Thursday, 24 January 2013

Breaking the ice


I used to occasionally see a woman at my old bus stop who always stood well away, almost around the corner.  She never stood any closer and always looked into the opposite direction, as if she either did not wish to see...or be seen.  She did not look like my idea of a misanthrope (somehow, I expect the signs of misanthropy to be etched upon the features, like suffering), but nor was it ever possible to make eye contact, never mind do that non-committal, half-nod that says, ‘I recognise you but let’s not invade each other’s space’ that we Edinburgh commuters seem to like to affect.

In the past few weeks I have seen her at my current stop a few times, standing a couple of yards away, like someone not ready to fully commit to the whole idea of getting on the bus.  She does not stand (or perch on what passes for a bench) in the shelter, but instead stands out on the pavement in the cold, mean, mid-winter rain. 

Because she generally reaches the stop before I do, I say good morning as I pass... but I don’t slow down, in case I frighten her off.   One morning she smiles.  Another morning she says ‘hello’ back.  Finally, as it so often does, the weather prompts the first conversational exchange--ice as ice-breaker, as it were.  

She does not speak English very well which is why, I assume, she has held herself apart.   Magda* is Polish and looks like an assembly of circles--especially in the winter time when she is wearing a puffa jacket, knitted beanie, mittens and clumpy boots.  She has a round face, round eyes and round cheeks--even a round little mouth that shapes itself in an ‘o’ when she speaks--and a smile of great sweetness that breaks as gradually but radiantly as a winter dawn.  Her eyes twinkle merrily,though her nose, if roundish, is not a cherry.  Nevertheless she is, in fact, the prototype Mrs S. Claus.  

Magda lives nearby; in fact, I am surprised I have not seen her around the neighbourhood. She works as a cleaner, though she never knows if, when or where she will be working as her boss only lets her know at the last minute. ‘Sometime he make me angry--bad pay, no work for long time, blame me for something not my fault.‘  This makes me think of the Swedish cleaning lady who was briefly infamous for driving a train into an apartment block.  It turns out it wasn't anything to do with her; on investigation it was discovered that the train drove off by itself...but that doesn’t make such a good story.

Still, Magda says, ‘it is not bad.  It is work and work is good.’

Edinburgh is good too, she asserts. Though it feels colder than Poland and she misses the snow.  ‘Snow that stays.’  Christmas here is nice, but strange, she muses.  ‘All shopping, no churching.’ 

But she is happy to be in Scotland, adding:  ‘Always I dreamed to be here, but I never thought.  Now I am.  It is...’ she pauses, searching for the words she wants.  ‘Oh, my English is so bad,’ she mutters.  ‘It’s a great deal better than my Polish,’ I interject, unhelpfully.  

‘Scotland is my fate,’ she finally says, tucking her hands into her pockets and nodding her head for emphasis.

‘What’s for you won’t go by you,’ I say brightly.  Her expression darkens.  ‘It’s what we say here,’ I explain.  She’s right to be wary--I never know whether it is meant as a promise or a threat.  It is very Scottish.  Oxymoronish.  Like a Glasgow kiss.  

The next time I see her she is back in her usual spot, away from the shelter.  She lifts her head and nods as I pass, the way you do when you live in Edinburgh. 


* I would say that names have been changed to protect the innocent, but I don’t actually know what her name is...

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

An epiphany, of sorts


A morning bus ride through Edinburgh early in January is a  melancholy journey. The streets are lined with dying Christmas trees stripped of their finery and exiled forever, lying in the gutters in various attitudes of abandonment like derelicts or fallen soldiers.  In Princes Street gardens all the bright baubles --the markets, the skating ring, the funfare--are disappearing, put away for another year.  The giant wheel is being dismantled like a cine-film run backwards—evolution in reverse.  Everywhere the lights are going out, coming down (even at The Dome on George Street, where Christmas starts before Halloween).  It is as if that interloper—joy—is being sucked out of the city as it goes on the wagon, cuts its calories,  hunches its shoulders against the long, dark weeks to come--suffering being the default setting of good Calvinists everywhere. 
Not that there isn’t a bit of masochism on Twelfth Night in other places as well—mostly to do with cold water and mostly in eastern Europe, where men either jump into lakes to try to retrieve a wooden cross, which will free them of evil spirits for the year (something that could catch on in  Edinburgh—a good ducking in Duddingstone Loch for parking wardens perhaps ) or dance in an icy river in the belief that it will ensure their health in the coming months--a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ pass as well as good clean fun.   
Water also plays a part (not unsurprisingly) in Venice where men dress up as Befana – an old woman who delivers gifts to children on Epiphany Eve-- and race each other down the Grand Canal.  Meanwhile, in Germany half a million carollers are out collecting money for children’s aid projects (there is also pastry), while in Hungary peasants (frankly I am surprised at the Guardian, calling people ‘peasants’) have their horses blessed before a race (I wonder if the priest is ever accused of nobbling a horse, blessings-wise...).  In Prague they stick to tradition with a march re-enacting the Epiphany journey of the three magi carrying their gifts to the manger in Bethlehem—complete with real camels (camels figure in Poland too, where there is cake as well).   In the Philippines the kings leave a gift in your shoes (and in Argentina, where you leave grass and a glass of water for the camels to re-fuel).
It is a feast day in many countries, with sweets and presents a common theme. There is cake in France and Belgium, Macedonia, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Lativia , Poland and New Orleans.  In Malta it’s a school holiday (and I daresay there is cake involved as well).   In Britain, we seem to have forgotten there ever was cake, other than the soiled, stale remains of the Christmas leftovers.
I think it says something that for much of the world Epiphany is a celebration while in the UK it is associated with bad luck.  If we don’t get those decorations down by Twelfth Night calamity will follow us for the rest of the year.   In other cultures it is an opportunity to be blessed; for us it is a date that requires a risk assessment.  
The sensible people of Guadaloupe deal with January by making Epiphany the first day of Carnival rather than the last day of Christmas.   Admittedly, with their Caribbean climate it probably feels like there is more to celebrate, but when I was walking home in the early hours of New Year’s Day I heard a blackbird singing its heart out at the corner of Dundas Street and Henderson Row.  I have been told the misguided bird was simply confused by the streetlights, but I prefer to think that blackbirds are trying to tell us something;  that in the bleak midwinter, perhaps the best way to deal with the dark is to sing (especially if there's cake)