List of things I brought and didn’t need
1) Sandals I lived in my sandals in California. In the winter, I wore them with socks. We do not wear sandals here in Scotland. Well, some people do in the summer, but their feet probably haven’t thawed from the winter, so they don’t feel the cold. I brought three pairs of sandals with me, and I doubt I’ll ever wear them again. That makes me sad.2) Short sleeved graphic tees I have a collection of these, with pictures of Sasquatches, Lord of the Rings illustrations, and pithy sayings. It’s not that there’s no opportunity to wear them. You can, of course—underneath your layers of flannel shirts and sweaters—but people don’t seem to, much, here—aside from American tourists. And I’m fresh out of baseball caps.
3) So…many…bandanas…. I’m a runner. I’m a Californian runner, used to running in hundred-degree heat. I have a collection of oh, maybe a thousand different bandanas. Twenty shades of each color, souvenirs from different runs and events, a couple with animal prints just for fun. Gotta keep the sweat out of my eyes. But here, the sweat is either blown away in the blustery wind, freezes on your forehead, or is indistinguishable from the rain, so those bandanas? Just taking up space where you should be storing your wool socks.
List of things I got rid of and wish I hadn’t
1) Long-sleeved T-shirts I had quite a few of these with puns and pictures and the logos of different national parks. But again, I wore them once a year or so, so when I lightened my load, they were among the first things to go. I know. I know. But you’d be surprised how hard it is to visualize fifty-degree August days when you’re wearing sandals, shorts, and a bandana in January.
2) Thread I’m a quilter, and over the years, I collected a rainbow of thread in different shades and weights. When I left, I gifted it to my bestie, thinking that thread would be both as inexpensive and as easy to come by as it was in the United States. It is not.
3) That pair of gloves I bought to go “visit the snow” that one time then kept at the bottom of my sock drawer for fifteen years. Dangit.
Things I had no idea I’d need
1) Granny Cart In California, you have to be over seventy to qualify for a license to operate one of those things. Here, however, they’re quite common. A lot of people don’t think twice about walking a mile to the grocery store and bringing a family-sized haul back on foot, or about doing their shopping by bus. When we first arrived, I would heroically try to carry home the shopping for four people, in ordinary grocery bags. When I found myself using a suitcase out of desperation (DO NOT DO THIS) I broke down and bought a Granny Cart. I love it. It has cute little owls on it. And when I do reach seventy, I’ll be well prepared.
2) Bike Panniers Cycling is surprisingly popular in Scotland, despite the rain and the howling winds. It can be an act of defiance—two fingers up to weather that seeks to thwart you at every turn. You have to do what you need to do in spite of the cold, rain, and summer hail—the alternative is to curl up and die. You going to curl up and die, Jack, while your ninety-year-old neighbor cycles uphill through cat-4 winds to get her oatcakes? I didn’t think so. And if the weather is too ugly to pull your Granny Cart, you’ll need your large-capacity bike panniers. Plus they’ll make you look and feel like the Athletic Outdoorsy Person you will eventually become, whether you want to or not.
3) Bus Pass Sometimes the weather is too rough, even for a bicycle. Or maybe you want to go somewhere a little farther away. Or perhaps you just don’t want to ride up That Hill. Again. Edinburgh’s public transportation system is reliable, runs late into the night, and goes just about everywhere. There are so many different payment schemes, from a monthly unlimited plan to discounted bundles of tickets to individual tickets you can store on and activate from your phone. You never know when you might want to lock that bike and hop on a bus, so it pays to be prepared.
Things that were surprisingly difficult, or expensive, to find
1) Crafting Supplies There is no Michael’s here, no Joann’s on every corner. There is a store called Hobbycraft, which is similar, but you’ll have to hunt it down and schlep on the bus with your Granny Cart. What you’ll find in the shopping districts, where normal people go, is a scattering of lovely—but expensive—individually owned fabric and craft stores, each with its own hand-picked selection of goods. So you have to be prepared for a treasure hunt, rather than a zip down to your local Big Box. And that can be a wonderful thing—if you haven’t just run out of a very specific shade of orange thread needed to finish the project you’re working on. You could also Amazon it, but it will still be expensive and you’ll have to deal with delivery purgatory. Best just to take your thread collection with you. Lesson learned.
2) Credit Cards Keep your American credit card, because you’re not getting one here. For the love of Charge-it, this can’t be emphasized enough. You would think that the three big, international credit-reporting agencies that collect everyone’s data would be able to tell a Scottish bank “Yes, this person can be trusted with a credit card.” They probably are able to say as much, but a Scottish bank will not believe them. A Scottish bank—if you’re lucky enough to be able to qualify for a bank account—will barely trust you to use your own money wisely. So hang on to that easily obtained line of credit. You’ll have to pay foreign transaction fees on your purchases, but it’ll be worth it if you find yourself in an emergency.
