Dundee is the fourth largest city in Scotland and faces south, perching on the Firth of Tay -- just a hop, skip and a jump from the North Sea. Dundee first became a settlement when the Picts settled the area 3,500 years ago. The city is founded on an extinct volcano.
Dundonians apparently have a distinctive accent, but Rowan says that she sounds more indeterminate Perthshire. I sound just like a Southern Californian, which means that I have no accent at all. Booooring. Sigh.
The Steeple Church and the Overgate Centre
I wake at seven, and creep down to get washed and the tea brewing. I am tired. We have schlepped ourselves proud in London, and are needing a few extra hours of catch-up kip. I am chuffed with how we negotiated the city. Not one minute wasted – the spirit of the place has wound its way into my heart – every footfall bringing us closer to catching the plotline and a feel for the narrative. The fine, clean, quirky, intriguing and ever surprising Capital. Okay – we never got to Baker Street, but the pavements we plodded brought discoveries which offered as many mysterious turns and twists as they offered solutions. London is a doozy of a novel – dense and lengthy, but a bleedin’ good read, wherever you open and dip in.
I got up early and had a whispered webcam talk with my family. My husband has been great – getting up in the middle of the night to say hello and to check on me. He leaves Yahoo Messenger on, so that when I sign on it will wake him up. We have tried the webcam on my laptop a number of times. Sam, my youngest, is more interested in watching himself on the webcam – fascinated by his own image on the computer – than in talking to me. I do get some enthusiastic “I love you!”s from him. My oldest son has shaken off teenagemaledom long enough to chat for a bit. My daughter carried on a conversation from her classroom – I could see her while she typed out a conversation to me. I miss them all. Being in a different time zone is almost like being in another world. The webcam has not worked as well as I would like, but it is nice to see my tired husband, and to chat to him for a little bit before coming out in the morning.
Rowan very kindly gives me a cup of tea before I nip into the bathroom to wash up. The bathroom is small, and you have to step up into the tub. Growing up in a large family has made me a quick washer. I notice once again how long it takes for my hair to dry. At home, my rather long hair would be almost completely within a very few minutes.
Okay, so we are home, and a little tired, but happy to get going and explore Dundee a little. It is a dull day, hinting at rain. We are going to church this morning, and rush about getting ready. We have slept in a little, so are glad to discover that the service starts at eleven, rather than half-past ten, as we’d previously thought. I am all techy-glowy, having checked the service times on my phone’s internet browser.*
*this from the woman who once asked me, in genuinely puzzled tones, where the delete key was on her keyboard.
We had given the choice of church much consideration, and swapped information online. We decided on the Steeple Church in the centre of town, as I’d always felt very inclined to peep in there, and had a sense that it would suit me, and that I would feel at home. I was always way to shy to actually act on the wish, to follow in the slipstream of the pull it exacted upon me. Bob had sent me a site which had reviewed the sermon one Sunday, and had given a glowing report of the Minister’s enthusiastic delivery and thought-provoking, insightful message. “That’ll dae me”, I thought.
One thing that I wanted to do while in Scotland was to go to a local church on Sunday morning. I admit that, as a person who attends a non-denominational church, the idea of attending a service in a long-established church intrigues me. I like the sound of the Church of Scotland. It sounds substantial. Shoshana seemed interested in attending services. When I first decided to go to the UK, I started looking for a church to attend. Please don’t think that I am that diligent at home, because I am not. I admit to more than a little curiosity about going to church in Europe. I have a stereotyped vision of Europe as rather … um … secular. I wonder if I will feel at home or if there will be a sense of constraint. I wonder if I lift my hands in church that I will be deemed as extreme as if I was handling snakes here in the US. I was delighted to find a Calvary Chapel in Edinburgh and one in Stirling and I downloaded podcasts from both. The pastor in Stirling has a great accent – I can barely understand him, sometimes. We will not be able to get to Stirling, but Shoshana says that there is a nice church in town, one that she has wanted to go into many times. Curious, I ask her why she hasn’t – she seems to think that one cannot just go into a church from off the street. As a good researcher, I investigate the church online. It looks good.
