Letter to America

Documenting life as a post-grad ex-pat in Scotland. Am I 3,000 miles from home or already there?

Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

Friday, July 28, 2006

Embarrassing Music: A List

Pentlands Hike 23.7.06 017
Originally uploaded by garvex.

Just getting around to responding to some late tags from Big Daddy at AI. Here’s a list of embarrassing music that can be found on my Ipod.

1) Love Machine – Girls Aloud: The lyrics are stupid but the backing music is damn catchy. I blame Channel 4; they had some program about a cross-dressing boy band that tried to make it as a girl band. They promo’d it into the ground during Lost commercial breaks, and after a few listens I was hooked. To the song, not the cross-dressing boy band.
2) Under Pressue- Suncream: One of those alt.techno.rock songs of the mid 90s, best exemplified by Republica’s ‘Ready to Go.’ Love those house-y piano lines. In my DJ years, I tortured the bartenders at O’Hooley’s with this one.
3) Savin the Day- Alessi Brothers: Who? I’m not sure, I actually had to look them up. The song is on the Ghostbusters soundtrack, which along with Van Halen’s 1984 was the first casettes I owned as a child. Think Christopher Cross. Yeah, I know.
4) Bootylicious- Destiny’s Child: Right up there with Prince’s Get Off in the category of songs to move your ass to. Infinitely less cool.
5) Sexy Back- Justin Timberlake: Just to make sure I’m hip to what the kids are listening to these dayz. Word?
6) Sisters- Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen: Not the best song from ‘White Christmas,’ but a cracker that reminds me of SAC. I was going to mention something daft about Vera Ellen being the only no-name of the four main characters in White Christmas, but when I looked up her bio she turned out to have a crap life upon retiring from acting. Moving right along.
7) BBC Theme-News 24: One full minute of those pips with downtempo techno beat. Worth watching despite all the death and destruction that follows.
8) Oklahoma!- Rodgers and Hammerstein: There is a bar in Tulsa, OK that has this on the jukebox. When it gets played, the whole bar belts it out. Same might happen if ‘Sunshine in Leith’ got played in a Hibs-friendly bar, or ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die” at a Hearts-friendly pub. I like the idea of communal drunken singing.

There it is, just a sample of the embarrassing crap that you could listen to if you were to steal my Ipod while I was in the pub. Which I’m off to now.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Where I'm at (Part 1)

King of the Mountain
Originally uploaded by garvex.
Oh wow, it's been a long time since I've updated this blog. I blame Mac and his relative inactivity, though that's bullshit, I've just not been motivated to write (thank you Mac, Sarah A-M and Adrian for not giving up on me). Partly due to laziness, partly due to my work life leading me further and further away from writing, and partly due to this strange yellow orb that has appeared more frequently these last few months. I vaguely remember seeing it when I lived in the States. It warms the skies, and Pa says it's the reason the crops are starting to grow taller. The doctor says it's called the sun. Scottish people don't have a word for it.

The doctor says I should simply tell people about my fingers. And how they were chopped off. Sorry, love, wrong brother.

Now for the recap.

1) Kansas City
I visited KC in late March/early April, thereby avoiding Hibs disgraceful shellacking by Hearts in the Cup semi-final. Seriously, Hibs should pay me to stay in the country once they advance to a certain point in the Scottish Cup. The same thing happened last year, I went to KC, Hibs lost in a semi. This is a team that has not one a Cup final in over 100 years. And you thought the Cubs/Red Sox were cursed.

Back on track, I went to KC for seven days, played a lot of golf with Samuel Tiberius Kirkston, drank a lot with JT, saw plenty of old friends. The weather was fantastic, the thunderstorms fierce, the Wizards home opener a success. I generally smoked and drank myself silly. Which was the entire point.

2) Leisure, as in mine and other peoples leisure.
Upon my return, I took on another temp job. Interning with a union in Glasgow was worthwhile. I met some fantastic people, received training as a union steward, and got a good general feel for the Scottish union movement, but broke is broke. So I took some projects with me and worked on them while answering the phones at a leisure charity. A big one. With lots of young, successful people all around. And me, the bearded American answering the phone.

