Few times in our lives are we afforded the chance to transport ourselves back to our seventeen year old selves. Flashbacks of heartbreak, unadulterated foolishness, and social gaffes patiently wait to leap out at unpredictable moments. Last night was one such occasion for the Expat Princess. Invited to a Burns Supper by Scottish Jewel Box neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. MacTartan, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s most precious poet, Robert Burns, Mr. Understanding and I were keen to drink whisky with the Scots of Shanghai and participate in the festivities. For long ago, in my Senior year of high school, I selected Robert Burns, Scotland’s poet laureate, as my subject and memories of the experience made the Burns Supper a not-to-miss event.
Burns Suppers generally follow a certain protocol, which my high school research had not revealed: The Selkirk Grace, Address to the Haggis, The Immortal Memory, Toast to the Lassies and the Response from the Lassies, and finally, Ceilidh (pronounced Cay lee) dancing. Haggis, Burns’ favorite meal, is an unfortunate minced meat blob containing, among other things, beef liver, lamb kidneys, oatmeal, and suet. A special toast is said to the beastie before it is slashed with a knife. Accompanying the haggis are “neeps n’ tatties” (mashed turnips and potatoes). A capful of whisky poured over the mess generally improves the flavor; fortunately for us, there were other things to eat as well. Scottish music was provided by three lads flown in from Scotland, presumably, by Virgin Air. On each table sat two bottles of Famous Grouse Burns Night whisky. There was also a raffle to benefit our favorite heart charity, fitting since Burns himself died of endocarditis, and we took home a case of wine.
The highlight of the evening for me, however, was the music and dancing. Ceilidh dancing, the predecessor of American folk dancing, reminds one of every Merchant and Ivory movie, except the pace is a lot faster and rivals Carnaval in Rio for constant heartpounding. I nearly stroked out on my first dance, Dashing White Sergeant. There is a lot of do-si-doing and flinging each other around by the crook of the elbow. Mr. Understanding even joined me for Strip the Willow. Scotsmen, young and old, some with young Chinese companions, made me wonder if men a hundred years ago were celebrating with such fervor in Shanghai. My guess is yes. One couple, a Scottish lass dressed in a Chinese qipao, was having a rip-roaring time with her Chinese escort. Although Bonnie MacTartan remarked that they looked like a couple of librarians, they looked like a couple of librarians having a lot of fun. The Chinese lad could not figure out the dance steps to save his life but his girl didn’t mind and flung him around to the best of her ability. The evening ended by all celebrants standing in a huge circle singing Auld Lang Syne.
Whilst engaged in last week’s garage purge, I came across a box filled with manila envelopes, one of which was labeled “Old High School Papers”. Why does one save such things? For posterity, of course, and to refresh one’s memory. Because one is a packrat. Yesterday, out of curiosity, I dug out the envelope and inside, with the staples rusting, was my term paper entitled “Great Scot!”. I thought it well written myself and had remembered getting an A. But no, there in Mr. Edwards’ scratchy handwriting was evidence to the contrary: “Interesting, generally accurate, and certainly informative! The style is at times fresh and at times cheeky, but the tone is alive. Explicate his poems in your presentation. B.” Hunh? Well, Robert Burns himself was nothing if not cheeky. It was dancing an Irish jig to some of Burns’ music for my in-class presentation, cementing my social geekiness forever, that earned me the A. Ah, to be seventeen again …..
Robert Burns died penniless at the age of 37, the father of many children, some legitimate, some not, leaving a trail of broken hearts and a legacy of poetry that withstands the test of time. Bones will crumble but words rise up. His songs and poems remain popular because “they describe universal feelings of love, pride and the glory of living. He captured the ordinary, mundane events of everyday life and made them seem special and significant.” [self-quote]. Here is but a bit, one of the most famous, A Red, Red Rose:
O my luve is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my luve is like the melodie,
That’s sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.
Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
And fare thee weel, my only luve!
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.
On January 25, Burns’ actual birthday, download some of The Proclaimers, pour yourself a scotch, and skip the haggis. In preparation for next year’s party, I am thinking of getting Mr. Understanding a kilt, they are so dashing. That red-haired gene had to come from somewhere … oh, and don’t throw away your term papers. They just might come in handy.
For more on the life and times of Robert Burns go to http://www.robertburns.org. If you insist on making the haggis, there is also a recipe.