We have cereal and toast for breakfast and get ready to go. Rowan’s mom has very kindly offered to watch the kids and give us time to go to church. I am wearing my long denim skirt, t-shirt and sweater, and hope that it is not too casual. We get to the town square and alight. It takes us some time to figure out what door to go into. The building is used by two different churches. This is the front.
We go around to the back and slip in just before the service starts. It was a small church, and people clearly knew each other – people stood around in little friendly clumps, talking. I am struck by the bright airy interior. The winter sunlight streams in, and the combination of the wood pews and the whitewashed walls feels like the old adobe churches in New Mexico.
There are children scattered throughout the church – they are dismissed later for children's services. There is a little boy in front of me who is engrossed in an elaborate game with a Power Ranger. There is a small girl to the left, coloring in her coloring book. Three pews up, there is a young couple with a toddler. The children are well-behaved, and quiet enough, but kid-quiet, not adult-quiet. No one seems to mind, and I relax a little more. At one point, the toddler was making a substantial amount of noise, and the strongest reaction was smiling glances. It makes me feel at home. I like seeing children in church.
The worship is a bit reserved – I did not know the songs, and I had hoped for more Christmas Carols -- but I am always hoping for more Christmas Carols. The service opens up with the message that it is the first day of Advent and a little bubble of joy wells up in me. The older children sat at the front of the church as the student minister talked about Christmas and the signs that tell us that Christmas is coming. The children enthusiastically answered questions and an Advent Candle was kindled. The student minister gave the sermon, and I liked it a lot – it was about John the Baptist, signs, and making straight crooked paths. It was thought provoking – the notion that the Spirit makes straight the crooked paths within the life of the believer. I am aware of Rowan sitting next to me, sitting a little stiffly and anxiously.
It was a little cold in the building, not freezing, but cool. About a third of the way through the service, I realize that the red pipes under the pews are warm. I am grateful for the fact that I am wearing a long skirt and toast my toes with the radiant heat. My feet and legs are in a warm tent. I think that this is very cool. I highly recommend listening to a thought-provoking sermon in a lovely church that is bright with clear winter sunlight, warming your cold feet on a warm pipe.
For those who are interested in such things, here is a little history about the church -- any inaccuracies are mine.
St. Mary's Tower is the oldest surviving building in Dundee and has been used as a watch-tower and prison. David, Earl of Huntingdon, brother of the Scottish King William (The Lion), had joined the Third Crusade to the Holy Land. On his return journey, his ship was overtaken by a raging storm, and David prayed to Heaven for deliverance. As the tempest abated, he vowed to build a Church in gratitude for his safe home-coming and in honour of the Virgin Mary. He landed on the north bank of the Tay and called the place Donum Dei (God's Gift), that name later became Dundee. (Other folks say that the name "Dundee" was adopted from the Gaelic Dùn Dèagh, meaning "Fort on the Tay".)
In the year 1190 a magnificent Church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary who thereafter became the patron saint of the town. In 1303, Dundee was attacked by the English, and the army led by Edward I (The Hammer) torched the Church, and all the town records which had been taken there for safety were carried off or destroyed. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. St. Mary's Tower is the only part of the fifteenth-century building which stands today, and is known to present-day Dundonians as "The Old Steeple". In 1547 an English force captured Dundee, fortified the Tower and used the Church for stables. In the middle of the 17th century, Dundee was besieged again, this time by the English General Monk. Being a well-fortified and thriving Royalist stronghold, Dundee withstood the siege for six weeks until the garrison and many innocent citizens were betrayed and massacred, and the Governor was ignominiously beheaded after three days heroic defence of the Great Tower of St. Mary. Periodic excavations in Nethergate unearth human skeletons and bones, probably victims of Monk's massacre.
The Steeple Church has a very long and impressive history, dating back to the twelfth century. Part of the original building still stands. We slip inside, and are warmly greeted and given the bulletin, and we take a pew. The student Minister is giving the sermon today. He speaks well, and spends time talking to the group of young people at the front. He asks the teenagers what sort of indications are there that Christmas is coming, and a smart lad retorts (hand up politely) that the most common one is all the Christmassy stuff coming into the supermarket in September. There is a ripple of gentle laughter from the other members of the congregation.