A word about receptionists. Many times in my life, I've woken up and said to myself, "I don't want to go to work." Very rarely has this been related to the actual job. Working at Burger King was one of those times. Delivering newspapers was another. The first week at this job was yet another.

Upon reflection, I'm not sure what exactly it was that made me feel this way. Partly it was not knowing anyone's name the first few days. There is nothing more panic inducing then getting phone call after phone call for people whose names you don't know- this goes double when they speak in those wacky English and Scottish accents. "Morag? That's not a real name. Really? Man or woman?"

Add this to the fact that up to a third of the calls on certain days were sales calls, which we were expected to deflect away from the marketing department. Is it possible to measure the unhappiness of a marketing department rep when you accidently connect them someone making cold calls about changing mobile providers? I'm not sure such a device has been invented.

After a week of going back and forth about staying, I calmed down and figured it out. Actually figured out plenty of ways to fart around, thanks to a very overeager fellow receptionist who was trying to angle in on the permanent role. I even managed a few free golf passes. The key was learning to check the incoming phone numbers- after a week, I deduced that 99% of calls with the prefix 020 (London) were the verbal equivalent of spam.

"Can I speak to someone in your marketing/sales/executive office?"

And my retort...

"I'm sorry, all 300 people in the office are away from their desk at the moment. Can I take a message? You'll call back? Excellent"

And you won't get past me. It became a game. And I was good at it. But it was also a curse. Ten years ago, I had to do some phonebanking as an activist. I was told I was good at it. Phonebanking is another one of those jobs that makes my stomach turn. A decade late, my phone voice can still apparently make British Telecom repairmen weep...I was complimented by the HR director that I had a good voice for telephone and that people calling up were asking who the new friendly voice was. Sort of like having a good face for radio, I suppose.

And then they hired a new receptionist. But by then, it was mid-June. Are you ready for some football?

To be continued...

Friday, March 24, 2006

I'm it

"...robots in disguise"
Originally uploaded by Smaku.

I’ve been tagged by Mac, meaning I must list my seven favourite songs:

(this blank space is here because I canne be bothered to figure out how to make it format correctly with the pic -->)

Seeing Other People - Belle and Sebastian (1999)
Independence Day - Elliot Smith (1998)
Nlogax - Boards of Canada (1996)
Deceptacon - Le Tigre (1999)
Mesmerizing - Liz Phair (1993)
Immune – Low (1999)
The Free Design – Stereolab (1999)

Analysis: Apparently, the best 20th century music was recorded between 1996-1999. Almost half of this list is made up of songs I heard for the first time four or more years after they were released.

The problem with song lists is there is a certain amount of fatigue that sets in with songs after a while. For example, I used to think the Spin Doctor's 'Two Princes' was a song I could never get sick of. How wrong I was.

No need to mention that my snide comment aimed at Mac’s list could be aimed directly at myself.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Think different

"DOS computers manufactured by companies such as IBM, Compaq, Tandy, and millions of others are by far the most popular, without about 70 million machines in use world wide. Macintosh fans, on the other hand, may note that cockroaches are by far more numerous than humans, and that numbers alone do not denote a higher life form."-- New York Times, November 26, 1991

So there.

Do they even make Tandy computers anymore? I remember using Radio Shack Tandy computers at summer camp (back off, I also played basketball and hockey. Grunt). The drives were cassette players of some kind. And you thought your computer took a while to boot up.

Medium-sized Puffy Clouds

2:15PM, Cloudy, 41F, and the Ipod Shuffle goes to...

Pomme Fritz (Meat 'n' Veg Mix)
The Orb
U.F.Off: The Best of the Orb

"You've just had a heavy dose of electro-shock therapy,
and you're more relaxed than you've been in weeks.
All those childhood traumas,
magically wiped-away,
along with most of your personality."

Thanks to Mr. Computer, I've learned that the sample (see quote) used by The Orb in Pomme Fritz is from one of those fake Saturday Night Live commercials, specifically involving Lily Tomlin and Spud beer in 1975. Huh.