3) Running Shoes You’d think, with the profusion of running clubs, hill walking, trail runs, etc., that it would be easy to run down to GiantSportsMart to grab a cheap pair of trainers in last year’s color. No. When people do something here, they do it for real, and for that, they need exactly the right equipment. Which doesn’t come cheap. So before you come, raid your local discounter. You’ll thank me.
4) Plastic Sandwich Bags Food storage had its own aisle at my grocery store in California. My two locals here stock one kind of aluminum foil, one kind of plastic wrap, and no baggies of any kind. I’ve seen them at the posh grocery—a selection of exactly two—but it doesn’t seem to be a thing here. This might have something to do with Edinburgh’s commitment to All Things Eco—which I generally support, except when it comes to attempting to pack my kids a lunch. So before you come, toss a couple of boxes of self-sealing bags into your suitcase—in a couple of different sizes. You never know when you might need them, but you can be assured that it will be when you don’t have any.
5) Filter Coffee Edinburgh has amazing cafes and magnificent coffees. The elusive Flat White flows from the taps. What does not flow from the taps, however, or from behind the counters of cafes in general, is filter coffee, that is, what Americans call “just a regular cup of plain coffee, for the love of Java.” The closest thing is an Americano, that is to say, watered-down espresso. Also, be advised that the standard size of a coffee drink is eight ounces, with no refills, for which you can expect to pay three and a half dollars. The same goes for soft drinks in restaurants.
Things that were surprisingly easy to find and/or cheap
1) Vitamins Seriously! Local grocery stores have a terrific selection of vitamins and supplements, and they’re extremely reasonably priced—and, by and large, made in Britain.
2) Cookies and Sweets If supermarket shelves are anything to go by, people here love their sweet treats. These are one of the only food categories that get a full aisle. There are cookies, candies, things that fall somewhere between cookies and candies, little cakes, little pies, and all sorts of bars—including flapjack, which is basically oatmeal cookie bars made with pancake syrup in place of all non-oat ingredients. I think the cheap vitamins are there to balance it out.
3) School Clothes All schools have a uniform, and that uniform is thankfully pretty similar from school to school. Lots of stores—even the grocery store chains–have a great selection of inexpensive, indestructable school clothes in multi-packs—two pairs of trousers for £7 (about $10); two long-sleeved school shirts for the same price. Add a sweater for £5, shoes for £10, and you’re done. A year’s worth of school clothes for less than $50. Boom.
4) Free range/cruelty free/sustainably sourced products Americans are currently fighting to keep the right to know which country (or combination of countries) their food hails from. How many can state the name of the very farmer who produced what they’re putting on the table? I can. In Scotland, locally produced food is clearly marked—and it dominates the market. Several major grocery chains stock only Scottish—or, at most British–meat, for instance. Scottish fish and dairy are the norm. And the majority of produce is clearly, and proudly British. Of the seven brands of eggs at my grocery store, only two are not free range. And the difference in price is less than a quarter.
Things that work surprisingly poorly
1) Household Cleaning Implements Here is where things start to fall apart. Brooms are rubbish. Ditto for mops. They are small, cheaply made, and do little more than push the dirt around. Plus, standard brooms don’t fit neatly with standard dust pans, so you have to sweep things into a pile as best as you can with an ineffective broom, then crouch down and push it into the dustpan with a smaller, hand-held dusting broom. Mops are tiny, with pads that are, max, a quarter inch thick. Absolute rubbish.
2) Tradesmen After moving into our new house, we needed, in pretty short order, a plumber and a roofer. This was our experience with both:
Us: Can you fix _____?
Us: How much will it cost?
Them: Your left arm and your right leg.
Us: Fine. Let me sterilize the saw.
Three weeks later:
Them: We can get started at the end of next month.
Things that work surprisingly well
1) Public Schools Of course, like anywhere, you have to do your research. But we’ve been very pleased with the public high school our kids attend—especially with the emphasis on personal and social development. First year high school students don’t receive a first-quarter report card, for example, but rather a “settling in chat,” in which the school counselor meets with the parent to convey teachers’ impressions of how well the student is taking to school, classes, etc. There’s also a great emphasis on arts—both of our kids take art, music and drama, as well as something called Craft and Design, which includes woodworking and acrylic molding. And no, this school isn’t a special magnet program or located in a particularly upscale area.
2) Teeny Tiny Appliances This is my refrigerator. I ask you.
We were certain we’d be buying an “American Refrigerator” in pretty short order, but it turned out to be unnecessary. Sure, I drag my Granny Cart uphill and through the rain to the grocery store a couple times a week instead of once, but walking is good for you. Besides, how else is a person supposed to metabolize all those cookies?
Also, just so’s you know? A plug adapter is not the same thing as a current transformer. Don’t ask me how I came by that knowledge. Really, don’t.