The interior of the church is fairly austere, with a red and gold banner each side of the pulpit, a small macramé hanging in stripes of vibrant pinks and reds, and a simple wooden cross the only decoration. In front of the left side of the church, is a bold golden eagle, supporting a large book, which I assume is a Bible. The walls are white, and the windows huge open arches, reaching high into the roof-space, letting light flood into the church. The glass is plain, but the atmosphere is one of great peace and rest.
The Steeple Church is a bowl of light. The space is whitewashed with it. No dark corners, everything bright, white, open, no shade, the whiteness and the plain diamond-paned windows, opening out and letting the light pour in and touch us, sitting on the long pews with their red cushioned seats, touched by the light, sitting quietly, washed by the words of the message and the ebb and flow of the cadence of the hymns. The formality, the rising to sing, and sitting to pray, the informal dress, the open-ness of the message, down-to-earth, real, reaching out to everyone as one – for me – this is wholly for me.
I feel a little shy. I am aware I am sitting rigidly, looking around me, seeing how others are reacting, conducting themselves. I don’t know the words to any of the hymns – they are all different from the ones I used to sing in school assembly, with their rousing choruses and scores which are etched into my memory. I check surreptitiously that I do not have a scarlet letter on my shirt, an “H” for heathen, because I am not one, in my heart. I hope I am not squeaking with newness, when everyone else is comfortably worn-in. I feel a little out of time, as though people may see me as a Rip Van Winkle figure, armed with my repertoire of hymns now infrequently sung, bristling with preconceptions, projecting anxiety and shyness, yet wanting to be here.
Once the service is over, I look around. The woman next to me says hello and seems surprised by my accent. She asks me where I am from and we chat a bit about California. She asks what brings me here, and I say that I am visiting a friend. Shoshana is in the throes of shyness, but makes polite, slightly strangled sounds. We go out to the foyer and look around a little. I start to read some of the flyers on the wall and was greeted by one of the church members who says hello and asks if we live in the area. I say no, and Shoshana takes a deep breath and says that she does live around there, clearly hoping that this will be the end of the conversation.
Again, I am asked what brings me to the area – and in November (!) no less. I say that I am visiting a friend. The woman looks at Rowan in an inquiring way, clearly wanting to know more, but much too polite to pry. I give a much-abbreviated version of how we met. She asks us if we would like a cup of tea and shows us where they are serving tea, coffee, and biscuits. The woman helps us order some tea and leaves us to enjoy it. At our church, we use Styrofoam cups, but there is something charming about the mismatched real cups and saucers that the tea is served in. I liked the fact that there were real spoons rather than plastic ones. We are given tea and Rowan accepts hers with a “Ta”.
The woman serving tea knows Rowan and asks about her son. As they chat, I looked around. I cannot follow the conversation. For a moment, picking out their conversation amidst the accents is more than I can manage. As we walk away, the minister comes up to us and says hello. He asks if we are from around there, and once again, I say that I am from California. The minister has visited California and he talks about the beauty of the coast. I admit that I am surprised by how many people have visited here. I should be tripping over Scots at this rate. Rowan has said that she lives in Dundee, and the pastor starts making gentle inquiries.
He is a little careful with her, trying to welcome her without seeming to be pushy. I like him for it, as he seems genuinely interested in the strangers that have arrived at his door and happy to see us. I step back a little and watch the Scottish social interaction – each trying to put the other at ease. She is trying to say that she has not been there before, but in a way to not make it seem that she has not wanted to visit, and he is trying to make her welcome without being intrusive. It is a lovely, subtle social exchange – very different from the way that two Americans would interact in the same situation.
The Reverend, after listening to a little bit about Shoshana's life, asks gently, if she would like him to come and visit. Given the delicacy of the conversation until now, I am surprised by the straightforward question and intrigued to see what she will say. It is a surprising offer to my American ears. Maybe there are pastors all over the place that offer to come and do a house visit, but it seems very old-fashioned and thoughtful. She takes him up on it. I am in charity with the world.
