Circling in the air above the city of Glasgow, Scotland before landing, I was surprised at how much the surrounding countryside reminded me of Western New York. Clusters of houses sit here and there against a background of gently rolling, green hills. From the air, the landscape outside of the city looks mostly like farmland; just like the areas surrounding Buffalo, New York. As it was winter, there was a low cloud deck and a constant drizzle was falling. Everything looked cold, wet and not the least bit exotic.
From the sky I could see tiny cars racing down streets between the various clusters of buildings below, and something about this particular detail was a sure the tip-off that I was not in the US. First of all, round-a-bouts punctuate the roadways. This is something quite rare in the US where they would probably be considered an impediment to our freedom to get from point A to point B in the shortest, most efficient period of time. Secondly, the cars were all traveling on left side of the street; the “wrong” side from an American perspective.
I was not in the US. I was touching down in Glasgow, Scotland. This was the birthplace of my mother. It was where my mother met and married my father. It was where my sister was born. It was a place that I visited regularly as a child, but which always felt foreign, exotic and somewhat antiquated to me. It was a place that my parents referred to as “the old country.” Now that my parents are both dead and gone I have, bit by bit, developed a desire to understand this place better. This “old country” is now something new to me.
When I was a kid, I did not understand the fascination that some of my peers had with foreign countries and cultures. It struck me as weird and even a bit embarrassing. We were Americans, after all. We lived in a “melting pot” where our differences were supposed to be distilled away and we were meant to focus on how we were similar, not different from others. Perhaps this was an attitude encouraged by the fact that my parents were immigrants who were chronically aware of how much they stood out and were different from those that we lived alongside.
My mother spoke with an accent that marked her as Scottish, and my father spoke with a heavy Polish accent. As a kid, I was aware of the discomfort some people had around my father. I often got the feeling that they were scared of him, and that they thought he was an unrefined brute . My father was a gardener, and when we moved into a nice, upper-middle class California neighborhood when I was about 7 years old, some of our neighbors were quite puzzled as to how a manual laborer could afford to live side-by-side doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professionals. I presume that this arrogance bothered my dad, but it was my mother who was most vocal about her annoyance.
My mother got along well with most of the neighbors, but the veneer of civility was thin. During the first Gulf War, when I was serving in the Army and my mother was afraid I might be mobilized, she got into a verbal altercation with a pro-war neighbor in the supermarket who finally yelled at her, “Go back to wherever it is you came from!” Even after spending the largest part of her life in America, her accent gave her away. She was different, and that meant she couldn’t fully be trusted.
So maybe it was this type of experience, and the fact that my parents left the “old country,” thus rejecting it, that encouraged me to avoid too much fascination with non-American places and people. I’m sure it is more complicated than just that; but I’m just as certain this describes at least part of the dynamic that played a role in the development of my psychology. Nonetheless, up to the present day, lying behind all of this manifest indifference to other cultures there has also always been something else lurking: a longing to understand how I came to be me, and to understand how far back I can trace the influences that have contributed to my own obsessions, quirks and preoccupations.
My first inkling that Scotland was a good starting point for exploration of this sort occurred to me when, about 6 years ago, I traveled with my mother back to Glasgow. It was her last trip home before her death a few years later, and as we wandered the city, she pointed out the places where significant events in her life had occured. She showed me where she attended the “School of Domestic Sciences” and where she held her first job after graduating. We saw the hall where she went dancing on the weekends, and the movie theatre where my father took her to see Polish films that she could not understand. She showed me where my father lived before they met and we drove past “Rottenrow,” the hospital where my sister was born. (To this day my sister can’t stand the name of that hospital!) We went to my grandfather’s old neighborhood in Possilpark, now a veritable slum populated by rival gangs and drug addicts. We also scrutinized the inscriptions on a monument dedicated to WWI war casualties, looking for my grandfather’s name. Family mythology had it that my grandfather had been mistaken for dead after being hit with mustard gas and that his name had ended up here. As it turns out, like so many family tales, this was not true. My grandfather was hit with mustard gas, his face horribly burned and disfigured, but his name does not appear inscribed on the memorial.
The experience of traveling with my mother sparked a realization in me. This “old country” was still a part of my mother, and thus it was also a part of me. There was too much family history here for me to make a clean break. So when my sabbatical leave was granted this year, I proposed a line of research that would not only be academically interesting, but one that would afford me the opportunity to spend some time in Scotland – and Glasgow in particular – in order to get in touch with the culture of the place, and hopefully to understand myself a bit better in the process.
More to come…