Monthly Archives: January 2016

Academic Haze

This post will delve into the academic parts of my experience in Scotland. I am taking three courses here, which is the equivalent of five classes in the United States. This is because the classes in the U.K. are in more depth and have a very focused scope when compared to the U.S.

I am taking two honors courses, one of them in named “Edinburgh in Fiction/Fiction in Edinburgh.” We will be reading some of the major literature about/based in Edinburgh from about the 1700s to the present. As of now I have read Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I knew this class would be a privilege to be a part of because I get the opportunity to learn about my adoptive city throughout the semester, instead of all in the first weekend. I am always discovering how much of a literary city Edinburgh is. There are little breadcrumbs everywhere relating to writers like Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott, (like a little plaque quoting a few lines of poetry I saw on Cowgate Street, just a few hundred yards from my flat). The Scottish love their writers, and honor them well within the city. There are dozens of hole-in-the-wall bookshops nuzzled along most of the rain-washed streets. Each one beckons travelers to come in, have a look around, open the dusty old editions and give the pages a tickle.

Armchair Books, right off of Grassmarket, suggested to me by many people.
Armchair Books, right off of Grassmarket, suggested to me by many people.

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The second honors course I am in is called “Roman Propaganda: The Archeological and Artistic Evidence.” This one is every Classics major’s dream. I have to read a lot for this class, pouring for hours over books about the Ara Pacis and Augustus’ Imperial influence on Rome. We study a lot of coinage in this class, as well as portraits, and anything pertaining to a Roman’s self-image. “Propaganda” is especially an interesting lens to view the ancient world through, because most people picture Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia when they think “propaganda.” My professor is an elderly English lady who has clearly studied Classics her whole life and knows more than I could ever hope to learn. I love listening to her voice and watching the old coins they found buried in time flash across the projector.

 

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My third class is titled “The Bible in Literature.” This was a last-minute class I was forced to add, though I was sure I read somewhere that there was no minimum amount of courses I had to take while studying at Edinburgh. Despite this, I think I made a good choice in this course. It is a “first year” level course, so it is, in theory, easier than my two honor classes. We are studying biblical themes in literature, which is very broad in scope. Since I joined late, I am still getting caught up in what we are currently working on.

All that I have read for my Fiction class so far has remarked and reiterated the kindness of the Scottish people. I agree. I was wandering around some of the buildings on my campus a few weeks ago and came to a bike-path sort of walking road. I saw the brightest green up ahead of me. There were grey-concrete lanes cutting up the flat grassy park. I saw a nice looking elderly man coming my way from the direction of the park, and I plucked up the courage to speak to him. “What park is this?” He had a newspaper-boy cap on and black, wooly gloves. He carried a worn leather briefcase, looking like a professor you’d love to have. He turned to face where he had come from, and in a soft, soothing, weathered voice, he spoke to me: “This is called the Meadows…” (I suddenly realized where I was, since I had seen “the Meadows” on a map before). The man went on to tell me where another well-known park was further down, which I forgot the name of. We parted ways and he bade farewell with an old Scottish phrase you’d hear a lot in a café or on the street: “Cheers!” (It is an informal way of saying thank you).

Grassmarket at dusk
Grassmarket at dusk

People in Edinburgh are nice. I don’t feel unsafe (which was a major anxiety I have, especially when I travel alone). Of course I still keep an arm over my bag, and don’t stupidly and obviously walk with my phone or wallet in plain sight. I am starting, slowly, to feel at home, to recognize things, to walk without fear or weariness. I am grasping how much of a privilege it is to study in a different country, to experience education by means of an institution that differs so much from my own. It is important, and I am glad I am investing in it. I am also so grateful and thankful to all the people who made it possible for me. Cheers!

Saint Andrew’s, Arthur’s Seat, Anxiety

This past weekend was eventful, as well as informative. On Saturday I paid fifteen pounds to have a whole day in the cute little town called Saint Andrews. Its more modern folklore includes the coffee shop where Princess Kate and Prince William had their first date! For older fame, the coastal town is known to be the resting place of the relics of Saint Andrew, with the ruins of a castle, cathedral and a very old cemetery to delight visitors. It is located on the east coast of Fife, about an hour north of Edinburgh, my adoptive city.

