Old Long Since

High above Iceland the man began screaming uncontrollably, “Save me! Save me!”

It wasn’t his shouting that jolted me from my transatlantic midnight rest, but the sound of total fear in his voice. I quickly sat up, checked my seatbelt, and then turned around to catch the panic on his face.

“Make it stop, make it stop!” he yelled, almost sobbing.

Our flight had experienced severe turbulence ever since leaving America. This was not your average bumpety-bump followed by the pleasant ding of the seat belt sign. High winds had our plane shuddering like a wet dog—a kernel of popcorn bouncing upon the troubled atmosphere. Now that I was awake, I’ll admit, I was a little scared, too—and the woman sitting next to me seemed fairly tense.

The man’s whimpering and loss of self-control was not helping any of us feel at ease. It’s all fun and games until someone has a panic attack at 30,000 feet. I felt sorry for him—embarrassed for his public freak-out and empathetic to his fear of our shaky flight.

“I’m sure my husband will say this is nothing,” said the woman, smiling nervously. Her husband happened to be the pilot who was flying our plane through this never-ending rough patch. She was joining him just this once, cashing in her family travel benefits for the New Year’s holiday: over to Scotland and then back the next day. Their two-year old daughter was staying with her parents and already—she confessed while shaking with the plane, she was worried for their little girl.

Severe airplane turbulence forces you to reconsider your life. Shut your eyes and crank up your iPod but neither will stop you from bouncing up and down like a rag doll and reflecting on your mortality. The pilot’s wife and I tried to keep our cool, white-knuckling our seat rests as the plane bumped our way across the Atlantic, convulsing through the blanket of clouds that cover bonnie Scotland. We landed in Edinburgh with a mighty bump.

“Crosswinds,” explained the pilot’s wife.

I nodded, and as we walked towards immigration, we both expressed relief to have made it back to our solid and unmoving terra firma.

Without exaggeration, I believe that Scottish immigration employs the kindest government officials I have ever met—even going so far as to smile as they handed back my passport and offered plainly, “Welcome to Scotland.”

This was my final journey of the year on the final day of December. Already the world was counting down until midnight—all of us waiting for the end and the clean slate that follows with the clock’s neat tick of the second hand. Beyond the airport, the streets were shiny and wet with recent rain, the darkness fading into the final grey dawn of 2012.

Grey surrounded me all morning—in fact, Scotland’s capital may be the greyest city on Earth, although up close, so many of the stately buildings are made from weathered beige stone. The pillars and steeples, bridges and bricks, the castle walls and cobbled streets—the architectural jumble of Edinburgh looks like a beautiful watercolor, painted by an artist who used up all of his colors on the sky.

An hour after landing, I was already walking up and down the Royal Mile, considering the monuments and old-time shop fronts loaded with wooly souvenirs.

“Does this scarf come in McGregor?” I asked one shopkeeper, feeling the softness on my fingers. He turned around and shrugged a helpless “I don’t know”—he was Chinese, hired to cope with the shop full of Chinese tourists buying up cashmere sweaters and scarves and shawls. There was an incongruence here—I the American, requesting my Scottish family tartan from the Mandarin-speaking shopkeeper.

Back on the street I ran headlong into a larger-than-life-sized effigy of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and once voted the greatest Scotsman in all human history. Indeed, nearly every one of the world’s greatest inventions can be attributed to a Scottish person, even economics, though I doubt even Adam Smith ever imagined the strange global commerce that takes place in Edinburgh.

I found my family scarf in the end and proudly wound it ‘round my neck. When evening came, I belted on my kilt and joined the throngs in the street, everyone reveling in the Scottishness of the night.

“What tartan is that?” asked one bagpiper, taking a break from his pipes and letting the drones heave with a dying melancholy sound.

“McGregor!” I replied, afraid that he was testing me—afraid that somehow I was doing something wrong, wearing something wrong.

“It’s a nice one—I really like the red and green,” he answered. No he was not testing me—he was just being nice. We chatted, I gave him my requests and he played some of my favorite songs to other passing tourists.

There was a piper on every corner it seemed—just as I left the sound of one piping piper in one ear, another piping piper perked up in the other. I counted the coins in their cases—Hogmanay is a good night to be a piper in Scotland.

“Adam Smith would be proud,” I thought, regretting that I ever stopped my bagpipe lessons. Why must New Year’s always come attached with unwelcome reminders of unachieved goals and unfinished business.

Thus began my Hogmanay—wandering the dark yet lively streets of Scotland’s capital in a kilt, dipping into candlelit churches alive with glorious music—nibbling on shortbread and watching the city grow brighter and brighter with colored electric lights, the neon glare of the huge street carnival and overhead, the early fireworks crackling red, green, and purple in the sky.

