June 20, 2007

Greetings (again) from Scotland

Dear Family and Friends,I left New York on Saturday evening, arriving Sunday morning in Glasgow and making the one and one half hour drive east to St. Andrews with mom and friend David. This trip is a bookend; I am here to celebrate my sister Caroline’s graduation from the University of St. Andrews, just as I came nearly four years ago when she began her studies of French and Italian here.The drive from Glasgow to St. Andrews was a perfect reintroduction to the rolling farmland hills and tiny towns of Scotland and the Kingdom of Fife. I haven’t seen Caroline since winter break but as will surely surprise no one who knows her, her expertise in entertaining has not faded but most certainly improved. She greeted us at her house on South Street in downtown St. Andrews with a spread of French cheeses, Italian focaccia, Scottish salmon, and Moroccan chili paste (“I like imported things,” she says).Caroline’s house—situated ideally on one of St. Andrews’ four main streets—is a charming and spacious four-bedroom spread over three floors and includes a large kitchen and dining area, a living room overlooking South Street, and a charming garden in the backyard that can be seen from the kitchen windows. From the kitchen and beyond the garden can be seen the Medieval Society’s grassy backyard which often plays host to mock jousting and swordplay, similar to that of The Society for Creative Anachronism, which practiced on the Midway fields and Ida Noyes Hall above the Maroon offices at the University of Chicago.After indulging in Caroline’s brilliant hospitality and regaining our senses, mom and I took a walk through the town to reacquaint ourselves with its sights and history. While I have not been here for four years, Mom has visited a number of times including most recently for the fashion show that Caroline directed. (The show was covered in the Scottish tabloids of which one referred to my sister as, “New York Socialite Caroline Schiff, 21,” allowing her to check off #8 and her top-ten To Do In Life list.)St. Andrews is really a tiny town; it takes no longer than 15 or 20 minutes to walk it end to end. It is situated on a point of land sticking out east into the North Sea with the castle and ancient cemetery and cathedral remains at the eastern most point overlooking the water. Four main streets—north to south: The Scores, North Street, Market Street, and South Street—cut through the town and are dotted with stores, restaurants, pubs, and university buildings. The Scores, mostly residential with a few restaurants and hotels, sits on the cliffs above the sea and, as Caroline proudly informed me, is the most expensive street in Scotland.The town is famous for its history, its university (“Scotland’s first”), and its golf. The Old Course, with its sea-side location and ancient Swilcan Bridge, is the oldest in the world, the site where golf was played first 600 years ago. A real golfer could describe in far better detail what makes the course special still today, but from an ignorant eye, the most interesting feature is that it starts and ends in the center of town; the final green is surrounded by town streets on two of its sides. The course can be walked on Sunday when no golf is permitted in accordance with a historical decree of the king and mom and I did just that while exploring town. (Rumor has it that when my uncle visited Caroline while at a conference in Edinburgh he insisted on having his picture taken on every green. I don’t blame him; the course is stunning.) Sitting near the final hole at the edge of town is The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews at which I believe to be a member one has to be both royal and ancient.We ended our first day in St. Andrews with another phenomenal meal prepared by Caroline (vegetable risotto with parmesan cream) and retired to the garden for dessert and perfectly legal Cuban cigars. Dessert, enjoyed by everyone but me, was biscotti and Limoncello liqueur for sipping and dipping. The Limoncello was left over from the fashion show and was provided as part of sponsorship deal that Caroline impressively negotiated. Everyone seemed to like it while to me it was pretty vile stuff. Then again, that is what people often say about the Scotch I like so much. We sat and talked until we were shocked, after glancing at our watches, to find that it was after 11pm and still broad daylight out. Scotland is really quite far north and during this time of year, the sun sets closer to 11:30pm and rises just shortly after 4am.On Monday David led us on a great bike ride through the coastal region north of St. Andrews. We set out parallel to The Old Course (and then passed The New Course built oh-so-recently in 1895) and then headed north through Fife’s rolling hills of farmland passing cows, sheep, and horses, including some very impressive Clydesdales, along the way. To my delight, we passed the Leuchars Royal Air Force base and saw (and heard) jets careening through the sky above. We reached as far north as the Tentsmuir Forest—a deeply wooded and damp region shaded by huge trees—and the impressive beach between it and the shore. From where the tree line ends to the water must be a couple hundred yards of rolling dunes and sandbars that offer a staggering view of the coastline.On the way back, mom and I stopped in for a drink at the Guardbridge Inn and visited an ancient church and graveyard that we came across. The church, built in 1184, had an interesting timeline placing the history of the structure in context with a more general history of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Most