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Friday, 06 February 2009

This Scottish Life

Written by Emilie B. Haertsch
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This Scottish Life, volunteering at St. Catherine’s, convent soup kitchen, living in scotland, Emilie B. HaertschThe first time I met John he yelled in my face. It was the night I began volunteering at St. Catherine’s, and I was nervous. I stood outside the convent soup kitchen, unsure, but the waiting homeless men seemed to know what to do, and one of them rang the doorbell for me.


The door swung open, flooding the dark courtyard with light.


“Huh ah yee?” barked a heavily accented voice from the brightness.


There was a pause, and the waiting homeless men shuffled around the cobblestones.

Their previous chatter subsided at the sound of the gruff voice.


“My name’s Emilie. I’m a new volunteer.” My voice sounded unusually high as I forced a too bright smile.


My eyes were beginning to adjust to the light. An elderly man stood before me in grey slacks, a white button-up shirt, and a misshapen navy cardigan. He had a white beard and hair, and a ruddy complexion. His most distinctive feature, however, was his gigantic glasses, which magnified his eyes to three times their normal size – giving him the general appearance of an insect.


The man looked me over and rolled his eyes towards heaven. “Naw eh bluedee Ehmerican,” he grumbled.


I flushed. There were some snickers from the men outside, but they silenced when the man looked sharply at them.


“Weel get en wi’ ye then,” he ordered and stepped aside in the doorway.


I walked in to the hallway and he closed the door behind me.


He made a series of guttural sounds, which I met with an incomprehensive stare. He raised his voice to repeat himself and this time I got the gist of something about a “bluedee coot” being inadequate.


If he hadn’t tugged at the sleeve of my thin pink jacket I wouldn’t have understood. Miscommunication was to become a theme between us.


“I suppose it is a bit impractical…” I began.


This elicited a new ejaculatory response, coupled with several bushy eyebrow raises. When I again was unable to respond, he stopped talking abruptly and walked swiftly down the hall. I had no choice but to follow.


“Em John, by the weey,” he said as he opened a heavy door and motioned for me to follow him in.


This much I comprehended.


“I’m Emilie,” I said.


John glared at me. “Ye said tha’!”


I noted the coats and bags in the room and shrugged out of my own things. John snatched them from my arms and tossed them in a corner. Then he turned back towards the hallway, and gestured down the corridor. All of his actions were couple with dialogue. It was like watching a foreign film without subtitles. If I watched his actions very closely I could guess at his meaning. Paying attention to his tone didn’t help, because it remained disgruntled throughout.


I stared at him blankly.


John made a face of disgust, apparently finished with me, grabbed my shoulders and shoved me towards another door at the opposite end of the hallway.


“Oh!” I said sheepishly, and hurried towards the sound of clanging pots and the smell of stew on the other side.


If I could sum up my response to John in one word it would be “intimidation,” although “humiliation” would be a close second.


In my studies at the University of Edinburgh I had believed myself to be particularly This Scottish Life, volunteering at St. Catherine’s, convent soup kitchen, living in scotland, Emilie B. Haertschculturally sensitive. I had been, up until this point, adept at understanding the notoriously difficult Scottish accent. Then I met John and suddenly unwillingly embodied the stereotype of the ignorant American abroad. I later discovered that John was from Glasgow, and it was the Glaswegian accent that was my downfall.


A good 80% of what John said to me was lost, which was particularly difficult as he was my instructor at the soup kitchen. When I asked one of the veteran volunteers if John was the resident priest at the convent, she laughed. John’s official job was difficult to define, but he was somewhere between an odd jobs man and a gatekeeper. He wielded considerable power in the convent, however. He could put the fear of God in anyone – especially me.


One evening, several weeks into my volunteering, a frightening fight broke out in the soup kitchen between two of the homeless men. A large burly man took a swing at a wiry youth with a mouth, and the room erupted. Some of the experienced volunteers attempted to intervene to no avail. Then John entered the scene. His very presence stopped the action. He gave commands in his brogue, took the offender out by his collar, and restored order within minutes. Thus was the power of John.



From the beginning, John singled me out, sensing my discomfort. The nuns and other volunteers seemed to love him, but I feared him. His tone with me evolved from disgruntled to mocking. Although I couldn’t comprehend most of what he said, I could understand that the twinkle in his magnified eye was at my expense.


As the weeks went on, however, I began to understand John’s speech a bit better and my perception of him changed. He often asked me about the way I did things at “hoom.” When he laughed at my answers I understood that his gruffness only masked his teasing nature.


When John asked me how my Christmas was, I responded, “Wonderful! This year my family had a pomegranate-themed Christmas party.”


John was incredulous.


“Eh Pumegrennit Kresmes?” He guffawed, and proceeded to inform the other volunteers.


John began demanding a hug before I left every evening, and our relationship became comforting. He told me that he understood that I was far from my home and family, but he didn’t want me to ever feel that I was alone. He insisted that I take home extra food – mostly chocolates and cookies – from the soup kitchen because he worried that my budget didn’t allow me enough grocery money. If I was ever in trouble I was to know that I could go to him.


He said to me, “Tell yuh Mum an’ Da tha’ yee hae’ friends heayuh.”


As the year progressed, spring came and finals drew near. I became buried in my studies and had fewer opportunities to go to St. Catherine’s. The less time I spent at the soup kitchen the guiltier and more embarrassed I felt about returning. I was afraid that John would think me ungrateful after all his kindness. I thought he would bark at me again like he had when I first met him.


By Easter, it had been several weeks since I had visited St. Catherine’s. My friends and flatmates had gone home for the holiday. Away from the festivities of my family in America, I was to spend this Easter entirely alone. Despite my efforts at pluckiness, I was depressed.


To make matters worse, the University Easter mass was being held in St. Catherine’s chapel. There I would surely see John, whom I had been avoiding for weeks. My spirits sunk even further at the thought of his disappointment in me.


Still, I was resolved to attend Easter mass. As I walked to the convent I attempted to talk myself down.


I’ll dart in the door, I thought, and straight to my pew. I probably won’t see John at all.


Emboldened, I marched across the courtyard of St. Catherine’s and through the open door. I walked confidently down the hallway – and straight into John.


Even on Easter, he was in the same lumpy cardigan. His eyes seemed to bulge accusatorily at me.


I froze in panic. “John—” I started.


“Ehmeleh,” he bellowed, and enveloped me in his arms. “Heppy Eastuh!”


Surprised, I hugged him back. “Happy Easter, John.”


He pulled away to look into my face a moment, and then crushed me to him again. He told me how glad he was to see me. He said he knew it must be hard for me to be so far from home that day, but that they at St. Catherine’s were thrilled to have me with them on Easter just this once.


“Thanks, John,” I whispered into his shoulder.


He finally released me, but before I could proceed into the chapel he managed to slip some chocolates into my hand.


“Tha’s fa’ yee. Boot,” he winked, “dunna et ‘em en tha kirk.”


I grinned, shook my head, and entered the chapel.


The next day when my parents called, they were worried that I had spent the holiday alone.


“Not alone,” I told them. “I have friends here.”

This Scottish Life, volunteering at St. Catherine’s, convent soup kitchen, living in scotland, Emilie B. Haertsch

© Emilie B. Haertsch

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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