Not sure what The Orb makes me think of other than the difficulty of putting together a "Best of.." compilation of an ambient techno group. The Orb is different enough between albums that it really doesn't work. They did do a good job of mixing it all together. Still, doesn't really work.

That's all I got on the Orb. It's really tough to think with a big lump of cheese and pepperoni lodged in your stomach, but despite the availability of food here at the office I picked up the £2 personal pizza next door. Warm food makes for a nice hangover cure when you're home, but I want to take a nap now, and just not acceptable at the moment, being at the office and all.

Calling it a hangover is actually giving it too much credit, and it's shameful that yesterday's 2 1/2 pints of Dark Island (hi honey!) has made me all groggy today. My beer tolerance is in a sad state of affairs. I'm okay with wine, but I don't believe wine tolerance and beer tolerance are the same. Though wine drinkers apparently eat better.

And what does this have to do with the Orb?

F All.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Letter from Afghanistan

Kiteflying on the Airstrip
Originally uploaded by
Chris Kuhn.
Here is a letter my sister sent a couple weeks back. She works for an aid agency in Pakistan, but took a brief holiday to Afganistan, which conincided with Bush’s brief visit to Kabul airfield. To protect her privacy, I’ve replaced the initial’s of her aid agency with the letters ABCD.

So I thought you might be interested in my day in Afganistan with Mr. Bush......well ok so he didn't invite me for tea in the whole five hours that he was here. But the streets were closed and helicopters were storming the airspaces around our office so I sensed he was close by orchestrating major foreign policy initiatives with his vow that "we will catch Osama Bin Laden"...Good luck sir, that should be a US priority foreign policy, continuing a war of words with some old guy in a cave ....but at least he made the day interesting for the newly arrived Idaho regiment are currently patrolling the streets of Kabul as we speak.

I did enjoy my two days in Afghanistan. It was rather funny because I was sent there to obtain a six month multi-entry visa. Upon arriving into Afghanistan on a cozy UN flight that even offered orange juice for the trip, I discovered that ABCD had forgotten to tell ABCD Afghanistan that I was coming.

Oops....but I must say, it was an interesting airport to be stuck in. So many different people walking in and out of it. Some women are completely covered head to toe and then in the next minute you see a woman in high heels and thick makeup that are "secret police" as I was told by a companion I met while waiting. I can't imagine the transformation this country has seen in 5 years....pretty amazing and a bit scary at the same time. ABCD did manage to pick me up after a couple of hours and I went straight to the Pakistan embassy where I stood in line and a man who I assumed worked for the embassy said point blank...."no you can't have another visa to Pakistan with no explanation.”

So that is what it is like to have a visa rejected for no particular reason. OK...I am thinking...now what? Maybe a free trip back to New York? It was kind of a funny situation because at that point, I had a six month visa to Afghanistan but no visa to Pakistan. But we did manage to find a person in one of the ABCD sub offices that said he had a friend in the consulate in Jahalabad a city two hours north of Kabul. So I was told to wait the night and I would travel to Jalalabad the next morning.

Kabul is so different from any place I have seen in Pakistan. It is completely surrounded by these dark brown mountains that look more threatening then beautiful. They just seem to be made of solid rock. There are no trees in the city and everything is again that colour brown. The houses, the walls the streets, the stores everything is either brown from the mud bricks that are the foundation for 90% of the building it seems or from the huge amount of dust that whips through the streets.

And the other thing that struck me about Kabul was the amount of barbed wire. Barbed wire everywhere, as are tanks with mostly US soldiers (the tanks are also brown). I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I read somewhere that we still have 16,000 troops in Afghanistan; I just didn’t expect them to be so visible. I know it was sort of a funny reaction because it is their job to be visible…But I guess other than those two observations, life seems quite normal there.

We had a pleasant enough day at the office, ABCD’s finance director is a younger girl from Croatia and she was so excited to see me because the majority of expats at ABCD are over 50 (as she describes it). She took me out to dinner at this Lebanese restaurant where they confirmed a rumour I had heard: alcohol is indeed available AND legal in Afghanistan for expats; a very exciting revelation as booze is not legal or available in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. We had a wonderful dinner and I was taken to this cute little bar where there was again, that crazy mix of people....nerdy NGO do -gooders, huge marine guys, Afghan people trying to pass for a different nationality so they can have a drink. It was an interesting and enjoyable evening.

