Update from an Edinburgh hostel

It’s 8 AM, and I’m sitting in a hostel room in Edinburgh. Susan, Janet, two German men, and a backpack occupy the the other bunk beds around me, and I can hear quiet city sounds filtering in through the open window next to my bed – an occasional church bell reminds me of the time, the bar buzz from last night replaced by gentler reminders of the city’s pulse.

With seven days in the Highlands now behind me, I feel a cold pressing into my sinuses and a deeper appreciation for Scotland rattling adrenaline-like through my veins. My notebook is full of pressed flowers and scribbled notes, all ready to be turned into blog posts.

As I prepare to turn these raw thoughts and experiences into posts, I took a moment to think about how I would approach shaping ten long days packed with new experiences into posts, those limiting, boxy structures that have to contain some humor, some intrigue, some insight, and some suspense. Chronological posting just wouldn’t work – writing through each moment of my trip in detail would be tedious both to write and to read, and by the time I wrote through the last day, I’d be missing out on the opportunity to post about moving into St. Andrews. Pushed forward and forward, I’d become bogged down in a backlog of lists and planners, trying to recreate how I felt and what I realized from lists of events and jotted down thoughts.

Another challenge is the sheer volume of material. Each day of our tour included half a dozen stops, some for photos and some for more in-depth exploration. We traveled in a diverse group of 30, and as I got to know each personality, I realized that I could write an entire post about each individual. Another component was the old friend/new friend dichotomy of traveling with my best friend of ten years and a new friend who has added an important new facet to my life. As my Facebook and my email inbox flooded with information about new classes being offered at UVa (whyyy am I missing out on a seminar with my favorite English professor, a Nabokov class with one of my best friends, AND an MA course on Modern British Literature/Art/Film?!) and dozens of social events, I have heaps of thoughts about what it means to be absent for an entire semester. Not to mention the new foods I’ve eaten, the fact that I’ve fast forwarded to my 21st birthday due to a different drinking age…the list goes on and on.

And this was just my first week in Scotland.

Although I’m going to have to pack my computer up again and get ready for a day of exploration in Edinburgh in the next few minutes, I wanted to send off a quick post to let everyone know that my blog isn’t dead and I’m happily writing away in my head. I believe that literary form should reflect content, and posts that tease themes out of my overall Highlands experience will best capture the layers of realization and discovery that have slowly built up. I’ve planned some posts that will synthesize some of these important aspects of my Highlands Tour, and I’m really looking forward to settling in at St. Andrews and finally carving out a few peaceful hours to work through them. Stay tuned.

The coldest feet

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For the past few years, I’ve had one toe that goes numb every winter. It’s the one next to my pinky toe on my right foot – the little piggy that had none, as the English rhyme goes. It’s true that my toe seems to have none – circulation, that is.

Two days ago, I sat on a metal table, dressed in a tent-like cotton gown as I waited for my doctor to complete my pre-Scotland physical. I wiggled my toes, trying to remember which was the numb one so that I could mention it, what shots I needed to ask about, how quickly Costco could fill a prescription, running through the list of questions I had to ask at the bank later that day, on and on, a rambling to do list where every item felt vital and time was running short. A dash of anxiety, a splash of excitement, stirring thoughts that jumble forgetfulness and memory. It’s a recipe I’m familiar with.

But for maybe the first time in my life of Type A high achieving, a strange thought occurred to me.

What if I didn’t go?

Barely suppressed in a corner of my mind, angry thoughts shouted back. Tuition had been paid, plane ticket bought, people were depending on me! But for a fleeting second, I saw myself spending the rest of the week at home, alternately watching Fringe in bed while my dog slept on my feet and diving into the river with Billy, before making the two hour drive to Charlottesville and moving into my sorority house for another normal, routine semester at UVa.

Cold feet aren’t always the result of poor circulation.

