We’re not going to make it. we’re not going to make it, we’re not going to make that train…
The train from London to Edinburgh was supposed to leave us a 19 minute chance at Edinburgh to catch our North Berwick-bound train. Instead, the trail pulled in 11 minutes late leaving us only eight minutes to transfer. We jumped off the train and hustled past many coaches to collect our checked bags from the front of the loooong train. Platform 4 was just across the way and we raced as fast as we could with six rolling duffels, six backpacks, a bag full of snacks and a camera bag towards the awaiting train. We crossed the station’s street running towards the train and as we gathered everyone just outside the train door—it closed before us. There was a kind of collective gasp. Then we noticed the “door open” button and pushed it to see if we still had a chance. Amazingly, the doors flew open, and we threw ourselves and our bags onto the train. The doors closed behind us and the train left shortly thereafter—we’d made it by about 90 seconds.
Arriving into North Berwick 30 miles from Edinburgh, we walked down the platform towards town. The cry of seagulls greeted us and the fresh air of the sea filled our lungs. We expected to get the keys from a couple who lived in the apartments near the station. I could see a lady watching the spectacle of us leaving the platform. She came out of the apartment office door and caught us in the parking lot, “You look like who I’m expecting.” She smiled. Our name was on the envelope but she didn’t ask for our name or ID. In this town, you just know. North Berwick is about 6,000 people strong.
We drag the bags down the sidewalk of North Berwick’s High Street. It is nearly dinnertime and we are on the lookout for food. We don’t pass any grocery stores but do see a kebab shop. The wheels of our duffels announce, “We’re here!”
Our flat is in the heart of this small beach town above an art supplies shop called the Rock & Bird. We look right down High Street and its dozens of shops and cafes.
Our door is about 100 yards from the beach of the Firth of Forth, also known as the large bay of the North Sea that Edinburgh is nestled alongside further west.
We drag the bags up the exterior stairs and fly around the place exploring our home for the next two weeks.
There is, incredibly, an espresso maker and several kids’ movies. Everyone has a bed and we’ll be sharing a bathroom. The shower is the afterthought kind added above a bathtub with the glass half door that lets you shower the bathroom floor a bit as you shower yourself. But it is all good, everything is warm, bright and as advertised. Even, “Dad, there’s a Wii!”
It had been an interesting travel day, earlier in the day we’d had a 45 minute tube ride from Wimbledon Station to Kings Cross station to meet our train to Edinburgh. We transferred fine and wrestled our bags around Londoners. All of us grateful it was not rush hour. But two stops away from Kings Cross the train was stopped due to a signal failure at Kings Cross. With all of our bags, we decided to give it a few minutes to see if they’d get it working again rather than take two extra tube transfers in London’s Underground with our party of fun. But a few announcements later, the tube driver “strongly encouraged” passengers to try another line and we were outta there like a trick or treater after grabbing his candy.
We made the two tube transfers amongst more crowded trains and arrived into Kings Cross station. Kings Cross is one of the older stations and a massive thoroughfare and as the name implies, a public transit intersection for underground, trains, buses, overground trams, elephants, who knows what goes on at this monstrosity.
The place was packed. Then it struck us that this was the first day of “half-term.” The Brits do six weeks of school, a week off, then six more to complete the term. Three of these make up their school year. They stick to this schedule from age 5 to when they graduate their high school years. The week in-between is the “half-term.” Advertisements everywhere remind parents to escape with their families to Mallorca or fill-in-the-blank sunny destination. Huge lines at the ticket counters flowed over into the self-service machines. We had our train tickets in hand but I’d need to brave one of these lines to get our pounds back from our Oyster card (the ‘pay as you go’ travel pass).
We stood and craned our necks to see when our train platform would be assigned. The family was situated watching the screens—kids lounging amongst the nest of bags—and I ran back downstairs to get in the long line to get our deposit back from the transport cards. The line was not any shorter but it appeared to be moving. The wait paid off and I ran back to the family. The boys and I shouldered our way to the bathrooms and past the queue waiting to snap their photo with the Harry Potter luggage cart at platform 9 3/4. Platform finally assigned and we dashed through the waiting crowd of people for our train. Incidentally, it sadly flashes through your mind on a busy half-term travel day that you’d rather not spend a lot of time here when terrorists have already struck the London and Madrid transit systems not too long ago.
