Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tae A Poet

I went to college with a lot of foreigners. It made the experience a lot more interesting.

For instance, during my freshman year I had a roommate from Trinidad and another from Boston, and I have to say I had just the worst time trying to understand what the guy from Boston was saying. It sounded like English, but the words never really made sense in the particular order that he used them. Trinidadian slang, on the other hand, is pointedly and often graphically clear. When Gervase wanted you to know something, it got known.

Also, he made the world's most evil coffee. Even I, who to this day still don't drink the stuff, knew that his coffee was something to behold. When Gervase was making his Mean Brew, the more timid souls at the university were well advised to hide behind their ottomans, for there would be caffeine-fueled revelry in the streets for days.

If six tablespoons of sugar dissolve into a twelve-ounce mug without leaving sediment, you know you've got powerful coffee.

But it was my last three years in college where the fact that I was local - the fact that I had, indeed, been born at the very hospital attached to that university - was most vividly shown to be odd.

The Van Pelt College House at the University of Pennsylvania held about 170 students and an assortment of faculty members that Penn spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get rid of, occasionally for very good reasons. We were an eclectic group, with a well-deserved and proudly held reputation as "4-F House" - Freaks, Fags, Foreigners, and Freshmen who didn't know any better, which, by process of elimination, made me a Freak. It is an eye-opening thing to share a suite with people who share precious little else with you. You find out just how much you do share, after a while.

One year we counted and discovered that there were students from 27 countries and 36 states at Van Pelt. That included my three roommates that year, who hailed from Israel, Greece and the Philippines and ranged in age from 16 to 22. Tom's dad used to call on his lunch break from Athens. Do you have any idea what time it is in Philadelphia when it is noon in Athens? About half an hour after Tom rolled in, that's what time it is. We had students from India. We had students from northern Africa. There was one suite that held three Greeks and a Turk, who got along just fine. Ed had a cat he named Bonjuk, which to this day is the only word I know in Turkish (even if I have no idea how to spell it). It means "pearl."

But the largest contingent of foreigners was from Britain - and the majority of those were from Scotland. Penn had an exchange program with the University of Edinburgh, and for some reason most of them ended up at Van Pelt. And where there is a certain density of Scotsmen, you will invariably have a Burns Supper.

Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland. He was born on January 25, 1759, making this the 250th anniversary of his birth, and is probably best known today for being the guy who wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne," though I don't know if he wrote the tune. Naturally, we had to celebrate this guy.

If you have never been to a Burns Supper, well, you should, at least once. It is probably the only regularly occurring event in the world dedicated to the dubious proposition that haggis and scotch are good for you in large quantities, a proposition we did our best to test every year.

The Society of Saint Andrew, which sponsored this event for us, was a curiously amnesiac body whose institutional memory only stretched back one year. This explains why every other year our scotch allotment would be rigorously limited, and when that worked out fine (the main scotch consumption would be moved off-site those years) they would remove the restrictions, only to rediscover why those restrictions were there in the first place, and then the cycle would begin again. You could set your watch by it.

We would get dressed up in our finery and head off to the dining hall (one year it was in a hotel, and they never made that mistake again). We'd gather 'round, waiting, and then there would be The Piping In Of The Haggis. Someone would appear with the haggis - a type of sausage made from everything you would not ordinarily eat out of a sheep, ground up, mixed with oatmeal and boiled in the sheep's stomach; it was tasty if you didn't think about it too much - and parade it around for us to inspect, all the while being trailed by someone playing the bagpipes.

Now, understand - our dining hall was built in the 1970s. It was a low-ceilinged room with bare concrete walls and large plate glass windows. It was not designed with The Piping In Of The Haggis in mind. Bagpipes, played under those conditions, make your innards vibrate and your ears bleed, which might also be part of why the Saint Andrew people relented on the scotch every other year. It was an experience, I can tell you that.

There would then be a dramatic reading of Burns' poem, "Tae A Haggis," which nobody could understand no matter how much scotch they had consumed, and when it eventually became clear that the poem was over, we could then eat. There would be a first course of haggis, neeps and tatties, (haggis, turnips and potatoes, in non-Scots English), after which they would bring out food that people would actually eat and the party would start.

It's the cultural opportunities that make college so special.


Ewan said...

Hmm. If your haggis was'nae guid (ahem) then it was being poorly prepared. It's a genuinely delicious dish, and the use of one's hose-sheathed sgian dubh to slice it open as one recites 'trenching your gushing entrails bright' can be a masterpiece of theatre.

The whole evening is a ritual that I treasure. Having watched my 15 year-old read 'to a mouse' for a decade now - pretty neat.

David said...

Oh, I did'nae say it wasn't guid! (And that's as far as I'll even try to write in that accent...) As noted, in the manner of most sausages, it wasn't bad if you didn't think too hard about it. I was one of the few who actually finished it.

I can't say it's a dish I've gone out of my way to find again. And given that this was Philadelphia in the 1980s, I can't vouch for how well it was prepared (I'm not even sure genuine haggis was legal in the US at the time, or indeed if it is even now). But whatever they served us was bad.

The scotch helped too. ;)

I do miss the Burns Suppers. Even in a bare concrete dining hall, the ritual was something grand.

David said...

*wasn't bad.