Stories for my Father: Edinburgh and Prague

ACORN International

New Orleans  My father, as longtime readers recall, would often greet me when I would return from an international trip, with the challenge to tell him “stories” that he “would want to hear.”  Though he died just short of five years ago, I still find myself making mental notes as I travel, of the kinds of eclectic, but vital, pieces of information, he might find interesting.

  • The men’s bathroom in the basement of our meeting rooms at the stately, revered University of Edinburgh were decorated in dazzling blue lights that were so distinctive that I couldn’t help snapping a picture.  Later I found out that there was a less than decorative reason.  The blue lighting made it difficult for heroin users to locate a vein, thereby discouraging addicts from using the university water closets as a shooting gallery.
  • Virtually all of the public buses in Edinburgh are double-deckers, which locals cite as a claim to fame for the city compared to elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
  • In Prague there are no workers in the toll booths for the Metro.  On buses and the subway, no one pays tolls except for the occasional tourist I would see trying to navigate how to use the ticket machines.
  •  At the end of the reception after I arrived in Prague, the organizer Michal Ulver encouraged people to enjoy the food and eat hardily as they were doing and then mentioned that all of the food was “recycled,” as it was translated to me.  What he meant was that the food had been collected by him with the help of a friend at a local grocery store from the rubbish bins after closing.  I stayed with Jon Black and his roommates in Edinburgh my last few days in Scotland, and they generously offered me to enjoy any food I saw handy.  Jon told me later that they practiced what they called “skipping,” which turned out to be the same dumpster diving routine that Michal had mentioned in Prague.  He and one of his roommates alternated every other week going to the local grocery store at 11:30 PM after it closed and “shopping” for what they needed from the bins, washing it off later, and voila.  If there is a breakfast of champions, skipping seems to be setting the dinner table for ACORN organizers in Europe.
  • At a community kitchen in the Edinburgh housing complex I let the volunteer worker convince me to have a “stovie” for lunch, which he described as a local Scottish dish.  Turned out it was corned beef and “mash” (mashed potatoes) all mixed together with no vegetables allowed.
  • The most ubiquitous retail establishment I saw in Edinburgh anywhere near where we were organizing as well as everywhere downtown and elsewhere were “charity shops” featuring 2nd hand clothing and other goods, run by all manner of nonprofits as a way to develop resources to support their work from Save the Children to the Salvation Army.  Incidentally, I also was taught the term “chuggers” which stands for “charity muggers” and describes street canvassers that highjack debit and credit card information for fake causes.
  • A vote on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom is upcoming but polls are saying that currently voters are 60-40 against.
  • A scheme to privatize social or public housing has foundered in many parts of the UK.  My colleagues favorite paradox was a picture we all took of a vast track of land in Pilton, where we are planning an organizing drive for ACORN Scotland, promising development, which has not happened, on vacant land where social housing was torn down for private interests whose plans didn’t develop anything due to lack of financing.
  • In a humbling cross cultural note, I learned that the choice of cold or warm beer that I have often noted in Kenya and speculated that it came from lack of refrigeration facilities, actually comes from colonization by the British there and the fact that some of them prefer warm ales.  More embarrassingly, when our folks were talking at a pub about the different ways that some things were pronounced in various parts of Scotland, I cited the example from India of urinal being pronounced by ACORN India organizers as ur-i-nal.  Calmly, they informed me that they all pronounced the term ur-i-nal.  Whoops!
  • My father used to enjoy a bottle of Glenfiddich for Christmas, but over in Scotland they claim that they grow fonder over time for scotches with a stronger taste of peat.   They gave me a bottle of Aberlour.  Cheers!

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