After the service we are offered tea. I recognise the lady serving as someone I have met in her professional capacity. I am pleased to see her, and we chat briefly. The Minister comes over and chats to myself and Bob. The atmosphere of the little gathering is gentle and friendly. Bob asks the Reverend to pray for me. I am glad.
We step out into the cold air and scamper over to the large, modern shopping center that is just a few steps from the ancient church. The mall is much like malls everywhere, but the stores are not familiar. We go to the baked potato café for lunch. There are helpful and informative potato facts posted on the walls. such as the fact that The Potato is the Most Important Source of Vitamin C in the British Diet. I wonder if this is because potatoes are a good source of vitamin C or because Brits aren't eating anything else more healthy on a regular basis. I suspect that it might be the latter.
Rowan writes:Overlooking the Steeple Church is a glass-fronted shopping-mall, and we head over to my favourite cheap and cheerful café, called, rather inauspiciously, “Spudulike.” It is an iconic haunt of mine, a dieter’s sanctuary, where you can fill up and not feel too guilty. It is all healthy, right? Even the beans they use are Heinz “weight watchers” variety. They are very yummy. I am fairly rigid in my choices, and usually go for cottage cheese with chives, baked beans or chilli. I plump for cottage cheese this time. Bob is a little unsure of the choices, as they are different from what she would expect back home. She orders and we take our blue polystyrene bowls and jolly little sturdy green forks over to one of the round white-topped tables. It is clean and cheerful and no-nonsense.
Most of the potato fillings look … em … gloppy. There is something called chicken tikka masala, which is supposedly one of the most popular dishes in the UK. It looks both gloppy and lumpy, and I pass. I finally decide on a plain potato with cheese and salt and pepper. When we sit down, I surreptitiously remove about a cup and a half of cheese from the top of my potato. I don’t want to appear picky, but that was a lot of cheese. I am generally of the opinion that you can’t have too much cheese, but I may have to revise this premise.
There is nowhere to put the extra cheese, and I end up putting it on the tray, which seems tacky. I am feeling more out of place by the moment. I might as well have Ugly American tattooed on my forehead. I just keep my head down and eat. Rowan and I discuss the service and our perceptions. I like the fact that you can see a 12th century church from the window of a downtown mall. I wonder if the other people in the café appreciate the juxtaposition.
Rowan writes:Looking out through the roof-height plate glass windows, we are facing the fine and reassuring edifice of the Steeple Church. I am gladdened and uplifted, having enjoyed my visit to church, and enjoying my baked potato in familiar cheerful surroundings with my friend from over the sea, who is making me laugh, quizzing me about the contents of the potato fillings and other aspects of the British diet.
We discuss the finer points of pies and cake versus trifle.
Rowan's eyes light up when she talks about her mom's sherry trifle. I think she is talking about cherry trifle, which sounds okay. She, with a bit of a an eye roll, corrects me. Sherry trifle, Sherry trifle. Trifle sounds gloppy. I know, I know -- sorry.
We look around as we walk toward the exit. We go into a wonderful Christmas store that has fairy lights and a staggering array of really awful tacky items – the spastic, singing, Santas threaten to give Rowan an epileptic seizure. I am not sure how fiber-optic fairies are part of Christmas, but in the UK they are. I am sooo tempted to get a box of Christmas Crackers (not as in saltines). There are some familiar sights – a t-mobile store, for example, and a Starbucks, but mostly things are pleasantly novel.
I am going to note something about prices here. Everything costs double what it would in the US. When I was traveling the conversion rate was about 1.90 dollars to one pound – so something that costs one pound actually costs about two dollars. A shirt that I would expect to see for about ten bucks at home is about ten pounds. Those little chicken sandwiches at KFC that cost 99 cents cost 99 pence. This is true for just about everything. A latte at Starbucks costs about three pound fifty -- almost seven smackers. At first, this really bothered me – I did not like paying twenty dollars for a ten-dollar shirt, but I finally got over it. I am sorry that the Brits are being gouged, though.
As we start to leave the mall, I note that there is an eddy of humanity at the door. People stop to put on their coats and scarves. One thing that I have noticed is that almost every one is wearing a scarf, sometimes even if they do not have a jacket. Children are bundled in multiple layers in their strollers before their parents push them out into the drizzle. The little ones who cannot sit up by themselves are held upright by layers of down padding and water-repellent nylon. They look like little Michelin men.
