Address to a…lemon

Address to a…lemon

In the late 1700’s, Robert Burns, the man who was later to become Scotland’s most celebrated national figure was in his prime.

He was busy working the land, seducing women, and most importantly, writing. Inspired by anything and everything, his poems and songs, packed with action, romance, charm, and humour are still internationally recognised to this day.

The annual ‘Burns Supper’ is held to acknowledge and celebrate our beloved Bard – usually on whichever Friday falls closest to his birthday (not death) – the 25th of January – presumably because consuming that much whiskey on a school night is even too much for any hardy Scot.

I recently tried to describe the event to international friends here, but it soon became apparent that the unique traditions that form the itinerary were hard to explain. You have to experience it for yourself. And even then, it only really makes sense if you grew up to learn and dread (and then love) the expressive, transfixing poetry recitals, romantic ballads, the spine-tingling shrill of bagpipes, the traditional dancing, the swishing kilts and of course, the haggis.

Enjoying the event is easy, but understanding it is another. And that, I think, is because of the language.

Robert Burns transformed the way many thought about the Scots language, which became widely used and more importantly, proudly spoken across the country. Some say that it was our pride in Burns that gave us the pride to talk in a dialect that was once perceived as “inferior” English.

Thanks to our annual celebration of Burns, the Scots language has been not only preserved, but has influenced generations of writers, poets and songwriters.

As children, we were exposed to it every year, when schools in every region of the country encouraged (or forced) their pupils to recite these poems in “Burns competitions” run by the Robert Burns World Federation or some such entity. Some kids had a flair for it, revelling in the performance. Others (like me) used to dread it and certainly won no medals for my pronunciation of “beastie” and “breastie”.

But even if Scots poetry recitals didn’t make it into your school curriculum, you will surely have linked arms with friends (or strangers) and swayed along to a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on some occasion or other, like many others across the globe. You may have even sang along, for the chorus at least. And never have the words held more significance than they do now (translated English version available online).

This year, I celebrated our national Bard virtually, with family all over the UK. In-keeping with the traditional running order of a Burns Supper, we all had a part to play. In turn, we recited, sang, and even jigged, while I watched on in envy as everyone else tucked into plates of haggis, neeps and tatties.

I was asked to read a little something from the perspective of being “A Scot abroad”, which was a great opportunity to express how it really did feel to be far from home, on a day when our beloved Scotland is at the forefront of our minds, and hearts.

So, I channelled my inner Rabbie and scribbled a few lines. And while I think my career as a poet may be short-lived, I can proudly say that I belong to yet another generation of Scots, who continue to celebrate the young, influential writer who, in his 37 years of life produced nearly as many songs and verse as he did children – some 500 (only a mild exaggeration) and who, essentially just wanted to give up the day job to write…

And so, I will leave you with these badly rhymed words which still wouldn’t win me any school poetry competitions, but which I shared with my family as we raised our glasses more than once across the miles for a good-hearted and wholesome celebration at a time when “…seas between us braid hae roar’d”:

It’s not the haggis that I miss,

Or the annual recital of ‘Ae Fond Kiss’

‘Burns Day’ at school I used to hate,

The Scots language fussy and out of date.

But now I have a new appreciation,

For the language that influenced our nation.

The way they thought, and felt and spoke,

And for the emotions Burns work can still evoke.

Here, they don’t know the words we speak,

Or about the haggis they think we always eat 

But while our accents may be hard to understand,

They are in awe of our ancient, mystical land.

Oye! Just like ‘Outlander’”, they say,

I suppose it is, in a way.

There are hills and castles, and glens full of heather,

Whiskey, kilts and really shite weather.

It’s true, I know what you’re thinking,

We’re also renowned for deep fried mars bars and heavy drinking.

This country where we are so proud to be born,

Where our national animal is a unicorn…

And time may have taken us away for a while,

To try new things and a different lifestyle.

It doesn’t mean we love Scotland any less,

Calling it home makes us very blessed.

Even Burns had a brief plan to leave,

Which would surely have made the nation grieve.

The prospect was exciting and a little scary,

But he popped the question to Highland Mary,

Eager to escape or keen to explore, he said:

“Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary and leave auld Scotia’s shore?” 

(Which is not dissimilar to what Russell said to me,

When he secured the job at ING)

It could have been morality that made Burns stay,

Or the fact that he had 3 bairns on the way.

