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Guest Column — Spring 2005 [ARCHIVE]

This season's guest column comes to us from Dianne Greenfield, who has recently rejoined us stateside after spending a year in Scotland. Thanks, Dianne, for sharing your adventures and observations with us!

If you're interested in taking a turn as guest columnist on the topic of your choice, please email Julianne.


COLUMN ARCHIVES

Fall 2002 — Kristen Colston
Spring 2003 — Meredith Elkins

Tales From Across the Pond

by Dianne Greenfield

SCOTLAND

I arrived in Aberdeen, Scotland, in March 2004. My English, then-boyfriend-now-husband, Steve, was working as a fish biologist at the local university. The job didn't pay much, but it had the cool benefit of "field work" around Europe.

Aberdeen, where we lived, is on the northeast coast of Scotland, approximately 45 minutes from the Highlands. It is called the "granite city" because most buildings are constructed with dark grey granite — this is charming near the old university where streets are cobbled and buildings are 400-500 years old but oppressive during rain and cold, which occurs often. On a clear day, I could see the North Sea from our apartment. Aberdeen is Europeís major oil port so the sea is usually swarming with boats, and there is a tremendous range in the local distribution of wealth.

I had a difficult time understanding the Highland accent when I arrived (and sometimes after that, too). There were occasions when I literally couldnít tell if someone was speaking English or Gaelic! Pubs are everywhere in Scotland — many are even converted medieval churches. I admit that I am not a fan of traditional Scottish food (including "pub grub"), although I braved haggis once (it's sheep stomach stuffed with barley). But the tap beer is usually good, and I learned that some whiskeys can actually be quite tasty.

I didn't learn how to play the bagpipes or golf, but I did enjoy hiking through the spectacular Highland scenery. Iíve visited both the rolling eastern hills (Cairngorms, whiskey region, Loch Ness Ė sorry, no Nessie sightings!) and the higher, often jagged peaks of the west and south (Western Ross, Skye, Glen Coe). On one August trip to visit friends in Oban (a university town north of Glasgow), we took a three-island boat/bus tour of Mull, Iona and Staffa. These islands are incredibly gorgeous, and the weather was perfect: sunny and unusually warm. It was a considerable improvement over our previous visit to Oban for New Yearís 2002-2003, when we were hospitalized for shellfish poisoning from eating raw oysters!

One noticeable difference between Scotland and the United States is the holiday season. Because the British donít celebrate Thanksgiving or other form of harvest and Halloween is a small occasion, summer bleeds directly into the holiday shopping frenzy come September, when holiday decorations and songs start filling the stores! When we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner (even though I was the only American), I thought I could convince our British and Irish friends that holiday preparations really should begin in December — it didn't work.

SPAIN

Our first trip was 11 days during late March to Galicia to collect fish for Steveís experiments. Spain is magnificent! We flew to Madrid and spent the first weekend playing tourist. Madrid is interesting, but we arrived three days after the train bombing so the atmosphere was somber with black ribbons liberally displayed on storefronts and cars. We then drove north to our destination, Lugo, a small university town. We had fantastic wine and food (I think I gained five pounds). I was not fond of Spanish wine beforehand but discovered that many good vintages are not exported to the United States ... and, best of all, most bottles cost less than 6Ä! We returned with eight bottles of wine, tons of cheese, cookies, chocolate and sausage.

Working in Spain is totally unlike working in America. The Spanish arrive at work at about 8:00am, work for a couple hours, then break for coffee. Around 2:00pm, they take a leisurely two- or three-hour lunch, during which time all businesses close (except restaurants). They then work until 7:00pm. Comparatively, they must have thought we were the most uptight people in the world, constantly stressing about the fish, meeting deadlines, etc. But it was a wonderful collaboration, and the people were great. Plus, they gave us a delicious package with wine, olive oil, cheese and chocolate!

After wrapping up the field work, we drove south to Toledo. Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. It is a medieval city situated on a hill overlooking a river. The architecture is sandstone and cobbles, and it has an enormous cathedral (the Catholic influence in Spain is unmistakable) and several smaller churches. Roads are so narrow tjat you can touch the building walls on either side. We were there during Palm Sunday, and the cathedral had an impressive procession through the street with palm fronds, incense, clergy, town dignitaries and politicians.

ICELAND

We then spent 11 April days in beautiful northern Iceland, in the itty-bitty village of Holar, near the Artic Circle. The Icelandic landscape is very dramatic with steep mountains, glaciers, hot springs, and valleys — but virtually no trees! Most people are very blonde (naturally) and speak perfect English. I understood them better than the Scots! I found the traditional food somewhat strange: fermented shark, puffin, horse, and my "favorite" — duck eggs that have been buried in volcanic ash for several years until the shells turn grey/green and then mixed with butter for spreading on bread.

Our host was a funny character — nice guy, about our age. However, he didn't have a lab (the entire college is one building) so he worked out of his garage and a small "aquarium" — really just a concrete warehouse with scuzzy tanks. Yet he still published in excellent journals, which made me wonder: do we researches really need all the fancy schmancy stuff or would scuzzy tanks suffice? He was also the local politician, so every time we sampled (usually on someoneís farmland), he would spend half an hour schmoozing with the owners, reminding them that he and his family got the owners' road paved, buy their produce — whatever it took to allow the "very important" British/American scientists to sample on their property. It was funny.

IRELAND

We spent a long weekend in Ireland for a May wedding: there sure are a lot of bars in Dublin! We also toured the countryside, visited a castle, and wandered around Celtic craft areas. And, I never thought I'd say this, but Irish Guinness is great. At home I never liked Guinness; it tasted heavy and yeasty. In Ireland, it is unrecognizable as the same thing I had at home — delicious!

ITALY

We spent our October honeymoon in beautiful Sicily. We needed some serious unwinding after the wedding so we splurged the first four days on a seaside resort. The biggest decisions I could face were "Should I sunbathe on the beach, by the salt water pool or the fresh water pool?" and "Which fru-fru drink should I get now?" Afterwards, we took a ferry to the exotic Aeolian Islands north of Sicily. That was amazing, and the food was great — fresh seafood, wonderful pasta and antipasti. We also visited stunning Taormina (excellent diving/snorkelling), hiked Mt. Etna (cool, because the volcano was active), and saw Syracuse (site of many Greco-Roman ruins). The Italians were always easy to spot — they were always dressed well compared with the rest of us, decked out in shorts, old T-shirts and Tevas.

Italy's reputation for being a motorist's nightmare is well-deserved! Roads are about as wide as my computer monitor, no one obeys traffic signals, scooters zip out of nowhere, everyone double parks, and our 70 mph highway speed was embarrassingly slow. When we tried to find something, signs were either absent or written in tiny print, often with two arrows pointing in opposite directions! After driving around Sicily, New York City traffic seems boring!

TO TAKE HOME

I started a new research position in California this January. While it's a welcome change from the dreary British weather, I had such a incredibly enriching experience. I know many MHCers have lived abroad (for junior year or otherwise), but, if you havenít, I recommend it. Though I am tremendously excited about my new job, I will nonetheless miss proximity to mainland Europe, fuel-efficient cars, the BBC — and Stilton cheese.


Dianne, an oceanographer/marine biologist, is a postdoctorate fellow at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in Moss Landing, California, as well as treasurer of the Class of 1991. She lives with her husband, Steve Arnott, a fish biologist, in Monterey, California, and has dreams of everyone paying class dues.