Friday, June 29, 2012

And where are you from, laddie?

“Where are you from?” is a question I was often asked in Scotland.
How do I answer that?
Canada? Israel? Does it really matter what I choose? For so long, my only  travelling was short visits to Canada and back, where both Canada and Israel stake their claim to who I am.
But here, in Scotland, I was in neutral territory.


Canada would have been the simpler choice. Few people have reason to take any interest if you say  you are from Canada. Even less reason to throw stones. When was the last time Canada really pissed somebody off?

But to claim to be from Canada would be to deny so much of what I have become.

“I live in the desert,” I added.
That was a nice finishing touch, providing me with added immunity. For some reason, people living in deserts appear to be  beyond borders. Just ask Israelis who ask to have their passports stamped when they make their way south of Beer Sheva.

“You speak English really well.”
“I’m originally from Canada.”
That tended to conveniently confuse the issue. No talk about politics tonight.

Scots, as we all know, are not new to questions of identity. They have had no reigning monarch for 300  years, are no longer considered an independent country but rather a part of The United Kingdom, and their “Pound Scots” was abruptly abolished in 1707 and replaced by Scottish money similar in denomination and value to the English bank notes, although the Scottish notes are not of legal tender.

“You see that?” I was asked by one B&B owner, as a Scottish ten pound note was flashed in front of me. “We print our own money now. And it is as good as any other. But there are always a few bastards down south who refuse to take them. They will get their comeuppance.”
I have always wondered why many Scots keep old swords hanging on their walls, swords which they also keep well sharpened.

On our last day in Edinburgh, I saw a shirt that read - “I’m for Scotland, or for anybody playing against England.” That pretty well says it all, doesn’t it.

But the Scots have their own way in getting in the last word. Long ago they discovered that if you take anything that still resembles a castle,  palace, or formidable edifice - hang up a few explanations in the various rooms as to their historical importance, you can cash in for about 6 pounds a head. And, if you can display the pivotal role that this edifice once played in the struggle against English suppression of rightful Scottish national aspirations, you can get much more than that. And for a few rousing stories of time past, you can even get 4 quid a head for a few ruins of crumbling walls and stairs leading nowhere. Factor into this that many of the tourists are from England down south and ... need I say more?

Of course, the complexity of Scottish identity is not all about the English suppression. Other factors also need to be taken into account. The Picts, for instance. “Whatever happened to the Picts?” All that appears left are inscriptions on stones.

And then there are the clans. We can never forget the clans.
I envy the Scots their surnames. My last name - “Lloyd” - is of Welsh origin. But having a Welsh name isn’t anywhere as much fun as having a name of one of the clans. With a name like “Montgomery”, you get your own coat of arms (family crest), and can purchase cups, saucers, shirts, keyrings, kilts.... you name it ... all with your coat of arms proudly displayed. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find proof that you are the next legal heir to the throne of Scotland, if the throne were ever to return. So much rich historical tradition surrounding your surname and the only question I ever get about my Welsh surname is whether I have any connection to the bank. But don’t get me wrong, I am proud of my Welsh ancestry. And don’t even get me started on how we Welsh were exploited by the English.


  1. Hi David-

    Interesting post.

    I had a similar experience a few years ago, though in Singapore.

    A Pakistani woman (another high school English teacher) and I started chatting on th tour bus.

    At some point she asked me where I was from --she had already told me she was from Karachi. As I have a midwestern (American English) twang, I could easily have said Cleveland, Ohio, which is true.

    But in the end I said 'Israel.' She looked at me for a while as if puzzled, and then she said, "That's so strange. You don't look like a monster! You look like a regular English teacher! Our newspapapers don't tell us the whole story!" they say, 'ha-asimon yarad.'


  2. Addition to previous post:

    So, yes, for years I alternated between my American and my Israeli identities. And when I was in a third country, it brought the question of national identification into sharper focus!

    1. Yes, the question is almost as difficult as the one - "Why did you come to live in Israel?" Been asked that many times. I don't think I ever gave two identical answers.

  3. When we lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia years ago,before making aliya, I often thought of changing our last name from Goldstein to MacAbi- to blend in better and still retain our Jewish connection. I never did though. I guess I was afraid that someone might ask "and what clan is that"?
    Then we came here, and there was no need to blend in better.Now I need to lose my Canadian "resh" and I'll feel like a native!
    Elaine Goldstein

  4. It was suggested to me, while in the north of Ireland, to say I was from the Holy Land. "Less" political? In heart, I'm still a Yonkers girl, too. And a "desert rat"!

  5. Not sure about neutral territory in Scotland. It reminds me of the following joke which, although set in Belfast, also reflects the Scottish mindset quite accurately...
    A man is walking along the street in Belfast and is accosted by two burly young men.
    "Are you Protestant or Catholic," one of them asks him.
    Sensing trouble, he answers with a great sense of relief, "I'm Jewish".
    "Yeh, but are you Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew" was the reply...
    Andrew Wilson

    1. There is a second ending to that joke which goes as follows:
      Sensing trouble, he answers with a great sense of relief, "I'm Jewish".
      "Wow, we must be the luckiest Muslims around"

  6. Great post on a tricky subject.
    Everyone here wants to know where your from too so I guess there is no escaping it!

  7. Second that, Naomi! It always comes as a second question fired at you in Israel.
    Enjoyed reading your post, David, especially after my recent visit to Glasgow. "Bastards down south"? What about bastards across the channel or, for that matter, everywhere else in the world who won't accept the Scottish money? I feel sorry for unsuspecting tourists who are given change in Scottish pounds - they must remember their visit to Scotland fondly when they go back home :)

  8. Absolutely true! Interesting times

    Here I get asked: Where are you from? Why did you leave? (& often: Are you crazy?")
    In Canada I get asked: Where are you from? Oh, how interesting (= "are you crazy?")

    Kibbutz Nir-Oz