At Tesco, Ullapool (The Scottish Highlands)

This August we resumed our yearly weeklong summer holiday in the Scottish highlands. It’s a place one might consider as being “in the middle of nowhere,” that is of course if you are not from there. If however, you are from there, it’s quite likely the center of the world. We fall into the category of not being from there, but visiting our son’s friend and his family. It’s our third visit after a two year hiatus due to covid and has become my place of healing, of disconnection from anything that I associate to or anywhere that I carry baggage from. It’s a place where I can dance to the wind. 

Getting into the grass and walking in the highlands takes us flying into the northernmost airport in Scotland, at Inverness, renting a car and driving an hour and a half to the Tesco at Ullapool. We shop for olive oil, salt, tomatoes, milk and so on as well as necessities like toilet paper and laundry detergent hoping that this will last us a week. 

We stuff our grocery boxes into the boot on top and around our luggage and drive off to the cottage. It’s an hour of driving through green, yellow and even purple mountains on narrow windy roads. The skies are magnificent and when the silky sea peeps out from behind the hills I’m trying to capture the moments on my iphone while Maher repeats his wish at higher and higher decibels, to have the kids stop doing whatever they are on their devices and to look outside.

This year at our Tesco stop, I saw two black men conversing in the vegetable aisle. Usually I’m one of few people of colour in that region, so I did notice them.

I put three onions into our trolley while my son picked some garlic.

The grey haired man, somewhat hunched over wearing a well-worn grey suit grilled the younger man. 

“So do you speak Swahili then?”

“Oh no, I was born and brought up in Glasgow,” replied the man with his smooth young face, who seemed to have come straight out of university. Possibly graduate school.

“So how do you communicate with your relatives then?”

“In English. My parents speak in Swahili with the family in Kenya. But my brothers and I communicate with them in English. Where are you from?”

“I am from Zambia,” he said leaning in to shake hands with the young man.

Upon hearing that, I spun around and jumped right into their space and conversation.

“Did you say you are from Zambia? Me too”

His questioning look, probably because I intruded into their conversation, or because we were all in Ullapool, or because I am brown, got me off on my rant…

“My father was born in Livingstone. But I grew up in Lusaka. My name is Natasha. I have a Zambian passport.” All that came out of me in one breath, to prove to a random man in a supermarket in Ullapool that I am indeed Zambian. That I have the right to be a part of their conversation. I was obviously quite wired from the flight and drive, and from being in the highlands.

“Livingstone. hmmm…I am from Mufulira, Copperbelt side.

My daughter is also Natasha.”

I softened.

He knows then, that I am Zambian.

The younger man smiled, and walked towards the dairy fridge.

I sensed he didn’t mind me getting into that conversation and “saving him”.

“So what’s your name?” I asked the man. “And what brings you here?”

He hesitated.

“I’m Gustav.”

Hmm. I’d never heard of a Zambian Gustav before.

“I was a French teacher in Zambia. Back in the day there was a government program that sent some of us to France to study the language and then to teach. With the covid situation, I followed my wife here. She’s a nurse and got a job here. Me, I work here,” he said looking around the supermarket.

He’d obviously been looking for some familiarity, someone he could connect with. The younger man seemed to be around the age of his children. 

“But I have a farm in Zambia…” he continued.

“What do you grow there? Is your daughter taking care of it now?”

“Oh nothing much, some corn, some soya beans. But you know it’s impossible to keep it up from afar. Ah the youngsters, they don’t care about such things, they have their own lives now.”

I smile. 

“When I go back home I will take care of it,” he looked forlorn.

Just then Maher was walking up towards us. 

“Maher, this is Mr. Gustav. He’s from Zambia. He speaks French.”

Maher was a bit confused, but smiled. He knows my fascination for connecting with people I can connect with around the world, especially in such random situations.

“This is my husband. He is French Lebanese.” 

“Ah! Bonjour monsieur, vous allez bien….” and off they chatted, both in fluent French. Gustav had the accent of a Parisian, and off they went chatting for at least another 10 minutes. 

In the meantime I walked past the other man who was now in the meat section. We looked at each other. He beamed, “What a great coincidence, that we all meet here.”

“Yes, isn’t it!?” I walked on with a new bounce in my step. 

Being a part of a warmth someone feels all this way away from his home, giving him a few laughs and a few moments to feel like what he has to say makes sense, felt great. Although the Highlands is a place of retreat for me on many levels, and I’m quite used to sticking out even if the small communities I have encountered are friendly, and it is a place of not knowing how the door handles work, and how to make a fire, this little bit of human connection, of just knowing something about the other, especially when I stopped trying to prove my belonging, felt heartwarming.

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