2 by his wife, and one by his maid

In the end, he never set sail for the Jamaican slave trade…

But I wonder what works he would have produced,

Or how many more lassies he would have seduced…

No matter how much of the world you choose to roam,

Scotland stays in the heart and will always be home.

This year, we’ve swapped haggis for chorizo and whiskey for wine,

But seeing you all is affa fine.

Kenny has brought us all together,

For tradition and music, a laugh, and a blether.

And to celebrate Burns across the miles,

After a tough year of tribulations and trials.

And we may not know his work by heart,

But we’ve all been able to do our part.

So, here’s to family, health, good times old & new,

To Scots at home, and Scots abroad too.

Language appreciation:

Live life with zest!

Live life with zest!

Confidence is key! It took 10 months and a worldwide pandemic for this to really sink in.

What was the point of setting myself these language challenges if I was going to approach them so self-consciously? Why did I stutter over words I had memorised just before I left the house? Or break out in a sweat if I misunderstood a question asked by a shop assistant? Sometimes I felt like I was the only person ever to be confronted by these obstacles when learning. Spoiler: I wasn’t.

They say that when you move abroad, you leave part of your personality behind, and become a different person. I have heard this A LOT. You have left your family, your friends and a lot of what makes you “YOU”. You have opted to put distance (2,500 km in my case) between the familiar (the safe) and the new (the scary) in order to experience, learn and grow.

Creating a new version of yourself isn’t a bad thing but then again, I wasn’t looking to change. Maybe it’s true that some people are when they pick up their lives and move across the continent?

But whether it’s your intention or not, it is inevitable. You are constantly absorbing new information, learning cultural rules and of course, contending with daily language challenges. Your focus is altered, you become interested by new things, you develop a different routine and meet new people (all the while, on your best behaviour)! So, before you know it, you are changing.

This new version of yourself is the one you present to your new amigos and colleagues – with who, in English, you talk about the everyday and share the quirks of Spanish living. Meanwhile, in Spanish, you haven’t developed a personality at all yet!

Of everything I left behind; my loved ones, my surroundings, the rain…, there is one comfort I have overlooked and that is my native humour. I don’t think I have ever appreciated my country’s own unique comedy until I was no longer surrounded by it on a daily basis. I’m sure it’s not just a special Scottish thing, but this characteristic is one that I can rely on to help me connect, and bond with my own funny breed of people wherever I am in the world.

But you don’t “learn” humour as part of a beginner’s language course, and a lot of the time, you need to know and understand cultural reference points to join in. This will take years to learn (and years more to master). Until then, you will smile, nod and laugh in a group of Spaniards at an arranged meet-up in a bar, the lack of understanding shining through in your startled eyes (regardless of how many glasses of ‘wine-for-courage’ you’ve had)!

Humour helps to shape your personality and you can seem a little vacant without it! Could this be one of the many reasons that might explain why I have found myself slinking around, overly conscious of looking and acting like a “guiri” who doesn’t belong here?

This term, which the Spanish use to describe a foreigner of northern European descent, was first introduced to us by our Madriliño language tutor back in Glasgow. He described the “guiri” as the type who is identifiable by patchy sunburn or by the infamous socks and sandals combination. Or the one who is sporting shorts in Spring, eagerly flashing pale flesh in temperatures below a “cool” 23 degrees.

We knew at once that we were at risk of being mistaken for, or worse, recognised as a couple of “guiri’s”. But we were glad of the warning and made it our mission to shake off this reputation as soon as possible.

Despite desperately trying to embrace all things Español, we are still guilty of committing “guiri” acts on occasion – like having dinner at “normal” (UK) time or ordering patatas bravas when we are too hungry to translate a whole menu. But coming from a self-deprecating society, we have always had the humility to laugh at ourselves. We won’t forget where we came from and honestly, I would rather be “guiri” than hungry!

Then life changes, and the country comes together amidst a pandemic. We are suddenly faced with more pressing challenges than which is the correct past tense to use! Perspective is everything at this time and the sense of community and support for each other has overshadowed the things that once seemed important (like the guiri’s ability to converse fluently in Spanish)!

So, what have I taken personally from this shared national (and global) experience? Well, when the time comes that our freedom is restored, I vow to emerge with newfound confidence and a new lease of life.

We only have una vida, and I am going to live mine with zest! I am going to be ME.

Who knows, one day I might even tell my own jokes. And while we can safely assume that I won’t make it as the next Billy Connolly de España, I’m sure it will be a story worth sharing!