A Tale of Study Abroad: Scotland Edition

It’s amazing what can be found in the unexpected and the unknown, especially when your own predictions have little to do with reality. For instance, when I left for Scotland on September 1st to spend a semester at the University of Stirling, I thought I’d packed a reasonable number of shoes, when I actually only had a pair of Old Navy flip-flops and a set of heels. This could potentially be a metaphor for my life, but I didn’t go to Scotland to just be comfortable (clearly, or I might have remembered a pair of trainers.) I came to find something new and different. Something special.

Flights were long and customs lines even longer, but finally, I was here, in the land I’d been reading about for months. Finally, I was talking in person to the Study Abroad Program leaders whose incessant and massively important emails had been accidentally redirected to my spam folder not once, not twice, but three nearly devastating times. In the days of icebreakers and safety exercises that followed, I met American after American, each of us drawn to the same place for different reasons. Some were itching to learn more about big, vague concepts like History and Cultural Diversity and Kilts; others, to eat haggis or see a Highland coo (SPOILER: it’s just a cow) or get away from The Great Known for a while. At the end of orientation, as a gift from our program to enhance the experience, we were given rail-cards and hostel vouchers and “Historic Scotland” membership cards. I was under the assumption I’d be most excited to explore the historic beauty of a country much older and better castled than my own.

A famed “highland coo.” Credit

At least, this was my assumption until I went out with some friends on one of our first free nights in Stirling. We found ourselves in a little dive in the city centre, drawn in by cheers and captivated by a single man and his guitar. Looking for a taste of Scottish culture, I ordered a pint of (admittedly Irish) Guinness* and waited impatiently for the man to play “something Scottish.” But he mostly played American music—Johnny Cash, James Taylor, Bob Dylan and, inexplicably, Nickelback. Nobody in the pub seemed to mind, or even notice. They just sang and danced along, as pints sloshed gently over the sides of glasses and heels scratched lines into well-worn wooden floorboards.

I think that’s when it really started to sink in.

There are plenty of cultural differences. I spent the first three weeks trying to figure out what to do with ALL those coins (2 pound, 1 pound, 50p, 20p, 10p, 5p, 2p, 1p: it’s a wallet’s nightmare) and how to look to the left first when I’m crossing the street. And I took a proper long time to give up on finding good Mexican food or pumpkin spice lattes within a 100-km radius of my flat.  I remain convinced someone somewhere is carrying Jiff Peanut Butter. Heck, I’ll even settle for Skippy. But in a way, these are all entirely irrelevant—except for the crossing the street thing, that’s actually pretty important. You see, when I leave this beautiful place and find myself in my last year at Northwestern, I don’t think I’ll even remember the Starbucks drink that didn’t quite make it to the UK or the PB&J that probably needed more PB and less J.

Sitting at the edge of everything (okay, just the edge of Stirling). Credit: Abi Jenkins

I think I’ll remember the little boy on a bicycle ride with his dad, scrunching up his face to look suave as he and his training wheels passed me going uphill. I’ll remember walking around the loch on campus and crawling the pubs and waiting in queue at the Tesco before dinner with my flatmates. I’ll remember the kindness I see in everyday interactions: that earnest way people ask how you are, the ease of ‘thank you,’ ‘cheers.’ and ‘ta’ to bus drivers, door holders, and tired janitors, the open arms and open flats, the invitations and hearty laughs, the pints of cider, the taxi drivers who give discounts when an American accent makes for a misunderstood address.

I come from a small town in the Upper-Midwest, about as close to Canada as you can get before the “eh”s and maple leaves start raining down with unbearable frequency. I thought I knew everything there was to know about community, but here, they take it a step further. Here, kindness is not a gift or even a courtesy; rather, it’s treated as a right. So, did I come to Scotland for the Highlands, the lochs and valleys, the castles and the museums? Did I come to see Brave and Braveheart and Brigadoon acted out before my eyes, or to seek a slimy monster in an otherwise insignificant Loch? I’m not going to say that wasn’t part of my decision—and I’m definitely not ruling out a sighting of Nessie—but I know now that is not all that brought me here. What really drew me to Scotland, what continues to draw me in, is this brilliant, loving, community. Best enjoyed after the purchase of some new trainers.

*Admittedly a rum and Diet, but a man at the pub told me I needed to stop drinking water like that and start drinking real alcohol. So, for the sake of story, we’ll go with the pint.

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