The closer we approached midnight, the brighter and more colorful became Edinburgh. Down inside the canyons of gothic spires, the streets became rivers of happy people—shouting, dancing, laughing. The drinking was good-natured and downplayed—the mood was joyful and convivial. Somehow, on this one night, we were all allowed to be good friends, shouting “Happy Hogmanay!” to one another and really meaning it.

At the Keilidh, strangers danced with one another, young and old. After spinning arm and arm, I spoke with two kindly English grannies who had bought their tickets to the dance four months in advance. They were from Newcastle, in the far north of England—or as they say in Scotland, “The South.”

As the pipers played one jig after another, we commented on how much fun it was to have several thousand people dancing together in the street

“Everybody is so nice here,” I said.

“Of course they are,” admitted one Englishwoman, “They’re Scottish.” I laughed at this, remembering all the people I have met this past year—how nearly every country I go to is inhabited with “such nice people.”

I cannot say that everybody in the world is nice—but traveling as much as I have this past year has taught me that most people are decent, hospitable and given the chance—warm and welcoming to strangers.

And yet, every country has a different way of showing it. In Scotland, they show kindness with a shared drink, a woolen scarf to ward off the cold—with a good song, a swift-footed dancing partner, a heartfelt chat, and a good laugh. Hogmanay includes all of the above and as the clock struck midnight, the city erupted into this amazing show of joy, such that I have never before experienced.

The sky exploded with even more color, the bagpipes turned symphonic and the crowd of a hundred thousand partygoers shouted with lungfuls of cold northern air. Then began that wonderful Scottish song of remembrance—the song that has become the world’s unofficial New Year’s national anthem.

Auld Lang Syne is a poem by Robert Burns, but the song dates back much further—an old Scottish custom that was carried across the globe by ancestors like my own great-grandfathers, and like so many Scottish customs, was co-opted into traditions across the globe.

In America, we sing Auld Lang Syne without ever really knowing what those old Scotch words mean—just like we gift fruitcake at Christmas without ever really eating the stuff. And yet somehow, we keep doing it year after year.

Now I was finally in Scotland on New Year’s, listening to thousands of Scots singing a song they actually all knew.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

I listened to the powerful chorus surrounding the National Gallery of Scotland, its classical pillars aglow with purple and pink lights, the crowds joined arms in a circle, crossing one over the other, reeling inward and then zooming out. This too is an old Scottish tradition, though it’s also a safe and well-balanced dance for people who have been drinking all night.

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We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.

Many cups of kindness had already been drunken this night—I had already felt its warmth. Out on the streets, so many new friends and strangers had already hugged and kissed me like a brother. Now they were repeating that old Scottish phrase again and again.

Auld lang syne means “old long since”—similar to saying “long, long ago” or “once upon a time”. It is a song of remembrance, reminding us to relish the past and to be grateful for memories and friends now gone.

The first few minutes of 2013 had begun, bathed in a loud and public rendition of Robert Burns’ most famous work. There are five known verses to the song and as I stood there in the night, my knees cold and bare, I heard one line that spoke to me:

But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit sin auld lang syne. (But we’ve wandered many a weary foot, since old long since.)

“Indeed we have,” I thought. “And my feet are weary, too.” It’s been a long and fulfilling year—I have traveled more in 2012 than any other time in my life, clocking close to half a million miles, yet with all that globetrotting, I could not think of a better place to be for the end of the year than dear Scotland.

The song finished and the band picked up the next dance, while tens of thousands of people pushed through the streets. As I hiked up The Mound, a pack of bodies pressed around me, so that I was no longer walking myself up the hill, but being carried by the inertia of the crowd.

Suddenly I heard my name—“Andrew!”

Now, shouting “Andrew” in Scotland is a kind of useless exercise, but this voice had called out right next to me followed by a strong tap upon my shoulder. So many random strangers had already hugged me but this time, when I turned around, I recognized the body pressed up behind me. It was the woman from the plane—the pilot’s wife! Out of some 100,000 partygoers in the streets of Edinburgh, I had randomly ended up squashed next to my seatmate from the night before, along with her husband.

I reached over the jam of people and shook the pilot’s hand, then thanked him for flying me to Scotland safely.

“No problem,” he smiled. Together, the three of us were transported by the crowd all the way back up the hill, carried together by the people’s will. I bid the pilot and his wife goodnight—in a few hours they would leave for the airport and fly back to America—then I head back to my hotel, well exhausted but happily humming the strains of auld lang syne.

This was my New Year’s and I am quite content with it. As holidays go, mine was about as perfect as could be—I had traveled to Scotland on the final day of the year, I had been surrounded by the warmth of strangers, and I was reminded of strong and basic truths: how the world is so very small, how life gets interrupted with frightening bouts of turbulence, but with the passing of time, we pull through—and most important of all, how we are all in this together, and this is the way it’s always been . . . old long since.

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