Posted by: chptr37 | 05/01/2009

Pg. 31: Chippie, But Not Chipper

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If you think the harbour’s dangerous, try the fish and chips.

Stats:

  • Weather: Rainsunrainsunrainsunrainsunrainrainrain.
  • Miles Walked: Dodging raindrops makes great muscles, right?
  • Discovery: It’s a good idea to ask before you order.
  • Media: City of Angels. It was one of the DVDs left in the flat. It wasn’t good.
  • Worst Thing: See post below.
  • Best Thing: -grins wickedly- It’s a secret.
  • Quote of the Day: “I used ta work for a chippie. I was horrible. Ate all the fish and chips while I was there.”
  • Word of the Day: Burik. A mess.

*

Since I arrived in Scotland, I’ve been hearing about chippies — the little places that serve up what seems to be the national Scottish food, after haggis: fish and chips. Fresh fish, usually, right off the boat. Fresh potatoes, right from …somewhere. Cut up and deep-fried. Served up with malt (vinegar) and table salt and lemon juice in a bottle.

On the way to the butchery, I walk by this little fish place almost every day, and all I can smell is the fish frying, and it smells good. Like the way fish fries used to smell when I lived in Delaware, right on the boardwalk. And you’d get fries in a paper cup, loaded with vinegar and salt.

Every day, it makes my mouth water, this place. I walked by, and in every window: Best Fish & Chips, Awarded 1994! Named Best Chippie 1996! So I decided I’d go, get real Scottish fish and chips, blow a bit of money, but I knew it would be worth it. Two days ago I swung by, and there was a big sign on the door: CLOSED TO CLEAN OUR FRIAR. Now, being closed to clean your friar is probably dangerous, but I figured they meant ‘fryer’ and that seems okay to me. It’s like your airplane being late because they’re fixing the main motor. Go for it. I’ll wait.

Then, yesterday, I went by, but caught them just as they were closing for lunch. Which seems… odd. I mean, I get the library and the butcher and the fishmonger and the bank and the hardware store and hair salon closing for lunch. But a restaurant closing for lunch? Where does everyone go to eat? Home, I’d guess. Although it does seem like most people actually just stand around outside under the overhangs and smoke cigarettes.

So, finally, dinner. Or, dinnertime-ish, and they’re open. They’re also packed, pun intended, to the gills. It is, after all, Friday night. And tomorrow starts the Jazz Bute Festival. Which means it’s not just me standing ’round looking stupidly at the board, but a bunch of other non-locals, as well. You can tell they’re non locals by their: tall boots (men and women), long hair (men and women), big sunglasses (yes to both) and the fact that they all look far too cool to be here. And probably wouldn’t be if they weren’t musicians, music lovers or ‘with the band.’

Finally, some guy takes pity on the wet girl in the wool coat (me, not the other one), tells me if I’m here for “take away” to go stand in that line and if I’m here to eat in, I should just help myself to a table. Which I do. And then I realize that all the cool people “take away” and I’m now sitting in a dining room in which I’m not only the youngest person there, I’m the only person not in a group of five or more and my hair is not at all the appropriate shade of white, gray or that particular see-through blue that only happens when old ladies try to dye their hair.

I eventually order Fish Tea — which sounds nasty, but which the menu assures me is not fish tea at all, but rather a combo platter of fried haddock, fried chips, peas (no mention of them being fried, which is a good thing), bread and butter, and tea. I see milkshakes on the menu and order one of those as well, dreaming of a big thick lumpy and refreshing bit of ice cream and milk.

The bread and butter and milkshake arrive at the same time. The first is white bread laid over thickly with a yellow margarine. The second is a glass of milk that is the same color as said margarine. Turns out, a milkshake in Scotland is, yes, just that. Milk shaken with, in this case, a butter-yellow banana-flavored syrup. That being said, it was surprisingly refreshing, once I got over my initial shock at the appearance and consistency.

The fish was much better — fresh off the boat, and flaky as hell, lightly coated and well-fried. The chips weren’t bad — big squares of potatoes slightly more soggy than I prefer, but fresh-tasting and fairly tasty with a bit of malt on them. The peas we won’t talk about. Not at all.

