She sat down wearing an orange sweater that was too loosely knit for a woman like her. Meaning maybe thirty years ago it would’ve been appropriate. She had fashionably cut blond hair, stereotypically off kilter Scottish teeth, and surprisingly enough , a tan. She never faced me and she only queried briefly if she could sit. She was Scottish and so she was weathered, hard. She was not unlike the gnarled old trees one can find in this country; the years have exacted their toll and yet they still stand, but not like the youngsters they once were. They are hunched and grooved, beaten and scarred. They sag with a weight which betrays their years. Yes, she was very much like an old tree. Or an old bar top made from an old tree; like the one we were sitting at now.
It wasn’t quite the fantasy of the beautiful local girl taking a seat across from you that you imagine when you plan these trips. She told me she was meeting a friend and she didn’t appear interested in making a new one in the slightest. As the minutes wore on her body angled further and further away from mine. I settled down into my seat, sipped my Scottish ale, and was frankly glad we weren’t speaking.
And then the silence broke with an accent so damned near impossible to understand; and the pub was loud, too loud for casual conversation. I’ll be honest when I say I don’t remember the order or flow of our conversation. It lasted twenty minutes, I understood half of what she said, and had to ask her to repeat the other half. If I still didn’t understand, I simply nodded and tipped my beer back in affirmation.
Callie had just moved back to Scotland from Greek Cyprus. She had lived there for twenty six years. Her husband had died and so she returned to Edinburgh, though not for long. She had originally gone to Greek Cyprus for “various” reasons; I eventually coaxed “a change of pace” out of her unwitting lips.
That was indicative of much of our talk. My life and what she thought about it were much more important than her life. She didn’t trust Eastern Europeans. Croatia had the most corrupt police force in the world. She’d never been to Croatia. I should also go to jail instead of carry my passport as is legally mandated in the Czech Republic on account of their corrupt police force. The police, or a Czech, or a Roma might steal it. She’d never been to the Czech Republic either.
I was going to become a journalist and therefore I should intentionally lose my passport and then try and track it down. This was somehow a remedy to the rampant passport theft occurring globally by police officers and customs officials. While I don’t doubt in the slightest that such a thing occurs, to suspect that any government official who wishes to inspect your passport will automatically steal it from you smacks of the kind of paranoia only seen in the clinically unstable. Her advice boiled down to: carrying your passport can only lead to theft and trouble, so never carry it even if that leads to trouble.
Callie was also flabbergasted that my university studies in the Czech Republic would be accepted in the United States. How could a country like that have a reputable university appeared to be her line of thinking. The fact that Charles University was one of the oldest in Europe wasn’t accounted for in her Cold War mentality. And despite my constant assurances that the Czech Republic was a wonderful country, she kept looking at me like I was trying to sell her a trip to the moon. She could hardly comprehend that Czech students would be allowed to study in the US without being put under twenty-four hour surveillance. “The’ll jus ‘ disappear and never go ‘ome, I’m sure of it,” she retorted. In her universe, the Iron Curtain never came down. She exhibited a level of xenophobia one wouldn’t expect from someone who lived abroad for so many years.
It was mostly a blur. Throughout it all she never fully turned to face me. She made a habit of flicking her hand level and outward, as if to make a dismissive motion towards me. She’d point her chin up and glance from me to the ceiling. And scoff. I hated that scoffing. Her whole manner seemed signify her perceived superiority towards me.
She reminded me of Ralph, a man I’d met a few years back on the beach of Lake Powell, Utah — another tale from the great American road trip. The kind of person on the cusp of old age who was taking their license to say and think whatever they wanted a little too seriously. The kind of stubborn old mule who has an opinion once and then never loses it. Who thinks that their modicum of life experience suddenly licenses them to comment on my life choices, like carrying my passport when legally required to do so. And the kind of person who believes Scotland to be the greatest place on Earth; with the greatest university and the greatest journalists. Yet chooses to live twenty six years in a country very unlike Scotland.
Yeah, she was just like Ralph: she was the kind if person I prayed I would never become.