By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
As I sit in my Williston kitchen sipping Scottish tea, a gentle rain falls outside. The gift of time—two months in Edinburgh—reminds me that life goes on, even when it rains.
My husband and I are settling back into the gentle rhythms of Vermont. The lawn is mowed. Our garden is planted. The fridge is restocked with local flavors—dark amber maple syrup, mixed greens from the Intervale and leftover slices from Leonardo’s Pizza are among the pickings. The pool is coming along, albeit slowly.
We returned to jobs that not only pay the bills, but bring a sense of personal accomplishment. Recession in Europe was felt very tangibly, as we encountered well-educated Scots who couldn’t find work. We met migrants from less stable economies (e.g. Spain) coming to the United Kingdom in search of employment. The Home Office—the UK version of Homeland Security—was bracing for a possible onslaught as Greece’s economy teetered precariously.
We learned the streets, the cobbled alleyways, the bookshops and the cafés where one could sip tea with milk while reading “The Guardian” in undisturbed bliss. Early morning runs in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, a long-dormant volcano overlooking the city, preceded breakfasts of steaming bowls of porridge.
I indulged in delectable fruited scones at The Elephant House, the café where J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter. Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, wrote in the cafe while her daughter slept in her carrier. The then-single mother found this a cheaper alternative to heating her flat during the day.
Volunteering in the UK is not an easy task for a foreign national. A work permit, which costs several hundred British pounds sterling, is required. Fortunately, the law didn’t prevent me from connecting with civil rights and domestic violence organizations to interview staff, participate in trainings and provide informal consultations on fundraising strategies. I learned much from our conversations and anticipate continued dialogue with these “colleagues” across the pond.
When I saw a flyer for a six-week writing course offered by Scottish poet and novelist Sophie Cooke, I signed up. Our class was small, just Sophie, a poet named Mary, and me. We met Wednesday mornings to present and rework our writings. My first piece of fiction, a humble short story, sits on my computer awaiting final edits.
Sharing this very intimate writing environment with two extremely eloquent Scottish women reminded me that, although we all spoke English, words, idioms and semantics vary. I embraced humor over embarrassment each time I interrupted to ask, “What does that mean?” I learned that in Scottish English a “thong” is not an undergarment, but rather, a piece of string holding a pendant.
We discovered the wonderful concept of meet-up. Started in the United States, it’s an online tool to bring people of similar interests together for outings. There are meet-ups for hiking, biking, cinema, theater, music, food and numerous other events.
Joining the Edinburgh Walking and Socialising Meet-up enhanced our experience immeasurably. Each Saturday morning, we met at a designated bus stop and rode somewhere into the countryside for a 10 to 12 mile hike with a volunteer leader. We explored the Fife Coastal Path along the North Sea, the Pentland Hills and numerous green roads through forests and past meadows dotted with sheep.
A typical Saturday found us in a group of 15 or 20 hikers. Walking beside someone for 10 miles on a succession of Saturdays, you really get to know them. Judith is a globe-trotting geologist who recently returned home after a six-year stint in Italy. She and I discussed politics and social issues. Michelle, an administrator at the University of Edinburgh, illuminated me on what it felt like to have to abandon Ireland in the 1980s to simply find work. Kim, a doctoral student from Denmark, recommended Danish poets and playwrights. We’d stop for lunch on dry ground or in a makeshift shelter before pushing through sun, rain, mud and an occasional snow shower. Each hike concluded at a pub; that was the “socializing” part. I learned to drink pear cider and shandy, sweeter alternatives to beer.
Connecting with a faith community was a top priority. St. Mark’s Unitarian Church in Edinburgh is one of four UU congregations in Scotland. Maud, the Irish minister, brought us into the fold with her warm and welcoming ways. Taking time each Sunday, as we do in Vermont, to reflect in a spiritual way exposed us to the workings of our liberal faith in the UK. Coffee hours following services paved the way to friendships with Scots and expats alike.
Time for reflection, time to learn, time to connect, time to reevaluate life’s priorities—these are the gifts of a sabbatical. If you’ve ever contemplated an adventure to live overseas, drive across the country or write your book, I say start planting the seeds now.