On one of the plaques along the beach as you approach the castle ruins tells how this site was once a major place individuals would pilgrimage to. That struck a cord with me, and gave me more of a sense of what this place must have been like hundreds of years ago. The idea of “pilgrimage” seems to be less and less heard of nowadays, apart from Jewish birthright to Israel or a journey to Mecca. I always considered those two locations to be the overarching places one would go on a spiritual journey. But I never considered that there are relics and places of importance all over the world. I am also sure that not every person of faith could make the journey to the Middle East or Mecca, and that places closer to home (like Scotland) seemed more appealing.

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I walked with three new friends through the moss-covered cemetery and stood inside the ruins of what was the biggest church in Scotland. The wind and fog filled the air, and I saw the stone outline of where the walls used to be. There were plaques situated inside the frame telling where the pulpit, pews and other areas of the church used to be. There were graves as old as the 1600s in the graveyard. The cemetery was situated on a grassy hill, with the vast, cold, roaring ocean down below.

 

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We climbed to the top of St. Rule’s, a tower that sits in the graveyard, in order to see the town from an aerial vantage point. It was so beautiful. Afterwards we found a cozy Italian restaurant and enjoyed pasta and good conversation. On the bus ride home, we passed the massive golf course, which is yet another reason people tour Saint Andrews. I walked home in dark as large, fluffy snowflakes stuck to my hair and coat, illuminated by the yellow, harsh lamplights.

The beach from St. Rule's tower
The beach from St. Rule’s tower

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I found a boat in the bay that had a Scottish flag stuck on! Also some crab traps.
I found a boat in the bay that had a Scottish flag stuck on! Also some crab traps.

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On Sunday, I woke early and walked down the Royal Mile until I met a group of people to hike up Arthur’s Seat. It is not a seat, just to clear that up! It is an extinct volcano that casts a shadow over the city. The Royal Mile is “bookended” by Edinburgh Castle on one end, and Arthur’s seat on the other. It is not certain who or what the landform is named after. Some think it is King Arthur, and that Camelot Castle rested on the mountain (I personally hope this is true!). There is physical evidence that there was a lot of fighting in and around the area, probably because it was such an advantageous place to occupy. There is also a local myth that the landform used to be a dragon that one day laid down to sleep and never got up, becoming the hill. This probably coincides with the fact that dragons are fire-breathing, and the volcano used to be active.

Some would say it was a very bad day to hike up the mountain. I strongly disagree. Sure, it was cold, there was snow on the ground, and a lot of ice made the process of climbing a lot slower. However, the view was more epic, the experience more satisfying.

 

View from the bottom
View from the bottom
...and the top
…and the top

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I noticed a lot of foreign accents and languages once I reached the top and began snapping some photos. I hear Italian, German, Spanish, and a lot of English accents. I also noticed people running up and down the hills. I suppose they were training for some big race or just for a good workout. I was able to see the whole of Edinburgh, all the way to the sea. I recognized some of the major landmarks while studying my birds eye view of my city. After the hike back down, we stopped in a café and got fish and chips.

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While this past weekend was fun and exciting, I’d like to be vulnerable and honest for a minute about my experience so far. I cannot say whole-heartedly that I am happy and comfortable every minute. I am often unhappy, confused, lonely and uncomfortable. I’m either too hot or too cold, confused about classes or what reading I need to do because professors here vaguely tell you what you need to know, or where you need to look to find something. I think people often sugar coat their study abroad experience, glazing over the stressful, lonely, darker parts. I think usually the first couple weeks where these feelings occur the most are skimmed through, or skipped entirely, and only the positive, fun things are emphasized. I think people like to highlight how well and fast they can assimilate into a culture, as if it is a skill that gains you status. That is all okay for some, but that just hasn’t been my experience.

I keep telling myself that it is only the second week. It is only because I just got here and am still finalizing a lot of the major parts that will make up my experience. I know it’ll be okay, but it takes a while to get to that warm, safe, better place. And waiting is difficult.

And yet, when I start to feel all of this, I look at the sky, eat something new, walk down a pretty street or feel the chilly rain trickle down my coat and remember how much of a privilege I posses. I see the beauty of this city (which I fondly think of as “my city”) and it puts my worries and loneliness into perspective. It really will be okay, just wait and see!

