We wore our wool coats in the middle of a southern California summer, waved goodbye to our mothers, and boarded a plane to Scotland a year after we said our “I do’s.” We touched down in northern Scotland a day later, bleary-eyed and discombobulated watching a foreign countryside fly past on the wrong side of the road.
When we made it south to Edinburgh a fortnight later, we were struck we didn’t know what “BMT” stood for — the ending to our first address as expat postgraduate students in Britain. It was the basement and when we’d creaked open that peeling paint of the blue main door and walked down the stairs, we realized why our rent was so cheap. We’d imagined all sorts of exotic sounding appellations for BMT with no idea that it meant a “basement” flat with one tiny window to let in the light.
We didn’t know enough to be sorely disappointed. We hadn’t yet puffed ourselves up with multiple children and proper jobs to feel we were entitled to a better habitation. It was sufficient. It was what we could afford. We could walk the several miles to university and back. We could make it work. There was enough love and tea to go around. And plenty of books.
That was the flat with spongy wallpaper, a textured sort of wall covering that would leave the mark of your finger’s indentation when pressed. We’d covered it in a neutral cream paint hoping to erase some of its garishness. We had to duck under the water tank to make it to the too-small toilet. Our “bedroom” was small enough that my new husband slept against the cold wall in our double bed and we both trudged along the small path between the other wall and the red carpet. Day after day.
Plopped into a different country, into a world of postgraduate studies where our American dollar didn’t stretch far and everything from our clothes to our voices showed we were foreigners, we kept our heads down and did what we came for. We studied. We had made friends, we were a part of a church, but these were ancillary to our primary purpose. That first autumn we traded a life for books. We left Leith Walk early with scarves and umbrellas up over our necks, our thoughts to ourselves, our lives on a mission that curved from university to work to home. There were moments, of course, when my thoughts and visions strayed — to what I was reading, to the way the waning light hit Arthur’s Seat, to how Edinburgh Castle stood sentinel to a city steeped in history, to how all the philosophers I read about walked about in this same northwesterly wind as I did. How we were all kin.
But on the whole, my husband and I were there to be present for degrees, for knowledge, for all that scholarships and living overseas provided two, young expats. So when my husband’s sister-in-law asked about what fun we’d had, we looked confused.
The cinderblock walls were chilled. The move to northern climes meant the world grew dark during mid-afternoon tea time. After that first semester, with our minds enriched, but our bodies and souls frail and flailing, we vowed a different life. We’d had no fun. A too-small, too-cold place would turn into a home.
We’d paint those spongy walls. We’d burn candles over good conversation. We’d buy cheap wine and whisky and invite new Scottish friends over for a homemade meal even if their knees bumped against ours under the table. All it took was an open door, a willingness to be present and offer what little we had. We practiced cooking in a kitchen where each limb could touch a cabinet, fridge, sink, washer (yes, in the kitchen), or oven. We burned tapers down. We laughed. We feasted on leftovers from the French cafe I worked in, we tried our hand at cooking Indian curries, we shared our half bottles of wine, and cupped mugs of milky Scottish Blend tea in chilled fingertips.
When we moved out of that first flat two years later, our Canadian friends commented they hadn’t imagined we’d stay that long in that little basement flat — the one with spongy wallpaper and the dank mustiness and darkness of a basement. It was true, it was cramped and cold; it felt inadequate, especially in light of the new flat we were moving into courtesy of my husband’s seminary. Yet it was there in those cramped quarters where we learned not only to be a married couple, but how hospitality blossoms like the gospel. We had nothing to give each other, or new friends that could bridge the distance of cultural difference. Yet, when we place what little we have on a small table with our knees bumping, and give it as a gift, it grows. The place itself is no longer the center. In hindsight the spongy wallpaper became dear, not because of its quaintness to reimagine like a romantic artifact, but because it is ugly and small. Just the same, it’s offered as a gift of welcome. It beckons: come and see, come and see.