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Photo illustration by E. Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

San Josean in Scotland

By Eric 'ug' Carlson

"Snooker can be a cruel game." --Ken Doherty

FRUSTRATED SCOTSMEN, horns blaring, were passing me on the left. Clearly, I had miscalculated in assuming the slow lane was to the right, as it is in good old San Jose. While scrutinizing the alien knobs, buttons and levers inside my rental--a Renault Megane Scenic, I had failed to notice the long queue of buglike cars forming up behind.

A great rainbow splashed into the Firth of Clyde as I stumbled out of the Scenic and into the car lot of the Ardencaple Hotel (Helensburgh, Scotland). "We will be placing you in the Countess of Glasgow, Mr. Carlson," I was duly informed by the hotelier. (My room was named after a steamer that once plied the Clyde in the early 1800s.) Inside the Countess, I took stock of my surroundings: One 12-inch Ferguson television with eight push-buttons (Scotland only has four channels; four buttons were redundant), one tiny bathroom with mammoth bathtub (the tub infringed upon space in front of the toilet--forcing users to sit side-saddle), one electric wall heater--remotely controlled by the hotel (and rarely at that), one bottle of Strathmore sparkling carbonated Scottish spring water--replaced daily, one Voltaire coffee pot with no coffee, and one tiny window buffeted by gale force winds and keening rain.

I was on assignment in Scotland to review British food . . . just kidding. British cuisine is something to survive, not savor and review. Example: the breakfast special at the Ardencaple is Kipper & Bacon--enough said. Pommys and Scottskies were shoveling it down like there was no tomorrow, intermingling gobbles with expostulations of delight ("lovely!"). Personally, I could have done without the Kipper fragrance as I struggled with my poached egg on toast ... with toast on the side. Fish at breakfast--not good.

And I was missing the World Series. Folks on the east side of The Pond don't care a whit for baseball. (Extra points if you know what a whit is.) So, what will you find on the telly? Lashings of snooker tournaments, interminable soccer snoozers, documentaries about herring, zombielike teenagers dancing in full-bore 1970s ambience, and videos of Parliament in action. Watching the MPs (Members of Parliament) do their thing is the absolute pineapple of English humor, replete with sound effects rarely heard outside of a parrot cage. Hear! Hear!

The pain of no baseball was palliated, to a degree, by the Page 3 Girl in the Scottish Sun (Mercury News take note), and the almost constant television coverage of snooker. Few are the sporting venues requiring contestants to grapple wearing crisp bow ties and flowered vests. Solemn referees stand by, donned in immaculate black tuxedos and white kid gloves. If the cue ball should become the least bit chalky, the referee reaches over and wipes the ball clean using his gloved hands. The game is played in total silence on a 12-foot table, employing tiny red and pastel balls propelled into tight pockets; players and referee never speak. Expressions of disappointment over a missed shot are discouraged. It is similar, in spirit, to a Japanese tea ceremony performed by top-drawer Geisha babes.

I did miss baseball. And I suspect United Kingdomers suffer in like fashion when they visit the States. Pining, no doubt, for televised snooker matches between lavender-bow-tied Welshmen, or rousing nil-to-nil soccer sagas between Fiberdeen and Dunfermline. And having instead to settle for such common fare as the World Series, or the Super Bowl or the Masters. Frustrating. And precious little kipper for breakfast.

Homeward bound. At the Glasgow airport I purchased the requisite bottle of duty-free single malt Scotch whisky--Balvenie DoubleWood in this case (aged 12 years). And wolfed down a couple of Mad McCow Burgers at McDonalds.

Final note: Scotland has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. And the natives are aces, if somewhat dour. Just remember to stay left. Always stay left. Repeat this mantra endlessly if you go over.

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From the November 16-22, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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