 

 

Getting My Bearings

The view from my window, and the essential: tea.
The view from my window, and the essential: tea.

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Grassmarket, view from a bridge
Grassmarket, view from a bridge

Hello everyone! It has been a week since I touched down in Scotland, and it has been a ride so far! And by ride, I’d like you to picture a rollercoaster sailing up and down and all around, because that is how it has been emotionally and physically. I’ll begin at the beginning, and work my way through the first few hours to the first few days:

My flight from Dulles to Heathrow in London was smooth. I watched a lot of movies and I listened to some of the new episodes of the Serial podcast. I noticed while waiting to get on the double-decker plane that there were a lot of other young people, presumably study abroad students, also traveling to the U.K. I felt a little more assured when seeing them, like I wasn’t completely on my own.

I got through the security at Heathrow and walked hurriedly to the terminal that will take me to Edinburgh. I didn’t have any time to look around the airport because my flight was leaving soon after my first one arrived. I hopped onto the flight and was off! I will say, the actual traveling was a breeze.

It was when I grabbed my one checked bag in the small Scotland airport that exhaustion began to hit me. There were volunteer students directing everyone to where the baggage claim was as well as where taxis could be found. I got one all to myself and asked the driver (who, of course, had a thick, beautiful accent) if he could take me to the address where I could retrieve my flat keys.

The twenty-minute drive into the city was a blur. Sleep-deprivation was taking over, but the beauty of the Scottish countryside was also fascinating me. Though it has been said so many times, the grass is nearly neon (that might be an extreme description), the sky is magnificently overcast, and a gray-colored tint hangs in the air.

After getting my keys, I dragged my bag around for a while, trying desperately to figure out where my apartment was. It was only after I asked two student-looking girls where I was looking for that I found where I would live for the next five months. A close, if you did not know, is a short street, like an alley, off of a main road. No cars drive on it, and like a lot of the streets here, mine is cobblestoned. It is fun to walk on, feeling the disjointed ground under your weathered boots.

After a brief rest and quick trip to the grocery store a block away, I was feeling a little better than I had when I first arrived. One of my flat mates and I walked together to an International Student coffee event where other international students could meet each other. We live a 5-10 minute walk from the Main Campus, one of the major reasons I wanted to live in the flat that I am residing in. We passed the Old College, which is one of the most popular buildings on the University of Edinburgh’s web page. In fact, I can see the dome and gold statue from my window!

After a hot cup of lemon tea, a group of us went to a pub right off the main campus for a drink. By that point, though, it was really hitting me that sleep was desperately needed. The sun had set (it sets very early here, around 4pm) and the flat mate I came with left with other friends. I had to walk back alone. This is the first time I got lost. Anxiety gripped me, and I was so relieved when I found my Close and got to my room. I slept about thirteen hours that first night.

The next day was all orientations and general, common-sense information. These allowed me to get the campus more or less down in my head. Since I am only taking two classes here, I was able to figure out where both of them are being held. I also found the main library, a place I sense I’ll be spending a lot of time in. Saturday and Sunday were exploration days. A piece of advice a lot of people have been reiterating to me is to “get out there” and “get your bearings.” So that is what I did. All day Saturday I explored the Old City. I literally walked everywhere. Edinburgh is made up of the old, historical section which has the university as the central heart. The new, more modern part of the city is separated by the Waverly station (this is where I’d take a train to Glasgow or London if I wanted to jet off for a weekend).

Sunday was also like this. I explored another section of the old city, positioned sort of behind the college campus. I found The Elephant House (where J.K. Rowling began writing Harry Potter) as well as a farmers market that sells cheap bread and produce every weekend. Later that night I went out to dinner on the Royal Mile with a friend. I had my first plate of Fish and Chips. It was the first, but certainly not the last. Later, while walking back down the mile, we saw a middle-aged Scot sitting on the steps of St. Giles Cathedral, singing to passersby on his guitar. The church bells began to chime, and his voice made the air warmer, and night sweeter.

I promise I will go into more detail about everything in later posts, I just wanted to get this out there as a sort of background. I plan to post about the first major cathedral for this blog this weekend – my university is doing a day trip to the famed St. Andrews, and I am super excited to experience it, and also to report back on it!