Are You Ready for Oban '96?
Mountain View, California
Diane Weissman is a Briton married to Bob, a long-time Californian. Both have been active members of the De Anza Chapter since 1987. Recently they spent a year living, working and travelling in Great Britain. In May 1994 they toured Scotland with retired American rhodaholic friends and were fortunate to meet some of the organizers of the 1996 convention. Below is some of their advice to those planning their first visit to the United Kingdom.
You have been looking forward to going to Oban for the 1996 ARS Annual Convention since it was announced. You've already mentally packed your bags, but are you really prepared? Do you know what to expect, what not to expect, and what might be expected of you?
As anyone who has ever been involved in running and organizing a convention knows, it's an awful lot of work, and you start well, well ahead of time. Now imagine that the average distance between your organizing committee's homes is in the order of 150 miles, with two living in what is, in effect, another country. Herculean effort? We say that it's true dedication and that all of us planning to be guests at this convention should be truly grateful to these noble Scots. How can we be gracious guests of these hardworking people and their fellow countrymen and women?
First of all, relax, slow down. You are on holiday in one of the most beautiful areas of the world. This is a place to unwind and absorb the natural beauty. So you didn't get on your first choice tour - it doesn't matter. All the trips will be unique and special in their own way, and there's enough for everyone who wants to do something. For us, Scotland was like living the species course - totally different from anywhere in the States, and some of the best moments were the most unexpected - views, vistas, chance meetings, sunlight falling through the rain, a small private garden added unexpectedly to our plans. Scotland's a place to just let things happen.
Don't try to drive during the convention. Oban has more resident cars than parking spaces. Walking is the only practical way of getting around in this small town. (It's a pleasant 10-minute stroll from the convention center to the hotels and shops.) A couple of mini-buses are planned to offer a morning and evening shuttle between hotels and the convention center, but these are intended for the less mobile, not those who forgot to pack their umbrellas.
The organizers have planned comfortable buses to get you from Glasgow airport to Oban and back. Trying to drive on the left-hand side on busy narrow winding roads in a stick shift vehicle is a headache you don't need, particularly when you are jet-lagged after an international flight. Besides, the views on the three-hour drive to Oban are spectacular and you wouldn't want to miss them (if you can stay awake after your flight, that is.) Good quality hotels are available at Glasgow airport for those arriving later in the day. Don't underestimate how tiring it is to lose a night and change five or more time zones. Arriving a day or two before the convention starts would be ideal if time permits. If you intend to hire (rent) a car and tour afterwards you can pick it up at Glasgow airport after the convention.
Observe how the Scots do things, how they dress and talk. You'll find that despite their penchant for tartans Scots generally wear muted colors and a lot of earth tones, so don't pack your favorite yellow pants or checkered golfing trousers. Scots talk quietly. Try it - people still hear you. Scotland is a very polite country, and they'll appreciate your "pleases" and "mays." Leave your "gimmes" and "I wants" at home. You'll find your Scottish hosts wonderfully helpful and wanting to please you, but take your patience with you. Oban is a relatively remote small town, not a huge metropolis; resources are limited and not all problems will be readily solved.
Although the British speak a similar language their customs, social expectations and the ways of life are very different from the U.S. Those rebels who wanted change and progress went and found it by exploring and colonizing ands faraway, calling them "New" Jersey, "New" England, etc. Those who liked things the old way stayed. Their descendants are here today, and so are many traditional ways of doing things. Resist the temptation to compare things to "back home." You can tell your friends back home about all the differences when you return. If the Scots want to know about the U.S., they'll come and visit. And, yes, I know you need those slides for your next chapter meeting, but enjoy the gardens and views with your eyes, your minds and your souls, not just your view finders.
Our experience is that an American travelling to a European country where the language is different accepts that it is a foreign country and expects to adapt, but an American travelling to Britain where the language is relatively easily understood doesn't really expect things to be different. But almost everything is different - money, telephones, newspapers, the food, even the language. Do you know what a "loo" is? Travelers who expect, anticipate and are prepared for differences can avoid many potential pitfalls, frustrations and disappointments. Come prepared for a "foreign experience" and enjoy the differences!
One of the first differences you will notice is that it's hard to get water to drink with your meals. At best you'll get lukewarm tap water. Ice, well, that's often not available at all, and when it is available it's strictly rationed - two lumps per person if you're very lucky. There's no real solution to this dilemma. No amount of complaining will convince a canny Scot to invest in a machine that makes ice in a place that's got more than its fair share of ice cold rainwater. Sometimes you'll be able to purchase bottled water, but often you'll have to resort to a fizzy drink (soda) or squash (a non-carbonated drink similar to Kool-Aid.) Coffee is normally served white - if you want it without milk you need to remember to ask for "black coffee." A cup of tea will also come with milk already added, so ask for "a pot of tea for one" or "tea with lemon."
