwegian white-tailed (sea) eagles were released this past summer. This is part of a five-year reintroduction project for the East Coast of Scotland. These 19 bring the total to 64 sea eagles released in Fife.

Here’s what happened: I read a book. No big surprise there, but I read the book when Daniel was a baby and the story has never let me go. It was about how the last native pair of sea eagles bred on the Isle of Skye in 1916, and then the species was extinct in the British Isles. But in the 70s an eagle made its way across the North Sea, able to survive the trek for the first time ever, thanks to modern oil rigs providing resting places in the middle of the sea. And in 1975, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) started bringing sea eagles to Mull and Skye. Now these great birds breed and thrive on the west coast of Scotland, but it would take decades before they could return to the eastern lowlands.

So over the next few years, another 20 chicks a year will be brought to East Scotland from Norway and released, until the total population reaches around 100. Each chick is fitted with radio tags so that they can be tracked for up to five years. That’s the age of eagles who breed.

Did you know that sea eagles are monogamous?

Anyway, I had read on the RSPB bird blog (yes, there is such a thing) that the young eagles had taken to roosting on Castle Island in Loch Leven. Although the 65 roam all along the eastern coast, this seemed a better place than most to chance a sighting.

By the way, little piece of Scottish history here: the castle on Castle Island was built around 1300 and is the same castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned and forced to abdicate before her dramatic escape a year later. Anyway . . .

So I walked along the loch (which means arm of the sea) and visited the blinds where I saw Whooper swans and Mute swans. My hiking boots squished through flooded farmland as I watched the mist lift and fall on hills darkened by winter heather. And I thought about Hemayel and my brother and my friend and my other friend’s father and his three children who will bury their grandfather on Thursday and the wind cut my cheeks, but I felt good. Then, as I headed back toward the car park, I heard them.

They sounded like puppies yelping. No way. The man at the visitor’s center had said the eagles weren’t around. I looked up into the layers of gray: gray water into gray sky, and saw two huge birds flying together, swooping down to the shoreline, then reeling up and splitting off. They seemed as big as herons, with their wingspan that can get up to eight feet. One landed and I returned to the nearest blind, my eyes glued to the spot. But I saw nothing more. An elderly man entered the wooden blind with a telescope.

“The white-tailed eagles, did I see them?” I asked. He grinned, “They roost on the island and love to attack the ducks along the beach. It’s two young ones who arrived in August, a large female and a small male. He has a blue badge.”

I saw them, I saw them. All my life I’ve wanted to see sea eagles. I was already determined to go to Skye later in the spring. But now I’ve seen them within an hour of my St Monans. I looked him up on the bird blog and the small male is named Norbett. This is what the view out of my door looks like at sunset. Maybe Norbett will visit me.

And now with my head and heart full of eagles, I remember Eric Liddel, the Flying Scotsman who ran the West Sands beach of St Andrews (where my desk at the library looks out upon) to train for the 1924 Olympics. There he won gold in an event not his own, after refusing to race on the sabbath. Afterwards he left for China as a missionary and died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. In 2008 the Chinese authorities revealed that when given the opportunity to leave the camp, he gave his place instead to a pregnant woman. His family had never known.

This is what I think: Eric wrote of death and young men like Hemayel and actually, for all of us, “Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? It comes from within. ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.'”

12 January 2011

Furth the firth

After having written in my previous post that I didn’t know the answer to one of life’s great questions, namely, “What does the Scottish word furth mean?” I can now shed some light on what must be a question right up there with “How did the Big Bang go off?”

It seems furth can mean several things: non-Scottish, beyond The Border, away from, out, outside of, to the outside. For example, when something is furth of Scotland, it is outside of Scotland.

But I’m also thinking about the words further and furthest which often get mixed up with their cousins farther and farthest. The difference, of course, being that further means to a greater degree, and farther refers to length or distance.

