by Rita Nguyen
I’m sipping on a fantastic Scotch, soaking in my last night in Scotland.
Twenty two years ago, I spent the summer bartending in the Highlands. A transformative experience for an fairly sheltered 20 year old nerd. For one thing, I was a pretty ugly kid. Even worse, I was a totally anti-social bookworm. Okay, so some things haven’t changed but it was this summer in Scotland that I truly started to look up from my books and participate in the world around me. I even had my first kiss here. He was a cook named Stuart with sparkling blue eyes. It was in the misty mountains of the Highlands that would form the foundation of the adult I would become.
I was a refugee and grew up really poor. Travelling overseas was never an option. The only reason I was able to go on this trip was because it was a working holiday organized through a student association. I landed in London and three days later pulled up in a bus at a crossroads with a postal office and a beautiful old church at the foot of Ben Nevis. A guy picked me up and took me to the place I would call home for four months. In hindsight, it was probably not a great idea to jump into a car with a total stranger in a foreign country.
My Asian looks were extraordinary and my total inability to understand the heavy Scottish brogue was a constant source of amusement to all those around me. I had to ask most of my colleagues to spell their name out so I could know what to call them. My first night I was dropped behind a rowdy bar that had 18 different ales and lagers and 150 different scotches. To make matters worse, each of these drinks had two or three different names. Luckily the Scots are an easy-going bunch and would walk me to the right pump so I could pull their drink. They probably thought I didn’t speak English. It took me two weeks to understand that having “tea” meant dinner.
It was my first experience traveling on my own. I’ve now been to over 80 countries, most of the time on my own. But this was the first and it was special. It’s my experiences here that gave me the comfort of grabbing my passport and beelining it to the airport without any plans.
I left Scotland and got a tattoo to commemorate my time there. My plan was to finish university and come back. It’s taken me 22 years but I guess better late than never. While there’s been a lot of changes in the world over the past 2 decades, it feels like all the best parts of Scotland have remained the same. The warm hospitality and the Scot’s ability to find joy in the simple things, not to mention the great Scotch. All good reasons to come back.