I should have been born in a warmer climate, but then I wouldn’t have been Scottish, and I rather like being Scottish – especially at present when politics here are amazingly interesting, though often also hair-tearingly frustrating.
The thrill of the new, the appeal of the different, whether chatting with people from other countries exchanging stories of families and customs, how to cook a particular dish, or experiencing different surroundings. All reasons why I have enjoyed the many trips that over the years we have managed to make to other European countries.
Scotland has always had close links with Europe — in trade across the continent and with the Baltic states; the Auld Alliance with France (Scots at one time enjoyed dual citizenship); through travel to Dutch universities and to the Scots colleges in Rome, Paris Valladolid and Madrid.
I suppose my fascination with Europe began with my first French teacher, a Francophile who sang us French songs, recounted stories about stays in France, took us on trips to a cinema which showed French language films, and invited a few of us to his home to spend afternoons with his artist wife and two daughters. His passion for all things French sent me to a newsagent in the main station where I knew French magazines could be bought.
I started writing to a French pen pal, introduced by the daughter of a friend of my mother who was teaching in France. We wrote of our families and our lives, about school and what we did at the weekends. We swapped recipes and sent one another presents at Christmas.
My interest was further fuelled when in my final year of school I went on a school trip to Germany, travelling by bus down through England and across the Channel by ferry. I can still remember how excited I was to hear, as we landed, people on the quay speak French. With bleary eyes and stiff limbs we took in the sights of Brussels as we drove through, exclaiming at shop fronts, street signs, wrought iron balconies. And then the long haul to Aschaffenburg in Bavaria, near Frankfurt on Main. I don’t remember much of the town, though I have memories of a dance platform in a forest with German couples hopping about to oompah music, lanterns strung through the trees and a pungent smell of beer and pine needles. I also remember being taken to the home of a German girl to be introduced to her parents and grandfather who mumbled about his time in the war.
We went on a boat trip down the Rhine, exclaiming at the fairytale castles perched high above its banks, heard about the destruction caused by bombing during the war.
My mother-in-law was a French and German teacher and the house was often full of people from European and other countries.
Then came holidays in the former Yugolsavia, first in the north in Bled and on one of the islands, then in Budva from where we travelled to Dubrovnik and on a memorable day trip into Albania. It was the first time for years the border had been opened and it was like stepping back several centuries.
People wearing mainly black stared in awe at our cotton summer dresses and cheap cameras as if luxuries far beyond their hopes.
Dire food, swarms of bluebottles, stinking toilets, and shops with mud floors are some of my memories, along with newish houses riddled with bullets.
Last year in Greece we chatted with an Albanian waiter at a restaurant and he assured us things had changed dramatically since then and Albania was now a modern country like others in Europe.
Travelling around Scandinavia gave us the opportunity to talk with Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, and even Swedes further north when we drove up through the country to Jokkmokk in Swedish Lapland. It was a few days after midsummer so didn’t get dark, the sun merely dipped briefly below the horizon before rising again. The family was all out frolicking around on the grass at two o’clock in the morning. And we saw reindeer. In fact it was difficult not to see them as they lay in the middle of the road reluctant to move for traffic, and when they did they ambled along, their large-hoofs swinging on the end of their legs like bells on ropes.
In Cyprus people (mainly Greeks as we were in the Greek south and most Turks had fled to the Turkish north) were eager to talk to us about the partition of the island, how it had rent their communities as many of their friends and neighbours had uprooted themselves. In Nicosia we came up against the Green Line, the United Nations buffer zone patrolled by UN troops with whom the son of a friend served for a time. At that time it was difficult to enter the north so we were enthralled to hear of his trip across the line into Famagusta. After so many years discussions on reunification are now underway.
From Cyprus we also did a weekend trip to the Holy Land. Quite an experience what with Mossad, Israeli security, minders, visiting places revered by millions around the world, an Elvis Presley themed café where any major currency was accepted (with change in any currency you wished), young Arab kids who begged for money in all the major languages, and Arabs with camels whose persuasion changed from wheedling to threatening harassment in the blink of an eye. That was scary.
That was the start, and more recent visits to European cities and holiday spots have merely strengthened my bonds.
But now we are faced with being taken out of the European Union – Brexit. True, we’ll still be European, but somehow being members of the EU gives us a closer bond, ties that link us together culturally and economically, in trade as well as in friendship. Being part of the EU has brought us better lives through social legislation, quality standards for goods and toys, as well as greater choice of foods in our supermarkets and environmental protection with the ability to tackle global issues as part of a large group of countries.
The vote in the UK as a whole was to leave the EU, but in Scotland the vote was overwhelmingly to remain. Being out of the EU will decimate our economy, with fishing and agriculture hit so hard their survival will hang by a thread. So, like those bloggers in America who face the future under a new president with trepidation, Scotland waits to see what will happen, whether some deal can be done to keep Scotland in the EU, whether we will have another independence referendum which could take us out of the union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and let Scotland remain in Europe as a replacement 28th country.