But it seems that furth can also mean out of doors, in a state of deviation from, and honestly, as in without concealment of the truth. To be furth-bering is to support. and furthfilling is fulfilling. To furth-run is to expire. Furthy not only means frank, but also affable, and furthiness is an “excess of frankness, approaching to giddiness in the female character.” Hmm. But the absolute best word based on furth is furthsett which means conveying the idea of splendour.

This means that a furthsetter (which can mean publisher or author) is someone who conveys the idea of splendour. Which brings me to the photos for this post. They are new infrared images of the Andromeda Galaxy. To read the BBC story about the telescopes ran by the European Space Agency, click here. And that’s my furthsett contribution to your day.

So if one of the many meanings of furth is beyond, and firth means sheltered place or arm of the sea, what does the title of this post mean?

Where are we now?

Lastly, here is my favorite scene by a different kind of firth, yet another illustration of how words and languages exchange splendour across a universe, this one called the human heart.

10 January 2011

Muckle furth and gloming

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Thin and Thick Places,Words by Others,Write on — annedegraaf @ 8:23 pm

After three weeks in snowy Holland I returned to Scotland to find . . . more snow. And so the snow story continues. Pictured here is the famous Old Course at St Andrews. During my last golf lesson before the holidays, we used yellow balls so we could see them in the snow. I have learned that the Scots never, ever complain about the weather. I might have made some comment to our Scottish instructor about how the M8 highway connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh was closed, and both airports in those cities were closed–all due to the snow–but that at St Andrews the golf lessons must go on. He looked at me rather oddly, while my fellow students from China, Germany, and Canada nodded and smiled at me.

You can learn a lot about about what is important to a culture from its language. In Dutch, for example, there are many different words for canal. And for ice. And for the moods of the sea. There is an urban legend that the Inuit have many terms for snow. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve been boning up on my Scottish, and it seems like the Scots have an inordinately large number of words for describing the outdoors. For example, the word frog means to snow or sleet at intervals. They have a word for this. What does this say about Scottish culture? That the outdoors plays an important part in Scottish life? This, and the freezing temperatures that no one complains about might explain the origins of whiskey. But that’s another post all together. On to our language lesson.

As we learned in a previous post, neuk means hook. If you want to know what it means in Dutch, then watch the Robin Williams video at the end of that post. It could also be that this is an important word in the Dutch vocabulary, as well.

In any case, today I’d like to look at another Scottish f-word: furth. The muckle furth means the open air. And muckle means great. To furtheyet means to pour out. Furthy means forward, frank, and unabashed. The Dutch might be described as furthy. To furthschaw is to manifest. And a furth setter is an author.

How cool is that? I’m a furth setter living on the Firth of Forth (and firth means sheltered place but also estuary), furtheyeting and furthschawing furthy words after I go for walks in the muckle furth. But I wonder, what does furth itself mean? As with all great questions, I haven’t found the answer yet.

Oh, but there’s an even better word: Gloming. Say it out loud, it rhymes with roaming. It’s what we grammar geeks call an onomatopoeia, or a type of word that sounds like the thing it is describing. Gloming means twilight. The gloamin-star is the evening star. The Scottish language seems to have several onomatopoeia: glock which means to gulp; gloff which is a sudden fright and glog which means slow. Glog also means a soft lump. Oh wait! And did you know what a gloy is? Not a glow-in-the-dark toy, but the withered blades stripped off from straw. How lovely is it that there is a word for such a thing?

One last definition . . . for the word golf: “A game in Scotland, in which hooked clubs are used for striking balls, stuffed very hard with feathers, from one hole to another.” So that’s what’s missing from my game, the feathers.

Now I’ll leave you with the gloming over St Andrews, and a sample of the Scottish language. See if you can recognize the text, and for those of you who know Dutch, note the many words the two languages have in common. That’s because of the fishing and the North Sea that both cultures share, a historical bridge between my two homes.

(Thanks to Tim who first introduced me to the mf-word as well as defining the f(o)urth dimension as time and the fifth as one of love, and to Ian who emailed me the words below.)

Wha is my Shepherd, weel I ken,
the Lord himsel’ is he;
He leads me whaur the girse is green,
an burnies quate that be.