Eating out in Britain is a luxury, not a regular event for most people. Restaurants tend to divide into three main categories "fancy" restaurants, pub food and teashops. There is no equivalent to moderately priced chains such as Denny's, Chilli's or Fresh Choice, although McDonalds and Burger King have found their way to Britain.
In "fancy" restaurants meals are served in relatively elegant surroundings, often from 7 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. onwards with prices running at $15-$30 for a main course. Pubs often offer meals for those wishing to eat earlier in the evening and selection and prices vary enormously. Teashops are open all day for drinks, snacks and full meals. Much of the food they offer is quite plain, a lot is fried and availability of fresh fruit, salads and vegetables is rather limited. Salad, by the way, is generally a meal choice, not a dish eaten before a meal.
If you are staying in bed and breakfast accommodations and your hostess offers "evening meal" this is likely to be excellent value, good home cooking. A three-course meal of soup, main meal and pudding may cost $10-$15 per person. Shopping hours are much more restricted than in the U.S. so if you are staying in self-catering accommodation bring enough coffee, cookies, etc., for the first night in case you arrive after the shops have closed. There are no 24-hour grocery stores. Self-catering accommodations also expect you to bring your own towels and dishtowels. Sometimes these can be rented from the landlord, but request this service early as supplies of towels will be quite limited.
In order to avoid misunderstandings be clear about the accommodation that has been reserved for you. A double room in Britain will get you one double (4'6") bed. If you need two beds you must request a twin room which will have two single beds. Some bed and breakfast establishments will offer a family room, with a double and a single bed, but often the single is a child's, or folding portable bed, appropriately called a Z (pronounced "zed") bed. A queen bed, if you are offered one, will be 5 feet wide, and a king, 6 feet. A room with an adjoining private bathroom is called an "en-suite." Some bed and breakfast rooms will have rooms with "private" bathrooms which are across the hallway - basically no one shares it with you, but you will need a dressing gown to go to the loo (toilet). Others will have shared "facilities." If your accommodation says "with bath" that's what you'll get - a tub, a washbasin and a toilet. Showers are much more common than they used to be but not universal. In a hotel expect the shower to be fitted over the bath.
Finally, be sure to pack:
Supplies of film, particularly if you must have a specific type of film, as not all types sold in the U.S. are available in the U.K. Slide film comes packaged in two ways - with or without U.K. processing. The film is the same, but in the former case you are paying ahead for a service that you may not be able to use.
Ample supplies of prescription medications. Most drugs have different names in the U.K. and finding the equivalent can be difficult. Some are not available in the U.K. and mailing drugs from the U.S. to the U.K. is not permitted. Be sure to carry medications in your hand luggage just in case your bags are delayed.
Over-the-counter medications that you use regularly. For example, Tylenol, Advil, Robutusin and Gavescon are not known in the U.K.
Hay fever medication, if pollen is a problem. A British doctor's prescription is required for most types in the U.K.
Midge (bug!) repellent and sting cream. We didn't have any problems with these local inhabitants, but if there's a hot spell, or if you are staying on in Western Scotland, they can be a problem in the late afternoon and evening from mid-May onwards.
Motion sickness patches if you are susceptible (again not available in the U.K.). The ferry crossings are short and the ferries large, but some trips do involve traversing rough water. Some people may also find that travelling on the twisting roads aggravate motion sickness.
Layers of clothing. Historically May is a good month for weather in Argyll, but temperatures are somewhat cooler than in the Pacific Northwest. Expect some sun, some rain, some mist and some wind, often all on the same day. The British climate is best described as "changeable."
Waterproof jackets/coats, shoes and headgear. Tours will run irrespective of the weather, as they did when it was wet in Tacoma a couple of years ago.
Strong, comfortable, waterproof, non-slip walking shoes (boots for those delegates who can't resist frequent side trips into the undergrowth). Many gardens involve uneven terrain. Pathways are often not paved. Rain or mist can make walkways and wooden bridges slippery. Convention attendees with limited mobility should identify themselves to the organizers who can probably advise on the most suitable tours.
Adapter plugs for your dual voltage hairdryers, shavers, etc. Switch the voltage to 240V (or 220V) before you pack them. We had quite a fireworks display from a hairdryer left on 110V.
A sense of humor, and a notebook to write down all of those funny experiences so that you can laugh about them with your friends back home.
See you in Oban!