But, whew, we’d made that train at Kings Cross and are thrilled to now be dropping off the bags at our flat in North Berwick, Scotland. We’ve learned that when you’re traveling light, better get into town early enough to catch a grocery store open so you’re not picking through granola bar crumbs and bruised apples for dinner and breakfast. So down to the street we go, in search of a grocery store of some kind. The waves on the shore are loud enough to be heard on the street. The grocery store down the block is pretty small and we duck out to check other options.
On a board, above the sidewalk we spot a paper sign—“CÈILIDH”. Across the bottom is written, “music, light supper and BYOB—fun for the whole family”. It will raise money for the local cancer hospital and is being held at the local Scouts Hall tonight from 6 to 9. Must be a scouts event too. The price is only about 16 pounds for the clan. Food & music? Sounds pretty great right about now. I don’t know what a cèilidh is but I seem to remember an old 1980s Black 47 song about a “Funky Cèili” or something like that. It must have to do with a Gaelic music performance or something. Lisa is up for it and the kids look dubious.
We ask a couple walking by where the Scout Hall is and they tell us “it is not close. And quite a walk.” When we ask for more detail, they tell us it up the hill, and past the graveyard. Once we clarify, they tell us it is about a 5 minute walk. We walk off, cracking up that in this town that 5 minutes constitutes “not close”.
We find the Scout Hall by the anemic, colored balloons tied up through the door into a building of no more than 25 feet across and 40 feet deep. A man in his 80s, is seated at a table just in front of us with a cash box and raffle tickets. In the back of the warm room, there are about five large tables with chairs, paper tablecloths and about five couples who look to be in their late 70s or 80s. The kids nearly cling to our legs and seem perched for us to lead the way right on out of here. Another man is fiddling with a stereo system in the corner.
We pay our entrance fee and find a table. There are a few vegetables out on a side table along with pitchers of water and a stack of cheeses donated by a local cheese shop. We notice two younger women bustling about preparing the food and drinks. We idle over to an open table and throw our coats across the backs of the chairs feeling silly since it doesn’t seem like it’ll be much of a challenge to find a seat.
As we are picking out a few carrots and celery to munch on, a man walks by in red, plaid pants. An older man in a sweater walks over and introduces himself. He says he is Stewart, with that great but gentle Scottish accent. He is in his late 70s or so. He is curious if we live in North Berwick. Surprised we are not, he asks how we found out about the cèilidh (“Kay-lee”). He is also curious where we are from in the States and if we know how to Scottish dance.
“Oh, we’ll all be Scottish dancing,” he confides with a slight smile.
I hesitate to ask, “Will everyone here know how to Scottish dance?”
“Oh yes, of course they will.”
I pause, “How do people here learn how to do the Scottish dances?”
“We learn it in school,” he smiles, gently. “They always start with ‘a gay gerdens’ then it gets harder from there.”
A bunch of assumptions suddenly start flying apart in my mind.
So this is why there are only a few tables and a wide open floor. And I thought it was for the funky Scottish band that was about to show up.
Now, Lisa knows that though she loves to dance, I try to love it along with her. She is laughing at me already. The kids don’t hear everything but hear enough to be looking a cross between perplexed and a little horrified. I have flashbacks to fun but awkward sessions in Texas two-steppin’ places.
But this is travel time, our Grand Adventure—time to buck up!
We are going to get our Scottish dance shoes on and rock this place. I guess. Right now, they look like Asics running shoes straight from the train station, but whatever.
The place begins to fill up as the young families start to show up. Kids are all over the place now. The older folks are safely ensconced in the back of the room. Families and older folks alike have their bottles of wine and boxes of Tennent’s Special Ale or John Smith’s Ale.
A balding, paunchy man sidles out from the stereo system corner with a microphone. You can hear some of it above the din and he welcomes everyone to the dance floor. Stewart kindly urges us out with his wife. The kids watch us from the safety of the table’s folding chairs. The man with the microphone, the caller, is apparently speaking English but it’s hard to tell. There are about six couples out there and a whole lot more watching. The caller—among a lot of Scottish words?—says something about ‘spinning here’ then ‘walk this way’ and then something about ‘if you know how to do the polka-barrel polka you just do that’ as he’s demonstrating with his wife. He makes a lot of eye contact with us though, as if he knows something. And we’re off! We all dance in a circle and I remember spinning Lisa around to walk her backwards.
Then Stewart and everyone else changes directions and I nearly take him and his wife out like a linebacker.