We pass Desperate Dan on the way.
He is a local celebrity/cartoon character.
Shoshana is dismissive about the New-Agey dragon. She is not sure how it represents Dundee. I think that he is missing a blue marble orb clutched in his claws. The Christmas lights are just being put up at City Hall, but they don't call it City Hall. I forget what they do call it.
This is the view from the bus station. The rain is beading on the plexiglass, and we are perched on metal poles. The cold is seeping into my backside.
After lunch, we explore the shopping mall a little, but are aware we have to get back home fairly sharply, and oughtn’t to dawdle too long. The sky is darkening, and it is raining. We nip in and out of a couple of shops, and investigate the Ottakars bookshop, before sidling up to the bus shelter to wait for the bus home. It is a circular bus, which covers a popular route around town. The bus service in Dundee is very good. This bus runs every six minutes for most of the day, from 6.30 till eleven at night. We board, and settle in for the twenty-minute journey, watching the raindrops slither down the outside of the windows, darkened by a thin veil of dried mud thrown up by the wheels.
We relieve mum of her minding duties – she has played a storm, and think about tea, as in tea, our word for dinner. In Scotland, only very posh people, who are really English, say dinner. We say tea, and actually, most of the northern English would too. I am not sure where the dinner/tea boundary lines are drawn.
I am wondering what to cook, and we opt for a frozen lasagne type thing, as it is from Marks and Spencer’s, should be good, and will not take too long to cook. To accompany it, I unearth some chunky pre-chopped roasting vegetables from the freezer. I have stir-fry ones, but somehow, am drawn to the Mediterranean tones of the chunks of turnip and sweet potato and carrot and other goldenly lumps making up the combination. I pour oil into the frying pan – my new “Tefal Hot Spot Wok”, no less, and give myself a quiet little pat on the back for being so organised as to have acquired the appropriate cooking implements, even if they were just hauled out of their packaging the night before. Three bent forks and two twenty-five year old MRSA saucepans were not the boogie. (The amount of penicillium they have nurtured likely redressed the microbe imbalance and kept us alive.) It is good to look at your kitchen once and awhile with the assumed discerning gaze of someone else, and ask yourself whether or not they would mind the ancient Geller-tastic cutlery or mediaeval cookware.
The chicken breasts in mild Korma curry sauce with lemon rice and Peshwari naan worked reasonably well, on our first night. The vegetables, tonight, however, turn into a bit of a disaster. There is waay too much oil in the pan, and the chunks slide about, rather than fizzle and char in an appropriate manner.* They slide in the oily gloop and slop onto the plate. Bob is very understanding, and helps herself to some, along with a wodge of the indeterminate lasagne-esque thing in the foil tray. It is very game of her. I detect only the very faintest of gleams in her eye and the merest hint of a smile. I am up for laughing at my bad cooking, but grateful all the same.
*I unobtrusively patted the vegetables down with a napkin and things went along much less swimmingly after that -- Ed.
After tea, Bob retires to her room to go online, and I get the children organised. We will be taking Lena out and about on Monday, and retire at a reasonable hour.
It has been a pleasant day -- quiet after the rush of London. Rowan gets the kids ready for bed. She is in full-blown negotiations with her four year old daughter regarding getting to sleep. Lena is excited about tomorrow and comes up with ingenious reasons as to why she is a) not in her bed and /or b) not asleep. I enjoy listening to someone else have to deal with a bright, stubborn four year old. Lena is not easily cowed and gives her mom a run for her money. Better her than me. I wonder idly who would prevail in the clash of the titans that would occur if my Sam and Rowan's Lena butted heads.
Rowan's son is still up -- his sleep is pretty disrupted and I can hear her trying to settle him. I stay out of the way so as not to be a distraction and have a quick chat with my husband via Messenger. He is getting the kids ready for church at home, and I am struck by the fact that I have already lived their whole day. It is disorienting.
Tomorrow we visit Broughty Ferry. Did I mention that we are close to the North Sea?