The Friendly North

My husband and I have now lived in the even-farther north of Scotland for just over a year.  Hard to believe!  In some ways it seems longer, and in others I feel hardly settled in.  Time can be strangely elastic.

While we both miss our former village and our ‘wee hoosie’ there, we’ve noticed that people up here in Caithness are friendlier than they were in our former village.  That’s not to detract from the nice folks I became acquainted with in my first Highland home, but there’s a distinct difference here ‘in the toon’.  People in the village were pleasant but for the first long while they didn’t really look at me or say much beyond a polite nod and maybe a hello, once I’d been there a few months.  It was a long time before I had more than the briefest of conversations with shopkeepers and villagers.  Once I became a familiar face in the village folks did warm up a bit but I was always aware that I should hold back a little, with some of them.  If I was too forward, too “me” – even after years among them – their natural reserve towards incomers resurfaced instantly.  Others were truly lovely, but only after a lot of patience and hard work on my part.

There seems to be a little more openness, up here among the townspeople.  From the ladies I got to know at the hospital cafeteria to the friendly, chatty shopkeepers around town, there seems to be a lightness and ease to many of the people, here.  They are more likely to speak in passing or share a joke while standing in line at the store whether they know each other or not.  It’s nice.

Once we got our fountain pen business back up to full speed after settling in and getting organized, we found out that there is a Post Office just a couple of streets away from our apartment.  I’d been going to a different one right in the middle of town, a trip guaranteed to make me go all sweary and red-faced not because it was far but because it’s right on the main drag through town, on a street that was never designed for the major north-south traffic it now has to accommodate.  Parking is difficult and crossing the street is even worse, once parked.  It was completely by chance that a visiting friend told us he’d spotted a Post Office almost on our doorstep, in a direction we hadn’t explored yet.  Happy days!

It wasn’t long before I became a regular, there.  The staff were friendly and helpful and, me being me (outgoing American!), I immediately struck up conversations with them when I first started bringing things in for mailing.  As they came to recognize me from my many visits they began to ask me a little about myself so I told them that we’d just moved here, and why, and where we’d lived before.  Post Office rules meant that I was asked each time about the contents of my packages, and my reply of “fountain pens” piqued their interest, too.  They were curious about our little enterprise, and it didn’t take long before they said, “Just your usual…?” when I handed over my parcels.  I know that I’m the only fountain-pen-restoring-and-selling American in this town (indeed perhaps in Scotland) so it’s probably not surprising that they remembered me so quickly, but it still felt good to have friendliness beamed right back at me so early on.

The real breakthrough moment came one afternoon when I had parcels to ship to a somewhat unusual address overseas.  I’m a bit caught out as I write this because sometimes I can’t distinguish my UK slang from my US slang anymore, but the address contained the line, “Yorkie’s Knob.”  Here in the UK a ‘knob’ is definitely not just something you use to tune a radio or open a door.  It’s a slang term that’s a little bit rude!  A flicker of amusement flashed across the Postmistress’s face when I handed her the package.  “That’s… ah… rather an interesting address,” she said, beginning to splutter a bit with suppressed giggles.  I grinned big and replied, “You have to wonder WHY someone named it that?”  I stepped back and spread my arms wide, looking around imperially and saying, “This place!  It’s beautiful!  We will settle here!  We shall call it…” [dramatic pause] “Yes!  We shall call it… Yorkie’s Knob!”  The Postmistress started to laugh.  The more we joked about it, the more we cackled to the point where she had to stop what she was doing, take off her glasses, and wipe her eyes, only to start giggling all over again when her co-worker came over to see what the hilarity was all about.  The second woman’s double-take at the address was the finish of us – we were, as they say here, creased with laughter.  “Oh dear,” the Postmistress said, fanning herself, “the boys at the sorting office are going to have a laugh over this one!”  Weeks later one of them asked me with a sly look if “that package” ever arrived at its destination.  “Good old Yorkie’s Knob,” I said, and it was enough to send us back into a small fit of giggles.

Looking back on it – and reading my recounting of it here – it doesn’t seem like something that would be all that funny.  Well, if you have the sense of humor of a ten year old like I do, then perhaps it’s completely clear why it gave us such a laugh!  It was a moment between the three of us that changed things – and things were already pretty nice at that point.  But once you’ve shared a real belly laugh with someone (especially over something a teeny bit rude), it changes how you see each other.  When I go in now, their smiles are that little bit wider.  We ‘get’ each other, and they know that I’m up for some naughtiness if it, er, arises.

At the same time, they are kind.  I’d mentioned a few weeks ago that my husband was in the hospital, and since then they have been quick to ask me how he’s doing.  I keep it light; no one wants a full medical saga.  But it’s nice to be asked.

There is still a small-town feel to this place.  Connections between people abound.  We have gotten to know our across-the-hall neighbor a little bit, a very nice man who was welcoming from the start.  His daughter comes by often to see him, and she, too, has been friendly and open towards us.  A few weeks ago she flagged us down on our way to the car.  “I know who is living in your old house,” she said.  “She’s one of our friends; she used to live here in town but wanted to move down to the village.  I actually wanted her to move in to the flat where you are now because I thought she would be a great ‘fit’ for the building and be a nice neighbor to my dad, but she didn’t want to live in a flat.  It turns out she got your house!”  She went on to say that she was glad it had worked out so well, because not only do Sem and I fit right in here, but her friend got just the kind of place she wanted.  “Our friend really loves gardening,” she added, “and she’s delighted with all of the roses you planted!”  For Sem, that was a splendid thing to hear.  He worked so hard on our roses, both at the front and the back of the house, so knowing that they are being tended and appreciated by the new occupant means a lot to him.  I’m glad, too.  If we had to leave our beloved wee house, at least we know it’s in good hands.  The fact that it seems like things came full circle somehow gave me a nice bit of closure, too.

In this first year I haven’t made any actual friends, but part of that is because we haven’t been able to get out very much.  There’s the dialysis schedule plus we’ve had some health setbacks, and more often than not we have to cancel things we’d planned to do.  But the feeling of friendliness and openness here is heartening  I have a feeling it wouldn’t be as much hard work to establish friendships here.  In our former village it always felt like a lot of doors were never fully open to me, so this is a new and welcome perspective.  It is an interesting and marked difference between two places even though they are separated only by about 45 miles.

The wee Sutherland village was my first ‘home’ here in Scotland, and I will always love and miss it.  Up here though, in Caithness, there seems to be a ease and receptiveness between people whether they are new to the area or not.  It will still take a while to make firm connections but the potential is there… and isn’t that a fine thing?

Deb Segelitz

Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands, sharing life with her husband, a Highlander she stumbled across purely by chance on a blog site. They own a small business restoring and selling vintage fountain pens, which allows Deb to set her own schedule and have time for photography, writing and spontaneous car rides in the countryside. She is grateful to the readers of ANC for accepting her into the North State fold.

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