Melia Wong traveled to Glasgow, Scotland over the summer to work with a music education project. Sistema Scotland sets up disadvantaged students with music instruments and lessons, and eventually places them into community orchestras. After arriving, Melia found that writing about travel was just as interesting as writing about music.
My flatmates David and Kevin go out on the town with an ease that rivals many college students. David works from Manchester and London, and is rarely at our shared flat, but when he is, the two put on their hippest outfits to meet their group of gay friends.
“Mayyyy-leeee-ahhhhh,” David whines from the other room. “Do you think this jacket looks okay on me? Kevvie says it doesn’t.” He bounds into the living room where I’m curled up on the mod couch. The jacket is real, slightly reflective black leather with countless metallic touches.
“Of course it does!” I give nothing but encouragement in this early stage of our relationship.
“We’ve fallen out, Melia,” Kevin calls snippily from the other room.
“He’s just jealous.” David postures proudly, as if looking in an invisible mirror.
“And, we’re going to have to see him tonight!” Kevin shouts adamantly.
“Oh, just a friend who won’t shut up about the Brexit.” David rolls his eyes. “It’s all anyone will talk about, hun.”
“Have you voted yet?” Rosie asks with a feverish concern to everyone we see. It’s election night, and the polls close in four hours. The prospect of leaving the EU has frightened Rosie for the past few weeks. “I’ve actually gotten really, really nervous about it,” she tells me as her art school friends laugh around us. Gordon and Jamie discuss about a show that Gordon is ‘curating’ (“But I really hate using that word,” he moans, pushing his wire-rimmed grandpa glasses up his nose). The topic of the Brexit slowly pulls them away from the world of modern art and into the throes of politics.
“Is it mostly conservatives who are voting to leave?” I ask. As a Government major, I have many, many questions.
“Not really,” Rosie sighs. “Mostly racists, if we’re being honest.”
“Don’t forget the extreme socialists,” adds Gordon. “People who think the EU is beyond repair. And the anti-immigrant folk.”
Do they know anyone who is voting to leave? No, according to Jamie, but there are “plenty of them out there.” Rosie’s entire friend group voted to remain in the EU, but leave the UK. This distinction confused me: in some ways, weren’t the votes quite similar? According to Rosie, not at all.
“When we voted on leaving the UK last year, it was about what Scotland could do on its own,” she explaines. “It was about pride, about what we could offer as a country. This, this leaving the EU….” A pause. “This is about fear.”
The votes are in, and the UK is out of the EU. Kevin texts me after the announcement. Well, you are in the UK at a historic time, he writes. When I ask how he feels toward the outcome, Kevin does not mince words. I hate the EU. They refuse to listen to the populous and think they can dictate from afar.
On the other hand, Kevin hates that England basically made the decision for Scotland and Northern Ireland, both of which voted to remain. It’s triggered the second Scottish Independence Referendum, Kevin types. Bit of a chaotic mess. The whole campaign has been smoke and mirrors. The prospect of a second referendum looms above us, squeezing everyone into a slightly more tense version of themselves.
The next day, Rosie invites me to the Glasgow School of Art’s Degree show, where graduates display their best work in hopes of praise and even sales. I accept immediately, grateful that she’s taken me under her wing. She and I will start volunteering at a music charity on Monday, but getting to know her outside of work is its own reward.
We spend a few hours wandering around the installations: video projects, sculptures made out of vaseline and ebony wood, and paintings that decidedly belong in museums. After our eyes tire, we stroll over to the MONO cafe, a vegan place with a delightfully outlandish chef.
“May I ask…” I swirl my straw around my mango lychee lemonade. “How do you feel about the vote?” George, Rosie’s boyfriend, puts his face in his hands despondently.
“I haven’t had time to rant to anyone yet.” His response is slightly muffled. “I haven’t really processed it, you know?”
“Same,” Rosie says. “I was so nervous for so many weeks, and now, it’s actually happened. I can’t believe it. I guess I’ll have to get over that.”
“I’ve noticed quite a bit of talk about a second Scottish Independence Referendum.” They nod solemnly over their vegan fare. “Do you think the outcome will be different?”
