Keep Your Distance

One of a miscellany of short observations from a trip to Scotland.

Psst!  Does ‘mean’ mean ‘cheap’?

Listing to his left, the psst-ing American to my right is being thoughtful, not rude.  Our host, the umpteenth baronet of something-or-other, is doing what he loves: telling stories.  It seems a shame to stop him in full flight for an explanation of a single unfamiliar word, so my travelling buddy looks around for help in translating between this Brit’s usage and his own.  And there I am—a Canadian!—sort of halfway to being British, in his view.  What could be better?   

Does ‘mean’ mean ‘cheap’?

The usage has come up in a story about an elderly maiden aunt—congenitally elderly, from the sound of it—and a way of life entirely foreign not just to the Americans in the room but to me as well.  Its foreign-ness, after all, has less to do with nationality than with old money.  It’s a world I’ve read of in novels but never encountered in the flesh.  Titled and entitled families.  Family estates and family retainers, almost equally ancient.  And sometimes, against all reasonable expectation, a touch of meanness in folks who can well afford not to be.

Does ‘mean’ mean ‘cheap’?

Keeping my eyes on the show, I smile, nod, and hiss back in turn.  Yes.

It’s a good show: polished.  Even if I didn’t know that this was part of the Sunday routine with new crop of visitors, I would know that he’d done it many times before.  Do I detect more than polish – a little jadedness, perhaps?  Lord knows, if I had to deliver the same-old lecture and tour of my house most weekends from March to October, I’d be polished as well as jaded by mid-September too.

Since arriving at this family-home-cum-environmental-centre, the Big Guy and I have both noticed a certain standoffishness in our host.  Not rude, heavens no.  Just no peer-to-peer communication, no sense of connection.

Is it the old money?  His social circle includes Charles and Camilla, and we’re well outside that group, that’s for sure.

Is it that noted British reserve, standing out sharply against the ‘aye, lassie’ backdrop of the locals?

Is it the inevitable difference in perspective between professional hosts and amateur guests?  I saw similar behaviour in my host family in Guatemala, lo these many years ago now.  They were unique for me; I was just one of a here-today, gone-tomorrow horde.

Or is he just happier dealing with unavoidable strangers at arm’s length?  I’ve seen this performance mode before in introverts, including myself.

In our own ways, the Big Guy and I have both tried to cross the divide.  My own failure is not too surprising—this is not my forte.  But the Big Guy can connect with anyone, anywhere.  His failure makes it obvious to me where the problem lies, if problem it be.

As we move on to another room in this quirky house and to another story, I think back to a story from the morning’s lecture.  A neighbour of forty years’ standing died a while back and the clan was gathered in to attend the funeral.  His wife—a Highlander born and bred—was invited, but he was not.

Could you go, even without an invitation?  Thank goodness someone had the nerve to ask what I was wondering.

Oh yes, he replied.  But even after forty years, I’m not one of the tribe.

Maybe humans have endless reasons for, and ways of, maintaining their distance.  After just a few days on the ground, it’s not surprising that we’re not the umpteenth baronet’s peers.  After all, after forty years on the ground, he’s not even a Scot, much less a Highlander.

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4 Comments

  1. Jim taylor

    Intriguing thoughts…. A now-deceased classmate of mine from India, like me the child of missionary parents, thought of herself as she was growing up as being Indian. She spoke Hindi fluently; she could read and write the Devangari symbols; she knew the Mahabharata…. After all, she had never known anything but Indian culture. She got a rude shock when her indigenous friends told her that her Indian identity was just “pasted on.”
    I’ve lived in this small rural community for almost 20 years. I’ve become an old-timer. But compared to those who were born and schooled here, I still feel “pasted on.”

    Jim T

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Jim – I didn’t think of it when I was writing it, but it turns out this is not a new theme for me. The question of where you think you’re from is the flip side of whether other people accept you as one of their own. I wonder whether everyone feels, well, ‘rejected again’ as the old song goes, as they wander through their lives and the various communities on which they impinge.

  2. Also an immigrant (from America), lo these 40+++ something years, I still remember the phrase describing myself, though not unkindly I thought at the time, and others who take citizenship in Canada. We were called “paper citizens”. One way to put it.

    Having been here since 1965, I don’t feel especially “Canadian” until I go to America and realize I’m now an alien there.

    But as for fitting into my city and condo and workplace (such as it is being self-employed), I do feel accepted and most people seem surprised to learn that I wasn’t born Canadian. But that is a generously Canadian way of acting, isn’t it. Kindly. Not revealing shock or dismay or much emotion at all — to a person you’ve just met. It is restful. And a tad boring. Still. I love living here. It’s a great country.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Ah – you can’t go home again. (Well, you can go back to where it was, but it’s usually moved. As have you.) I swear that some Scots sound more Scottish after 30 years in this country than they did when they got off the boat/airplane. If that’s not trying to maintain some distance of their own, I’ll be surprised. (But I won’t say anything to their face.)

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