Aft times I fain astray wad gang,
an wanner far awa;
He fins me oot, He pits me richt,
and brings me hame an a’.

Tho I pass through the gru’some cleugh,
fine weel I ken He is near,
His muckle crook will me defend,
sae I had nocht tae fear.

A’ comforts whilk a sheep could need,
his thoctfu’ care provides;
Tho wolves an dogs may prowl aboot,
in safety me He hides.

His guidness an his mercy baith,
nae doot will bide wi’ me;
While faulded on the fields o’ time
or a’ eternity.

4 December 2010

Scotland snow story

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Thin and Thick Places — annedegraaf @ 12:52 am

Of course, one of the golden rules in writing is: Always Avoid Alliteration. But I couldn’t resist the title of this post. And on Wednesday I got my very own Scotland snow story. After spending Monday and Tuesday in Amsterdam airport being bumped from one flight to another to another to another because Edinburgh airport closed, re-opened, closed, re-opened and closed again due to heavy snowfall, I got on a plane to Glasgow. Ordinarily you can drive from Glasgow to Edinburgh in 90 minutes. I caught an airport shuttle and since the highway was closed due to stranded trucks along the shoulder, we took back roads. The trip took 3 hours. I understood maybe one word out of ten that my driver spoke. Something about weather. And football. I didn’t dare bring up the Rangers and Celtics, for fear I might name the wrong team and he would morph into a hooligan. I fell asleep during the drive and when I woke it was to evergreens bowed heavy under the snow, sunshine on near hills and far mountains and a glorious landscape full of light and white.

When we arrived at Edinburgh airport, an elderly gentleman met us at the barrier, “No cars allowed in,” he said. My driver said something incomprehensible and they nodded and laughed and grunted. I smiled. “Shall I just get out here, then?” I asked. “Sure, young lady,” the gatekeeper said. “Can I drive out?” I asked. “Aye,” he said.

So I paid the driver and made my way through two feet of snow to where I thought my car stood in the parking lot. I found her, no longer World Cup Dutch football team orange, but with a thick snowy coat. I stood next to my car and thought, I have no shovel. It was one of those thoughts that stops you cold. So I smiled. A voice from heaven called, “Miss?” I looked around and saw a man coming my way. I looked behind me to see who he was talking to. No one there. “Yes?” I replied. “Would ya like a wee hand?” That I understood. He said, “I’ll just wait for my three gorgeous assistants….” And out of the blue a pickup plowed through the snow and three laughing men emerged. Like the three wise men, I thought. Bearing gifts of shovels.

One of them passed me by, wielding a large piece of hard plastic. “My secret weapon,” he winked at me. Did he just wink at me, I thought. “High-tech,” I said and all four men laughed like I was the most amusing gobsmacked young lady they had ever met. Then they set to work digging out my car.

Once we could see the door again, one of them asked for my keys. In he went and when he turned the ignition, my orange wonder sprang to life. “Ah,” all four men grinned at me. “It’s one of the best kinda cars to have in the snow, this.” Skoda Fabia. Did I mention mine is orange? She’s small, but faithful. I told them, “She’s only 7 months old.” My baby. Maybe the steering wheel is on the wrong side, but she knows front from back. Or top from bottom. Whatever.

So then, more snow clearing, from the roof, and behind the wheels a small road appeared under their careful creative carving and my man in the driver’s seat backs her up. Now comes the hard part. I had just heard that the bridge over the Firth of Forth (don’t say that with a full mouth) had been closed. First time in history for snow. I had heard there was a second bridge an hour away. I asked my man about the route. He said, “Both bridges are closed.” “How do I get to Fife (failing Firth of Forth)?” I asked. “Stirling,” came the answer. Stirling, where Wallace lost to England because Robert the Bruce betrayed him (I know my “Braveheart”). So I’ll have to drive around the Firth, which is like a big Norwegian fjord. That’s like driving from Oakland to San Francisco via San Jose. Or Seattle to Whidbey Island via Tacoma. Or Rotterdam to Amsterdam via Utrecht. Or Cape Town to Jo’berg via Durban. Well, you get the idea. It’s a detour. Or a diversion, as the Scots call it. My man gave me the numbers of the traffic radio station and we all said goodbye as if we were best friends.