“Oh, yes. This is what’s going to happen. Boris Johnson will be elected Prime Minister.” From the little I’ve gathered over the past week, the former Mayor of London is the ultimate pre-Trump. “Then, Scotland will hold the second Referendum. And what is the UK without Scotland? If you just look at a map, it’s incomplete.” Rosie turns her gaze away from the table, searching.
“And we,” says George, pulling Rosie’s eyes back onto him, “will most definitely be voting to leave.”
Rachelle, my manager, finds me in the hallway after my second day of work. We’ve had a full day of herding kids from session to session, occasionally correcting their behavior, musical or unrelated. “Nice job with Antonio today.” She gives me a winning smile. “I noticed that he stood close to you after you talked to him. Whatever you said, it worked.” I tell her it was no big deal. Antonio sought attention during our cricket match at Sistema, and I spoke to him as an adult. He loved being treated as an equal.
“We’re on our lunch break now. Do you know where to go if you need food?” I shake my head no. “On the next street over, there’s a great place called Nan’s. They sell sandwiches and things, and it’s inexpensive. Actually, come to think of it, ‘Nan’s’ might not be on the sign. Oh well. It’s the only place there– you can’t miss it.”
When I walk into the sturdy little shop, I’m greeted by multiple women in white uniforms and crisp chef’s caps. They’ve just mopped the floors, so I bounce carefully between two islands of cardboard. Three women tidy around the shop, and I address the one behind the counter: “Hello! I was wondering what’s good here. What’s your favorite thing that you serve?”
“Everything is good,” the woman replies, an eyebrow raised. “Hot or cold?”
“You should try the chicken curry,” says a different woman, this one closer to my age.
“Great, I’ll take that.” I glance at the sign above the counter. The meal is a mere £2.50— about $3.35.
I hop from cardboard to cardboard and slide open the glass door to the drinks display. “One of these, please.” I place the mysterious orange bottle on the counter and hand over the money. It’s time to try Irn Bru.
There are great stories behind this drink, which is fondly referred to as “Scotland’s Other National Drink” (the first being whisky). When I first arrived, Cheryl told me I had to try the haggis, shortbread, and Irn Bru. “What in the world is Iron Brew?” I asked her, trying to spell it out in my mind.
“You know how Coke is the number one soda, like, everywhere? That’s true, except for Scotland. Irn Bru is number one here.” She wore the smile of a proud Scot, and had good reason: Irn Bru has been produced in Glasgow for a hundred years, and has been successfully marketed to Scots by appealing toward their nationalism.
After weeks of glancing at the drink in vending machines, I take the plunge. Spinning the bottle round on the counter, I notice the label: BRU’D IN SCOTLAND TO A SECRET RECIPE SINCE 1901. I warily twist off the cap. It makes a satisfying “pop” when released. The soda’s color is more neon orange than fanta, so brightly fluorescent that it almost looks toxic. “This is the first time I’ve had Irn Bru,” I tell the young woman behind the counter. She smiles in disbelief.
“No, can’t have been. You haven’t had Irn Bru before?” She shakes her head emphatically. “Listen up, this is her first time trying Irn Bru,” she shouts back to the kitchen. A number of other women file out of the kitchen, wiping their hands or pushing their hair back. I have gone from bland foreigner to excitement of the workday.
“It’s really your first time?” another chef asks. I smile, nod, remove the cap, and slowly lift the bottle to my lips. A moment passes while the mind waits for the taste buds to deliver their verdict. Based on the color, I expect something much fruitier, but this is unbelievably smooth– like cream soda, but less cloying. The blend of 32 syrups and flavorings confuses me– it seems almost metallic as it passes my lips, but docile after. I can tell all eyes in Nan’s are on me, waiting for my reaction.
“I love it.” I set the bottle down appreciatively. There is a flurry of excited movement and a general nodding of heads.
“That’s because it’s pure sugar,” the older woman jokes. I glance down at the label and grin: the slim bottle contains nearly 60% of my daily sugar intake. “You better drink half and see how you feel,” she laughs. I try to take her advice, but the bottle calls to me, and I can’t help but take surreptitious– almost guilty– sips throughout the day. There’s nothing to be done.