interesting to me personally was the mention of the first evidence of a Jew in Scotland: Abraham of Edinburgh who in 1174 lent 80 pounds—obviously—to Robert de Quincy who in turn played a role in building the church but was killed a few years later during the “Third Crusade in Palestine.”After returning to St. Andrews I went to a graduation barbeque in the evening for one of Caroline’s friends. As St. Andrews is nearly booked solid for graduation week, many people, including the hosts of this party, rented flats and lodgings in surrounding towns. It took us nearly half an hour to drive to Pittenween, a tiny fishing village on the coast north of St. Andrews. The hosts of the party are an incredibly interesting family. The father was previously New Zealand’s ambassador to China and so the kids all basically grew up going to an international/American school in Beijing. Caroline’s friend is going back to Beijing after graduation to study Chinese and to be near her boyfriend who is also a New Zealander ex-pat in China and was working the grill at the party. He works for FIFA planning China’s hosting of the 2007 women’s soccer world cup. After the dinner Caroline took me to a bar back in town that is “hot” right now and then to one of her famous (or infamous) after parties. St. Andrews really plays host to an incredibly international student body. Just speaking casually to Caroline’s classmates painted this picture, beginning with the New Zealander who went to school in Beijing to friends from elsewhere in the U.K., Austria, and the States. At the after party—hosted at the gorgeous apartment of Caroline’s friend from Vienna—I played in a poker game that also demonstrated the breadth of the student body. At the seven-handed table were students from England, Australia, Italy, Spain, and Norway, with myself the sole American representative, and before correct exchanges were made, there were four different currencies on the table. A funny notion that Caroline once explained to me was confirmed: despite being the exact same currency, while English pounds are accepted in Scotland, Scottish pounds are often turned down in England due to some enduring elitism.If I’m allowed to brag for a moment, I was able to finish first of the seven original players and made back nearly all the money I lost last weekend at Turning Stone Casino outside of Syracuse (long story, don’t ask). It turned out that my companions at the table were the St. Andrews Poker Club, which felt kind of cool learning after I played. Of course, had I known they were the poker club beforehand there is no way I would have sat down. The sun was rising at 4am on our way back to Caroline’s house.Tuesday was a far more relaxed day with a another wonderful afternoon drive through rolling hills and past livestock to Glamis Castle north of Dundee. Occupied even today by the 17th Earl and his family, the castle, built in the 14th Century, was never meant to serve as a strategic defense but rather as a residence and site of gatherings and entertainment and it was the childhood home of the Queen Mother. The building sits on an immense amount of farmland still in use today, although probably not by tax-paying peasants. I did get my first up-close and personal look at the famous Highland Cows, with their shaggy hair and huge horns; the babies are particularly cute as are the thousands of rabbits that hop along the Scottish countryside. Also on the grounds was a fantastic Italian garden with a stunning array of flowers and scrubs groomed into perfect symmetry.The castle itself was quite something despite seeing only a fraction of the rooms. My favorites were the library/entertainment room, which included a great collection of volumes and an old English billiards table, and perhaps most of all the main dining room with great dark wood and an expandable table that can fit 36 diners with plenty of breathing room at full length. As with many members of the aristocracy, the bulk of the inheritance is the real estate with far fewer liquid assets. Since the real estate could certainly never be sold (it would be like selling your title and discarding centuries of history), the families often resort to the proceeds from tours and hosting events—as the owners of Glamis Castle do—to offset maintenance enormous costs and gain tax benefits necessary after tough laws put in place by the Labor government.On our way home, mom, David, and I stopped at an ale house on the edge of town for a drink before dinner. Caroline recommended it to us as a place that had “locals” and “old people” and was most certainly “uncool” but that had a great selection of local ales. Needless to say, she didn’t come. It was very clearly my scene confirming yet again that I am in fact terribly uncool. We tried a few local ales—all flat as can be and pumped from barrels under the bar with a good amount of muscle—and then headed home for yet again another great home-cooked Caroline meal. This time she made pizza from scratch with mozzarella and parmesan cheese, tomatoes, onions, and garlic.I crashed shortly after dinner and slept like a baby until a bit after 5am when the sun and the freezing cold air from a raining Scotland day woke me up. I’m writing this on the couch in Caroline’s living room watching and listening to the rain falling while everyone else seems to still be asleep.Before returning home on Saturday (for less than 24 hours before my next adventure), I’ll hopefully do more biking, visit Edinburgh, and of course attend all of Friday’s graduation festivities including a garden party and a ball (oh, yes…I brought the tux).