So off I went, skidding and sliding through the snow and sleet. I listened to my angels’ radio station and heard that both bridges had closed due to jack-knifed trucks. Heavy traffic getting out of Edinburgh meant the rest of the trucks heaved mud and snow and ice onto my windshield. Whenever my GPS told me to take a shorter route I ignored her. Only the main roads were plowed. I passed highway shoulders that looked like parking lots, there were so many abandoned cars and vans. I listened to the radio tell me of people who had spent 15 hours camping in their cars. Sport halls had become dormitories for stranded motorists and truckers. I drove and drove and drove.

What should have been a 45-minute trip became 5 hours. Erik called me every hour or so. Our plan was that I would stop at a B+B if it became too tough to travel (provided I could find one in the middle of the Scottish countryside). Every time I thought, Whoa, skidded too much on that one, have to find a place to pull over, the black asphalt miraculously re-appeared and I got a grip. The closer I came to my wee fishing village of St Monans, the smaller the roads became and the lighter the traffic. Now when I slipped into the oncoming lane no one was there to meet me.

I parked the car at the top of the hill and walked down, smelling the sea, hearing the waves, cold and brutal, wash up against the harbor wall just a few yards from my front door. I opened it to a cold living room, turned on the tap and as water flowed, knew the pipes hadn’t frozen. I had made it.

The next morning I walked outside and watched Bob the postman make his deliveries. Bob has long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail. In November he wore shorts. I thought he might be in training for kilt-wearing. Now he wore trousers. Bob has the longest fingernails I’ve ever seen on a man. Maybe he plays guitar. This is a photo of a Bob wannabe, but it could be the street in my village.

Today I had to make another trip down some of the same roads to go to my garage and get my winter tires (tyres) fitted. The huge shipment of salt Scotland scored from a ship that originated in Peru (true story!) meant Scotland (unlike a country to the south which will go unnamed but which starts with an “E”) now has enough salt for two months of “strenuous” weather. Today the roads were clear; the salt had done its trick. We have even more snow–up to four feet in some places–but the roads are clear. Yeah Scotland!

So here are my stunning super snow tips:

  • I now have in my car–sleeping bag, water, flashlight and extra batteries, food (cashews and dried fruit), WD-40 (to spray on the frozen lock), two pieces of old carpet (for driving out onto when stuck), cat litter (to use as grit), small shovel, something bright to tie to the door handle to signal for help (old red towel), and first-aid kit. I also keep my tank topped up and mobile phone charged.
  • When starting the car, push in the clutch to ease the engine into life. Then when moving out, shift into 2nd to give it a little extra jump on the ice.
  • When driving, a higher gear has more control, downshift rather than braking, going downhill start slow, when skidding take feet off pedals and steer, triple stopping distance.

So as they say in Scotland, “That’s you.” (Roughly translated: There you go, Hope you’re satisfied, Had enough?)

(And if you have nothing else to do after you read this post, you might want to count the almighty alliterations accordingly and accurately.)

10 October 2010

Hidden dips and blind summits

Filed under: PhD: Scotland!,Thin and Thick Places,Write on — annedegraaf @ 1:31 pm

A lot has happened this summer: an amazing trip to South Africa during the World Cup (see previous post); THE BEST WEDDING EVER of our daughter and her smart and handsome husband (read great contentment and joy and a party with a rating of Internationally Legendary); I cleaned my writing room and study (if you had seen the stacks of papers and books multiplying like rabbits in dark corners you’d know why this warrants mention); several brilliant barbecues with students, friends, and family; and oh yeah–I moved to Scotland.

The University of St Andrews has taken me on as a PhD candidate. Well, during this first year of three I’m just a General Research student. By the end of this year I will have a formal research proposal (she said optimistically) and then I get to call myself a PhD student. In any case, this first nine months I do on site; after that I can do my research from home and commute back and forth to Scotland. The four months preceding graduation in June 2013 I’ll be back here fulltime again. For now, though, I commute back home every 2-3 weeks for a weekend, and in between, I get to be a student!

