Wednesday, September 26, 2012

An American in Edinburgh Scotland

Years ago, my husband went on vacation with his father to England and Scotland. One thing he marveled at was how civilized, orderly and polite everybody was in public in all parts of the U.K. Nobody honked their horns at other drivers, people created neat, single-file lines, or queues, whenever there was a group waiting for entrance to something, including the bus. There was no huddle of mankind moving  en masse towards a door like we do here in the States. 

Typically, we Americans are polite about not crowding our way to the front (I said typically - there is always an exception), but can you picture us getting ready to get on a plane, for instance, creating one long, snaking line rather than the group exodus from the terminal onto the entrance ramp? Doesn't happen. We move as one squirming, disorganized organism until each person is eventually dumped into the opening and disappears. Unless there are ropes denoting a single-file line, you rarely see Americans voluntarily lining up, one behind the other. It works for us and usually it's not a problem. We don't think anything of it. But, try that technique in the U.K. and you end up looking ill-bred, rude and greedy, to the point where your mother's reputation could be called into question (although nobody would voice this opinion out loud).

My husband and I have traveled to Scotland twice, the last time just this past May. Our first trip in 2009, we either cabbed around town or walked, but this last trip we decided that riding the City's bus would be almost as convenient as cabbing, and a lot less money. We were right. It was very convenient and it was also a lot of fun riding the bus with locals including school children and a number of senior citizens running their errands. Unlike Sacramento, where I live, buses in Edinburgh run routes frequently and take you practically anywhere you want to go.

edinburgh, scotland, bus, transit, transportation, american, culture

One of our first forays into the world of Edinburgh public transit found us at a busy bus stop. While waiting for a bus to arrive, the locals look and act just like anyone else: some people were sitting on the bench in the little sheltered area, others leaning on the sign posts, and some, like us,  just standing in the general vicinity of the bus stop. But when the bus pulled up, just like a well choreographed skit, everybody turned or stood up where they were and, voila! They formed a queue. 

If my husband and I had attended rehearsal instead of going out for haggis, we would have known what to do at the stop when our bus pulled up. I mean, if you're already standing and you just happen to be smack in front of where the bus doors open (accidentally, I might add) even though you arrived at the stop much later than the others, what's the protocol? Do you fold into the line behind people, or go to the very end, or decide that this is your lucky day and you're first? I was stumped, but I passively decided to just stay put (mistake #1) and turned to face the bus's open door rather than wandering down the line. A sturdy little woman with a head scarf and a folded umbrella standing next to me, the "real" first person in line, was obviously a local and knew the score. I decided I would try to offset mistake #1 by following her lead and not crowding my way onto the bus. I tried to act nonchalant.

As the bus unloaded, I stood back far enough to make room so people could pass by unimpeded. I certainly didn't want to play the role of Ugly American. At a break in the exiting stream of people, My Local Lady and the bus driver exchanged meaningful looks. I waited. The bus driver then said, "Now?" Slowly shaking her head she said firmly, "Not yet." Obviously, this was a little game they shared. I was intrigued. A few more passengers were then deposited onto the sidewalk. The trickle of riders coming out of the bus seemed to have dried up, but still nobody on the street moved toward the door. I was becoming confused. 

A fleeting thought that maybe I had misread the entire scene and all these people standing so orderly on the street were not even going to get on the bus after all, caused me to make mistake #2. In my anxious mood (I tend to get overly panicky in foreign countries), I pictured the bus closing its doors and rumbling down the street without us. I then committed the Big Faux Pas: I boldly made a move to get on the bus. My Local Lady said loudly and with certainty, "Not yet." Knowing that she had been speaking to me, I turned to face her and she said with her thick Scottish accent, "We don't get on till everyone has gotten off." (She could've added "you idiot", but she didn't.) I looked back up into the bus and sure enough a few more people made their way down the aisle and plopped out onto the sidewalk. The woman was psychic.

I decided that I had embarrassed myself enough, as well as reflecting poorly on American etiquette, and just waited, trying to look humble. I had been chastised and figured I would pay my penance by boarding last. However, a lovely man, third in line, gallantly stepped back a bit before entering the bus, gesturing with his hand that I was to go ahead of him. Blushing and relieved, I smiled and tried to sound as grateful as I felt as I thanked him.

So what, you may ask, was my husband doing this whole time rather than saving me from myself? Probably standing back, laughing. I've never had the nerve to ask. Since then, I have pretended that the incident never happened. 

Bus? What bus?

edinburgh, scotland, bus, local transit, transportation, etiquette, tourist
Do not attempt to board a bus with this woman!

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