We had a nice trip to Jalalabad the next morning…I think it is safe to say that I have discovered a country where the roads equal those of The Gambia. The road winds through the mountains and follows this river, it is quite a site (I got some pictures) and opens up into this area where there is actually green land….people growing things (large fields wheat and poppy I was told) but at least they are able to farm something on the land. My impression flying into Afghanistan is how to people make a living in this country on this soil that seems to be all rocks.

We had a nice ride; there are some beautiful areas and we reached Jalaalabad in the afternoon. Long story short, the finance officer at ABCD knows someone who knows someone and I got a three month multi entry visa to Pakistan which can be renewed in Pakistan. So that is probably the end of my trips to Afghanistan.

We travelled to the border, past these mountains which were bombed by scud missiles during the war; the driver told me that the whole town of Jalalabad just shook during those days as if they were repeated aftershocks from a large earthquake. There were all these old British forts and caves dug into the mountains from the time that Russia was there. We travelled into the Tribal Region of Pakistan, it is part of Pakistan but the government does not have any real control there. I expected to see interesting things like old guys with rifles on horses but it looked exactly like Pakistan. They have their own army but they were quite pleasant and the only interesting thing I saw was a HUGE compound from this famous warlord from the area that spent 10 years in a US prison for printing fake dollars. He is pretty old now they say but the place looks like a castle. The entry point from the tribal region to Pakistan has this huge gate constructed by the British way back when. It has a name, which I forgot but I the country director said that it was a famous site and at least I got to see it. I wasn’t allowed to stop since it was getting late. And by six in the evening I was back in Peshawar.

Today Mr. Bush will be following me again and will be in Islamabad, and the word is that he will be greeted by a strike/protest. The protests are really losing momentum (although his arrival will spark some reaction I am sure). He picked the worst day to come since there has been a protest every Friday since that cartoon reaction began. People tend to gather at the mosque for prayers and the protest follow. I think that this strike was planned even before he was scheduled to come so it was some bad timing. I will be under lock and key again which is fine, I have a lot of work to do in the office. I am in Peshawar today and will travel to Islamabad tomorrow to meet with some potential partners for this (EFG) project. There is a conference with EFG in Islamabad on Tuesday to discuss the proposal. I will tell you more about the proposal later but it looks like I will be working mostly out of Islamabad and Peshawar until it is submitted.

Well I hope I didn’t bore y’all but it is not everyday that one travels to Afghanistan. And this will sound redundant to every travel story you ever hear but the people I met were simply wonderful, and kind and very open (even more so then Pakistan) so there took away that silly fear I had to reveal my nationality when meeting the Afgan refugees in Pakistan last week. It’s a relief to know that people don’t necessarily associate me with decisions my government makes. It’s wonderful to be able so say “yes I am from America” and have people ask me about New York City, and the food and the movies and the music….rather than ask me about the President. And driving past those mountains that border Afghanistan and Pakistan, I feel sorry for anyone who is out looking for Bin Laden because there are a hell of a lot of mountains to look through. Hope you are all doing well in your different corners of the world. Write me when you get a chance. I love and miss all of you.

Smoking, drinking, swinging Bob

Mind if I smoke?
Originally uploaded by billyverde.

Ipod Shuffle, 10PM Monday, but then it got accidentally erased, so now it's Thursday...

Salty Salute
Guided By Voices
Alien Lanes

"Disarm the settlers
The new drunk drivers
Have hoisted the flag
We are with you in your anger
Proud brothers
Do not fret
The bus will get you there yet"

Until writing this, I thought the opening line was "Disarm the sexless".
I like my version better.

I've seen them multiple times, and no matter when it's been, Bob is always smoking, swinging the mic by the cord and drinking Bud long necks. God bless him.