Yes, my shameful secret is that I am enjoying the whole books and articles and being swamped with readings and seminars and discussions and debates and going to the pub to discuss Kant and Rousseau and ontology (the study of being) and epistemology (the study of knowledge) and positivism vs. postpositivism and rationalism vs. reflectivism–IMMENSELY. My research has something to do with the role of youth in International Relations (IR). But this first year is all about immersing myself in the material–I don’t know what I don’t know–and finding a gap in the knowledge so I might attempt to fill the gap through creating new knowledge.

My fellow PhD students in the IR department come from all over the world–and this is what I loved about Webster, too–hearing the different world views and becoming friends with Muslims, Hindus, men and women from all over the world who are as concerned as I am about learning why.

The beauty of St Andrews is they welcome people who don’t fit into a box. In fact this is probably part of why they have become the #1 university in Scotland and #3 in the UK, behind Oxford and Cambridge. They embrace those of us who can’t be constrained to any one category, who sort-of flow over borders. We are affiliated with study groups within the IR dept. with names like the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, or the Institute for Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus Studies, and the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The latter is sort-of my corner. But because I am interested in the choices of young people for or against violence, I also get to hang out with the Jack Bauer wannabes at the Terrorism Centre. Actually, we’re all in one big mix of a class right now, learning together about how to start climbing the Mt. Everest of a path that is a PhD.

Ok, enough boring stuff. I live in a small fishing village 20 minutes from St Andrews. It’s called St Monans. (The Scots like their saints.) My wee house looks out on a tiny harbor and the North Sea. Well, actually the part of the North Sea called the Firth of Forth. Edinburgh’s over there somewhere. I spent my first weekend there, visiting friends of a friend and fell in love with the city. It’s a cross between St Petersburg and Dublin. I live in the county of Fife. And the region is called . . . get this . . . East Neuk. For those of you who speak Dutch, you’ll know why I break into a huge grin every time I drive by the sign. What’s an East Neuk? I’d like to know.

The other morning I watched as my neighbor hosed down the wellies of her fisherman husband, put them back into the boot, wiped down his car, and put his boxed lunch on the passenger seat (yes, sometimes I’m immensely bored). And I thought, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

My little house has a living room with a kitchen stuck on one wall, and upstairs is my bedroom, from which I can hear the surf at night, and a small study where I watch the waves and the tide ebb and flow as I wade through my own ocean of books and articles needing to be read.

The Fife Coastal Path runs below my study window, so I hear hikers from all over the UK pant past, laughing and talking. The Scots are really into walking, which I think is cool. My first weeks here I did part of this Path and it took me up and down hills (who needs cardio?), over cattle fences, past hidden coves and along perilous cliffs. Unbelievably gorgeous country. Where I live is the sort of place people come to for a weekend and say, “Honey, why can’t we buy a holiday home here?”

Oh and the light. There’s a light in Scotland like none I’ve seen anywhere else. The Hague School of artists like Mesdag got close to it with their portraits of life in Scheveningen, but here, the light filters through mist and seems to lift a fourth dimension into all I see.

The title of this entry refers to traffic signs I pass every day. What do a “hidden dip” and “blind summit” have in common? The not seeing. And that is where I’ve found myself, in a land where I do not really see what is ahead of me. Perhaps it’s just as well. But all this not knowing has set me free to be curious and laugh and love and listen and learn. It is an odd time, but also a strangely delightful time. I am deeply grateful to my family for supporting and encouraging me along this path.

And oh yeah, of course! I’m learning how to play golf. My instructor is Irish and he keeps telling me, if I get the grip right, the swing will follow. Hmm, another metaphor for life?

Lastly, just to make sure no far-right, conservative publisher ever wants to publish my books again, I’ve included the following video. Thanks to fellow student Simon from South Africa for the link. And Daniel, this one’s for you.

Blog at WordPress.com.