I’m in Edinburgh right now.
The last month of radio silence is mostly by accident, as I’ve been swamped with final exams and running around Scotland before I fly out, first to JFK in NYC and then to Logan Airport, in Boston. It feels surreal. I’ll jot down what’s happened since I last left this blog to its own devices.
First, there was a ball right after classes ended for our hall. It was 1920s themed and held at the gorgeous old hotel on the golf course. Here, I attended my first Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a type of traditional Scottish dance party, so to speak. Most of it was switching partners, kicking your legs, and getting spun around, but it was definitely a thrill. I think my favorite dance was was The Gay Gordons. If you have a chance to look it up, I would recommend it. The Youtube videos of professionals dancing is amazing and quite dizzying to watch. It was an amazing part of Scottish culture that I hadn’t been introduced to yet, but so many Scottish folk had recommended them to me. Culturally, Ceilidhs were held as social gatherings and progressed into the wonderful dance shindigs they have become. There were many students who already knew what they were doing and had favorite moves and dances. It was beautiful to watch and be a part of.
Next, I went to another theatre production, this time a musical based on a film written by an American student abroad. The film in question by The Room, by Tommy Wisseau. If anyone hasn’t seen it, I’m not entirely sure if you should. It’s about an hour and a half of… well, terrible acting, horrible cinematography, and a really creepy older man playing an 18 year old. Needless to say, it’s garnered a cult following, and not because it’s good. A friend of mine was in love with it before any of us found out about the musical someone had adapted it into, and so we all watched the film and then watched the musical. Honestly, it was a well-done musical, given what its source material was. It was also interesting to interact with another American student abroad, as I had mostly been trying to immerse myself with the locals. But the reconnection felt good. I sometimes wonder if I spent too much time avoiding other Americans, hoping to get as much of an abroad experience as possible. Looking back, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with connecting with people from where you call home. As it is, I met three other people from Massachusetts on the last day the halls were open and was surprised that they had been lingering right there, under my nose this whole time. It’s amazing what you can miss when chasing the ‘authentic‘ abroad experience.
And yes, authentic is in scare-quotes. Before I left Whitman for the summer, I went to several meetings to speak with students who went abroad in general and those who went to St. Andrews specifically, and it was mentioned at least a dozen times, this ‘authentic‘ abroad experience. I leave America in 10 hours and I’m still trying to understand what that really means. Has my experience been authentic? I’ve done cultural dance, eaten cultural food, befriended the locals, and almost pet a sheep. Has this made my experience here in Scotland authentic? I’ve taken classes in old, historic buildings, wandered the streets and museums of Edinburgh, the country’s capital, and foraged for berries out in the woods. Is my experience authentic yet?
There’s a kind of obsession when students go abroad to make things authentic and I think to me, personally, it’s just a way of justifying why we went, telling ourselves and everyone else all of the reasons it was worth it to spend almost four months away from friends, family, and the university we first chose almost three years ago. Well I’ve experienced all there is to experience in this one country, we say. I explored a new side of me, I traveled the world, I got the change in scenery that I wanted, I got out of the Whitman bubble. Yippee.
Obviously, it’s all subjective. What one person sees as authentic, someone else will roll their eyes at and say was typical and touristy or not adventurous enough and boring. I speak two other languages but decided to go somewhere that spoke English. How is that authentic? I study psychology and German at Whitman, and I studied psychology and German at St. Andrews, the only ‘intriguing’ class added on being another language. How is that authentic? I did what I did my first year at Whitman: made a close, small group of friends, and slowly meandered around our surroundings with them. How. Is that. Authentic?
I don’t think it has to be.
I made some wonderful friends and long-lasting memories. I learned Russian. I went to the Edinburgh German market and spoke German with someone selling bratwurst. I went to a museum with dinosaur bones. I got several tattoos. Buses broke down, awkward British-American thanksgiving was had. There was terrible table-tennis and pool, and long nights were spent watching horrifically acted and boring Neil Breen films. Amazon UK decided to cancel my Secret Santa gift for no good reason. Several people had the flu, someone else got mono. I fell into a small ravine several times and got stung by nettles. A seagull stole my butter. Friends got together. Some left campus too early and were sorely missed; others (me) left far too late.
I smiled and I cried and I am so happy that I came here. I am so happy and I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity. It was enough for me, experiencing what I did with who I was with, even if it wasn’t up to par with what others would label ‘authentic‘.
This is my authenticity. This is my semester abroad.
And I loved every moment of it.