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!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Would you, could you feed a man, with half a cookie in your hand?

giving,donating,begging,panhandling,compassion,god perspective

I just miss the green light at the intersection turning into the mall where I am scheduled to take my first one-on-one class with an Expert at the Apple Store. I am a recent Macbook convert and need a little training.

As I roll to a stop the half-eaten chocolate chip cookie I had for lunch slides off the passenger seat. There's a homeless man on the median strip with a cardboard sign in his hands. He is shabbily dressed, missing some teeth, and walks with a bad limp. As I grab the fallen cookie it occurs to me that I could open my window and give it to him, but I am just ahead of his line of sight so I'd have to yell at him to get his attention. Although I typically ignore (with some guilt) the people who beg in the middle of the street, I feel an extra measure of pity for this man. He looks to be older than middle age (although it can be hard to tell sometimes when life has been cruel to a person) and his limp adds to what I perceive as vulnerability.

I have mixed emotions about giving hand-outs to people begging. On the one hand, doesn't it encourage them to continue begging if they are successful? I feel like a snob, but I can't say that I agree that begging is a solution to a really horrible problem. And there is no way to know what they really spend their "donated" money on: is it food or drink or drugs or ...? If I give them money I might just be helping to feed a bad habit, but then again, who am I to judge? If they really need food, why don't they go down to the local food bank or homeless shelter, places my husband and I donate both money and goods to throughout the year. Then there's the cynic in me that wonders if the person begging really needs a hand-out in the first place. Is it possible that this is just the easiest way to make a buck when they could earn an honest day's wages if they put their mind to it? On the other hand (I seem to have a lot of hands), these days with so many people out of work and hurting financially, it's harder to convince myself that getting a job is a realistic option for some, and I know that even food banks and shelters are struggling to keep up with the demand for their services. But is participating in the ever-growing popularity of begging the answer? Obviously, I am of two minds about this.

The light stays red as I sit there holding the cookie, giving me time to consider. It's only a half-eaten cookie, but it represents a whole lot more than that to me. It would be a reversal of my earlier decision about not responding to a panhandler on the street. And what if a half-eaten cookie offended him, like is that the best I can do? But why would I care - he's begging afterall. Then again, it might be the nicest treat he enjoys that day. What if the light turns green as I'm trying to get his attention and the driver in the car behind me gets frustrated by the delay and starts honking, making me feel foolish. Dear God, forgive me, but these are the thoughts racing through my head.

Finally the light turns green and I'm off the hook. I put the cookie back on the seat and drive on, putting the whole scene out of my mind as I deal with inattentive drivers ahead of me in the parking lot.

After my class driving home I feel hungry and reach for the cookie. I take a bite and remember then that I almost gave it away. I feel badly that I didn't. What if that man was an angel, sent from God to test me? If so, I failed miserably. I let my cynicism and logical thinking get in the way of my compassion. 

But what if he was just an ordinary man? There's a verse in the Bible, Matthew 25:40, that says, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'  And the converse, in verse 45, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' If he was an ordinary man and not an angel, I still failed miserably, and for the same reasons.

The question for myself is, what will I do the next time? Today, right now, I can say that I will be bolder, but when the time comes, I honestly don't know.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...