Last night I dipped a toe outside my comfort zone again and experienced a real Scottish institution, the Women’s Rural Institute. My lovely landlady and neighbor Margaret is a member of this 100 year old organisation and is always going to some event or another. She shows me things like embroidery and stuffed animals that she makes to enter into contests. She speaks with great passion about how she was quite the wallflower until she joined the Institute, where she gained self-confidence and blossomed into a respectable painter and maker of pretty things. She has been trying to talk me into going to a meeting, but I’m an introvert, not a joiner, and I have zero crafty skills. So I didn’t jump on the bandwagon. But last night was an open house fundraiser and once again Margaret invited me. I didn’t want to be rude, and, besides, this would force me to get out and meet people. (I do enjoy meeting new people, I’m just not very good with small talk. I prefer to creep around the periphery of a scene and observe- I think it’s a writer thing.)
At the appointed time, Margaret and I met in the driveway to wait for our ride- another neighbor down the glen. The SUV was already full of eager ladies in high spirits, some of whom I already knew from the pub, geared up for their version of a night on the town. I was the youngest in the car by easily 35 years, but I didn’t mind. I very much enjoy the company of “ladies of a certain age”- they are wise and funny- and they know what is important in life and what is not- exactly how I hope to be someday. There was much wisecracking and giggling on the ride over, and they made feel just like one of the girls. At the village hall, we piled out and I helped to carry in baked goods and flats of plants for the fundraiser sale.
Inside the hall, ladies were scurrying about setting up tables and chairs so I pitched in, all the while making the acquaintance of the other members, who introduced themselves and chatted me up most congenially. The Scots are among the friendliest and most unpretentious folks I have ever encountered, and these gals didn’t disappoint. For a wallflower like me, their generous hospitality warmed my soul like a crackling fire on a chilly Highland night.
Soon more ladies piled into the hall, not just Institute members, but other ladies out to show their support. I was relieved to see my good friend, Michelle, and her daughter, as well as few other familiar faces from the glen. The emcee instructed everyone to take seats as the “Beetle Drive” was about to begin. Beetle Drive? Did I hear that correctly? We shuffled to the tables, four chairs each and took our seats. Little slips of paper were distributed to each of us-a 12 block grid with a crude drawing of- yes, a beetle- at the top and numbered instructions: 1 for the head, 2 for the body, 3 for the antennae, etc. A cup with one die graced each table. In turn we tossed the die, and, depending on the number rolled, drew a part of the beetle in one square on the grid. You got to draw the next part assigned only if it was connected to a part you already had, so you had to roll a 1 to get started drawing the head and then could build it up from there, the object being of course to complete the beetle. It’s a bit like Bingo- on crack. The cup passed furiously from one to another and we collectively groaned or cheered at our luck. Finally someone shouted “Beetle!” and everyone stopped rolling to count up their points- one for each beetle body part. The two top scores for each table moved on to the next table, so for each round I had a new group. This was a great way to meet folks without pressure- just time to introduce yourself and then get rolling. At this rate, I was able to meet most everyone there. I even won a round!
By the sixth round, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one tiring of this silliness, which was fun for a bit but was growing old fast. I suspect some ladies were at least contemplating cheating just to get the thing over with. We tallied our points and prizes were given for the highest and lowest scores. Finally it was time for tea and snacks.
We enjoyed a lovely spread of sweets and savouries and browsed the tables full of baked goods, used paperbacks, scarves, candles and such bric-a-brac. I scored a bag of freshly baked fruit scones for a pound and a little embroidered purse for 10 pence. Raffle tickets were on offer for 50 pence. I never win raffles, but my number was called and I walked away with a tin of luxury chocolate biscuits with chocolate and orange preserves- kudos to me!
The non-members began to file out of the hall and I was told there would be a brief business meeting for the members, so I had to stay behind with my glen friends. Luckily the meeting was indeed brief, and before long we were stacking away the chairs and washing teacups. I got a very low pressure sales pitch about joining the SWRI and was politely non-committal. But I had some new friends and many new acquaintances.
When you start your life over in a new country, you cannot underestimate the power of kindness. I went from having a circle of girlfriends who did everything together to being a stranger in a strange land. But the women here have made the difficult process of rebuilding a network of mates so much easier. And like all the amazing women I have met in Scotland, The SWRI welcomed me with open arms. They key to meeting all these people, though, is that you have to get up your nerve and do things you might not ordinarily. As every expat knows, it’s the little things, the small kindnesses that make a place feel like home. You just have to put yourself out there to discover them.
“A man practices the art of adventure when he breaks the chain of routine and renews his life through reading new books, travelling to new places, making new friends, taking up new hobbies and adopting new viewpoints.”-Wilfred Peterson