We were in Scotland for two weeks, presenting a play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival — the granddaddy of the festival known hereabouts as IndyFringe.
It mostly rained while we were there, but that was OK; we had good rain gear, which kept us dry as we handed out 5,000 cards to passersby in an effort to get people to see our show.
Even better than the rain gear, though, were the people we met. I doubt there is a more affable, generous or hospitable people than the Scots. This is not to say they can’t be tight-fisted or downright silly about some things — we were stiffed by a hotel manager and outcry over Scotland having its own Olympic team in 2012, a view backed by no less a personage than the Bahamas-dwelling Sean Connery, are just two examples — but, on balance, if you need someone to watch your back, you’d do worse than to have a Scotsman near at hand.
We were charmed, in a little coastal town called North Berwick, by a banner hanging over the High Street exhorting everyone to bring their own shopping bags to market. And we were blown away to discover that, on average, cars in Scotland — Fords and Toyotas and even Mercedes — get 55 to 70 mpg. Of course their gas, er, petrol, costs a small fortune, but that’s how they pay for their amazingly efficient bus system.
In short, the experience made us want to bottle the vibe we experienced in that ancient, yet utterly contemporary, land so that we could take it home and remind ourselves from time to time what the “good life” is all about.
But challenges to our mood began as soon as our plane landed in New York. The United States may be hard-pressed to come up with a coherent approach to illegal immigration, but we seem to know what to do when it comes to anyone who wishes to enter the country by legal means: Put ’em through a hazing they will never forget!
The first American official that we and our fellow passengers met was a stout woman with a blast of blister-yellow hair yelling at us to press ourselves against a cinderblock wall in the corridor leading to customs. Another harridan hollered that passengers from “Scot-berg” were to form a line to the left. The dazed Scotsman ahead of me looked back with an expression that said, “Help me!” Could the official be recommending a new deli? No, Scot-berg was her way of saying Edinburgh.
Now, I know that the crews working security are underpaid and over-stressed. But if theirs is a thankless job, it’s because they seem to go out of their way to make it so. They take crowds of sleep-deprived people, many of whom speak no English, and all but bludgeon them through what amounts to an obstacle course where there are few, if any, signs to guide you. Along the way, the possibility of losing your luggage, a stray family member or your freedom looms constantly. The fact that many of the workers overseeing this supposed process seem to get a certain oafish kick from the misery they inflict doesn’t help matters.
Note to the Indianapolis International Airport Authority: Your cool architecture and all your new art won’t mean a thing if you don’t make sure the people greeting international travelers know how to treat people like people instead of cattle.
Conversations with our newfound Scottish friends invariably turned to politics, with special emphasis on America’s coming presidential election. These chats usually started with a certain tentativeness — a little like tapping a beehive with a stick — until it was determined that, no, George Bush was not our man.
Then the floodgates opened.
Let it suffice to say that Barack Obama’s message is playing well in the land of haggis and single malt. Believe it or not, there apparently was once a time when America was thought of as a kind of beacon for fair play and human decency. Scots we met are hoping Obama might bring that back.
It’s amazing to think that a people who make a point of saying “please” and “thank you” — even when they’re disappointed — might still look to our country for inspiration. But they do. It makes you realize how much might be at stake in November. I hope we don’t blow it.