Quick story about GBV. Ohio U friend JH, an employee of Southeastern Ohio's greatest rock club The Union, had returned home after working a shift. GBV had played that night, and brought along fellow Dayton-ite Kim Deal, who was riding the crest of Breeders fame at the time.

It was late, but when the phone rang JH answered. On the other line was the hushed voice of a co-worker who was hosting GBV and Ms Deal for the night. It was 6AM, but they felt it was necessary to tell someone, anyone that "dude, Kim Deal is sleeping on my couch!"

And then he hung up.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Blog flavour of the day

Pick a band/artist. Then answer these questions using only titles from the band/artist's songs.
1. Name of band/artist: Guided By Voices
2. Are you male or female?: I Am a Scientist
3. Describe yourself: I Am A Tree
4. How do you feel about yourself?: Non-Absorbing
5. Describe your ex girlfriend/boyfriend: A Good Flying Bird
6. Describe current girlfriend/boyfriend: Smothered in Hugs
7. Describe where you want to be: Everywhere With Helicopter
8. Describe how you live: Awful Bliss
9. Describe how you love: As We Go Up, We Go Down
10. What would you ask for if you had just one wish?: Hardcore UFOs
11. Share a few words of wisdom: You’re Not An Airplane
12. Now say goodbye: Motor Away

You're turn.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Tori vs. God

Originally uploaded by garvex.
10PM Sunday night, the Ipod Shuffle sends me to...

Tori Amos
Under the Pink

"Give not thy strength unto women,
Nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings"

Tori's second and last great album. Or did I just grow out of this brand of angst? Nah, I'll stick with the former.

Listening to Tori Amos brings me back to 'Little Earthquakes', the one with crucify, Silent All These Years, Precious Things, etc. It was released in the Spring of 1992, and as a precocious senior at New Hartford High School I had conned my way into being a very occasional DJ at the local college radio station. All hail, WPNR, 90.7, Utica College, the station I won Jane's Addiction tickets with a year earlier, but couldn't go due to SAT's the next day. Argh.

I remember driving back from the station one Saturday afternoon. It was about this time of the year, when spring is just...about...here, and the temperature warms up every fifth day into something approaching agreeable. So it was windows down and stereo volume up on the aging light blue family Dodge Caravan.

Cruising through Utica on the way back home from the station. For some reason, I remember Tori Amos was on the radio (and in Utica, the only station it would have been on in 1992 would have been WPNR). I remember being really, I don't know, vividly happy...not sure what the emotion is, but I remember it like it was yesterday-the sunshine, the road wet from snow melt, the warm sun through the windshield clashing with the cooler air blowing in from driver's side window.

This is a recurring feature in my life, music pinpointing not just a period of life, but a specific moment.

The next spring it would be "If I Can't Change Your Mind" by Sugar, a song I was listening to as I climbed the hill adjacent Bong Hill on an indian summer day at Ohio U.

Music, my memory index.

PS Pic stolen from 300M. He's got some great pics of Utica, the city I grew up next to. Go forth.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ipod Shuffle vs Blog

Originally uploaded by garvex.

(Looking for some inspiration for maintain consistent blog writing, so why not just hit shuffle on the Ipod and expand on the first song that comes up, maybe throw in a lyric to boot).

Liquor Lyle's Cool July
Seven's Travels

"Working on my fifth, or maybe my sixth, where every woman represents the meaning of existence."

Curtain up, it's Minneapolis' Atmosphere rapping about Liquor Lyle's. I have walked out of there drunk more than a few times. Strange thinking of a place you will never visit again.

Something about drinking alone and observing the crowd from a booth that puts me in an ultra-reflective mood; usually it had a depressive edge to it when I was single (which if I was in a bar alone was likely the case). I used to use such occasions to write letters too (remember when people used to write letters?!?), but they always came off overly moody and melodramatic with cigarette ash and beer stains littered about the pages. I still tend to romanticise those moments, but then so does Tom Waits, right? And everyone likes Tom Waits.

Alas, both drinking at Liquor Lyle's and serious letters penned from bars represent past practice; good riddance to both. Happy in an Edinburgh home beats moody at a Minneapolis bar any night.