Whew! Narrowly avoided a massive collision and I start wondering how spry Stewart would fare in a full-on crash onto the dance floor. I try to keep a little distance between us but then the next couple is right on my 6 o’clock. Then, it’s over and we escape back to the table.
Ana said, “Good job Mom and Dad!” Luke said, “Wow, you really didn’t know how to do that dance!”
But before you can say, ‘where’s the nearest beer shop?’, the caller is doing what he does and demonstrating another dance with his wife. I tell the kids “Shhh” as I lean around the guys drinking beer to see what the caller is trying to say. I tell Lisa I’ll give her $5 if she asks if the caller’s instruction comes with subtitles.
Then we’re back out there, hardly any of the couples our age join us, we do another dance that involves spinning your partner and then you turn and face each other, clap you and your partner’s right hands together three times, then your left hands, then both, then onto your own thighs then spin her around again. And now we’re into going onto the next partner. Sweet.
It’s over again and we escape back to the table. The kids are watching us carefully from their perches at the table. Lisa has a great idea, “For every dance you do, we’ll give you a pound.”
Now they’re motivated—God bless capitalism, and parental desperation. We get the kids out there and I dance with Ana next. Will and Camille are paired up and I hope this all works out.
[getting set up for another dance…if you look closely, you can see a guy in a kilt holding a beer by the food table]
Everyone is all smiles. And we’re off into another new dance. And no one ends up crashing onto the floor!
The next dance involves grabbing the ladies’ right arm and going past her to meet the next lady and so on till you meet the eighty-year-old lady. Then you spin your partner and do some kind of walking around the circle before sending her back in to the middle with the rest of the ladies to clap then return to the circle. Then the guys walk in, and clap, then back out to the circle. Sometimes I dance with Lisa or Ana or Camille and sometimes not. One time I end up spinning a 6-year-old boy. Everyone is laughing. I never hear the names of any of the dances we are doing.
We get back to the table and grab a drink of water and the kids’ eyes are wide and smiling. They all want to talk at once. Then he calls out just the kids to the dance floor. Our peeps nearly have to be pried off the table but they get back in there, aided by the cash incentive. There are about 25 kids out there. And the caller directs them into the chicken dance! No problem with that one. After this, the dance floor devolves into a melee of children playing and wrestling. This gives us time to notice that two guys and a boy are wearing kilts. Lisa asks me what the ‘purse’ thing is in front of their kilt and I tell her to keep her eyes off other men’s purses… The girls each walk up to us and say, “The men really do wear skirts here!”
A little boy has snuck a balloon into the men’s restroom and is trying to return to the dance floor after filing it with water. His sharp-eyed momma quickly breaks up the little revolutionary plot.
The ladies have the food table ready and it’s a choice between mac and cheese or “stokies”. I am sure none of these names are correct, it is loud in here. We hear the “stokies” are mashed potatoes, meat and fat. It’s delicious.
And now it’s raffle time. The caller yells out the numbers and they’re really high as we’d purchased them early in the evening. The raffle prize pile grows smaller as people keep picking the wine, chocolate and beers we were eying. Near the end of the remaining prizes, he calls one of our numbers and I go up, suddenly realizing I’m accompanied by all four kids. I don’t think they wanted to miss a thing. They’re down to a few items left and a lady hands me just what everyone needs when trying to pack light for a trip around the world—a floral cake stand!
I guess everyone else picking their prizes must not have seen this beauty—suckers!
Then back onto the dance floor, as Lisa wants to do another one before we leave. This time, they ask you to come out with two partners. Turns out, six is a great family size for Scottish dancing. We are divisible by two or three! In this dance, a group of six hold hands and dance in a circle, then back the other direction. Then they break up into two groups of three. The person in the middle is supposed to dance with their two and suddenly I’m lost. Stewart is trying to tell me how to do it and then our girls are also telling me (I suppose since they are little ballerinas). We get me all taught up and we are off to the races. Each group of six breaks up into groups of three then you hold hands in a line across, stamp towards the other three and duck under their upraised hands to join the next group of three into a new circle of six.
[fish sticks taste better when elevated a few inches above the table]
We finally leave the dance floor. There are lots of smiles and no broken limbs. A few dads, are chasing a few boys back into the Scout Hall.
Yeah, welcome to Scotland. We are going to get all the use we can out of this cake plate then sell it for big bucks and help finance our trip!