I managed to keep my head down and my fork up, trying to ignore the curious glances. I’m guessing most of them wrote me off as someone come to see the jazz festival, and that was fine by me. But then, just as I was finishing my dinner, something odd happened. I look around and realized two things: One, the dining room had filled to beyond capacity, and I was no longer the only young or non-Scottish face in the room. There was even, across the way, a gorgeous black woman with the most beauitful brown and grey hair, all carefully woven into dreads. And two, I had eaten my meal in such a quick time that diners who sat down before me were still waiting for their dinners. Or, perhaps, based on the rather pissed expressions on their faces, I hadn’t eaten that fast at all; it was just that their food, for some reason, hadn’t yet arrived.

I figured it was time to head out, and let someone else have the table, but I couldn’t for the life of me find my server. It’s an odd thing how restaurants work around the world. Some places (namely, it seems, Thai restaurants and small cafes), you get your bill dropped to the table before you get the first bite of food in your mouth. Other places, you have to raise your hand and yell to get the bill — although this gesture still makes me incredibly uncomfortable, as though I’m hailing a servant in some prissy-queen fashion, I’ve learned to do it when required so that I don’t sit at the table all night, politely turning my head toward the server each time he swings by in the hopes that he’ll read the desperate look on my face.

But here, I wasn’t sure what to do. My server finally came around — but she was slammed and hurrying (I’d guess, because she couldn’t bare to see the glowering faces of the couple who still hadn’t been fed), and she didn’t seem to see my entreaty for a check. I finally hailed her, asking about the check, to which she replied (I thought), “Sure, let me just run up front and get it for you.” To which I wanted another twenty minutes, then spied two older women at the next table leaving without paying, and decided to follow them, just to see how they went about it (or to see if they were planning to sneak out on their dinner, which would have made a much better story). Sadly, they were just heading to the front, where my server sat at the cash register, looking harried and impatient. She’d likely been, I realized, waiting for me to get my daft ass up front and pay her.

So, I paid, scurried out and promptly stepped right into the cobble stone street, at which point, some nice Scottish person with a car was kind enough to beep the horn before he ran my down. I stumbled back onto the sidewalk — by now full of greasy food, feeling very very far from home, and rather stupid to boot — and found my way back to the flat, where I curled up with a copy of CultureShock! Scotland: A Survival Guild to Customs and Etiquette, which by the way doesn’t cover anything at all about hailing servers, paying bills or how to thank the person who was nice enough not to run you over in the road with his car.

Far and fast, s.

*

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” ~C.S. Lewis

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Responses

  1. Yep… you’ve jumped in the deep end. But as you know from your many travels – restaurants are notoriously hard to navigate. I recall the dread we felt every time we had to eat in our 10 weeks in China. The finding of a restaurant, the hustle to the table with the gigantic menu (most of which was not actually available), the waitress appearing immediately and if we didn’t stammer out an order in perfectly produced Mandarin she huff off never to return, the dozens of people working at the restaurant but terrified to attempt to approach the white folks, the total bafflement at the food that actually arrived, the noise and heat of every eating establishment in China, the many attempts to pay the already (and perhaps permanently) pissed off waitress. It was enough to reduce one to tears and drive you to hole up in the hotel eating granola bars until they ran out. Even eating at McDonalds was a challenge. It was only topped by every other attempt to get services in China – toilet paper in the hotel, subway or bus tickets, mailing a package and worst of all – the dreaded train ticket. My poor, poor unflappable husband was reduced to red-faced rage at more than one train ticket window.

    You’re such a pro – watching the locals and figuring out what to do. A classic American would have thrown a tantrum about the ‘milkshake’, insulted several aspects of the establishment, talked loudly about his extensive travel experience, and then yelled at the waitress for not bringing the check. You will be forgiven by the local populace – particularly after the music fest. Welcome to the deep end! I know you’re a fantastic swimmer.

  2. Oh, you’re brining back so many memories for me! I’ve obviously suppressed some of the less-than-good things from my time there. (Which I’m aware that I’ve done, given that I’ve been aching to go back and doing my usual “did I waste my time?” self-flagellation routine). The “milkshakes,” the disappearing-waitstaff-when-you-want-the-bill routine…

    Every culture is very different, even when we speak (mostly) the same language. We Americans are too used to wolfing down our food and running out the door. It took Ken and I a while to remember to tell our waitperson if we were in a hurry and wanted the bill ASAP, before s/he disappeared. (In Italy, though…ah, blessed Italy is a different experience altogether. In heaven, the waitstaff is Italian.)

    Damn. Now I’m missing/craving fish-and-chips!

  3. Holy Kamoley Girlie! Good thing you have those beautiful stairs to burn off all that grease!

    Love reading about your adventure. You’re a rockstar. Party on!


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