What is interesting about this to me is that I don’t remember anything in my disembarkation meetings at UVa last spring so much as mentioned cold feet in the days before a trip. We had to complete a long online lesson about the possible emotional impact of adjusting to a new place and our later reintroduction back into UVa – lessons that seemed rather self-explanatory to me – but nowhere did anyone look me in the eye and, anticipating the moment when I would freeze up and want to turn back, tell me that this moment is to be expected.

Maybe feeling the chill of cold feet is just too obvious to mention, but it’s a curious phenomenon. Why would anyone freeze before a thrilling, wonderful event that has been carefully planned for months, years even? We’ve all seen movie scenes about this – Up in the Air, a favorite of mine, comes to mind:

At risk of making a huge generalization, I think we know what tends to trigger cold feet: dwelling on a big commitment that will directly lead to countless changes in daily life. It’s definitely not a generalization to say that change is really difficult and scary, from the simplest things like switching brands of floss (if you’ve ever used CVS-brand floss, you know what a difference this makes) to much bigger things like a move, a marriage, a new job or the loss of an old one. 

What I’ve come to appreciate the most is that life rarely offers a clear roadmap. I’m a planner who likes to have a clear schedule in mind; anything that deviated used to derail me. But these days, I’m learning how to be more flexible and less stressed. Other than my passport, there’s going to be nothing in my luggage that I can’t easily replace. Keeping this in mind is liberating. Maybe these realizations are trite and obvious, but it’s one thing to know them and another to live them. I know that now.

The adventure really begins tonight when I pick Janet up from the train station, but I wanted to slip a post in before things get too hectic. I’ll be offline for the next week and a half, but as soon as I’m set up with wifi and a few free hours, I’ll be back with stories to tell. By then, I will have accumulated dozens of scribbled pages in my journal and lots of photos from the Highlands, new experiences and perspectives. Cold feet or not, things are about to change.

Those mid-August butterflies

Over the past year, as I’ve told various family members, friends, professors, and acquaintances about my plans to study at St. Andrews, I’ve received a surprising number of contacts and materials. “Oh, you’re traveling? Let me help you,” these kind people have said. “I have just the thing.”

St. Andrews attracts students from all over the world, many of them Americans. Everyone seems to know someone who goes to St. Andrews — my English advisor’s niece, my housemate’s childhood friend — or someone who almost attended, like my friend Kerry, who has a framed picture from her trip to St. A’s on her wall.

I’ve traveled extensively within the U.S., from stunning, humbling sites like Grand Canyon in Arizona to my cousin’s sunny almond farm in California, up and down nearly every state on the East Coast through humid, esoteric Savannah, Georgia; past alligator-filled ditches in rural Florida and all the way up through the unnaturally green lawns and aggressive parkways of New Jersey to glittering New York City and even up to the rocky beaches and cold mists of Maine. I’ve visited Canada several times, hearing French in Quebec and that little lilt of Scottish accent that lingers in the small towns of Nova Scotia. I’ve seen Mexico, kind of — I vividly remember walking a mile and a half down a dusty road toward an ancient observatory, my skin clammy and my blood feverish from the flu. I remember sitting under a lone tree in the only patch of shade, praying for a hot breeze.

But I’ve never been to Europe, and I’ve never flown anywhere without my family. I can’t lie — as excited as I am and as confident as I am that I can handle whatever travel obstacles come my way, I’m still nervous. So it goes whenever I try something new, even if it’s just starting a new semester at U.Va. with professors I’ve never heard of.

This time of year, as August pushes one last heat wave over Virginia and the yellow jacket wasps begin to swarm, has always had a knack for unsettling me. Having always been in public schools, each August brought new class lists that mixed social groups up in ways sometimes wonderful and sometimes distressing. Until tenth grade, the most sickening moment of late August would be the first day of gym class, where I inevitably was planted without any of my regular group of friends. The first task would be to find gym friends — not necessarily the people who would attend my future wedding, but the people I could cling to as I limped through soccer, pretended to play floor hockey, and generally tried not to do anything too horribly clumsy.

And then lunch, which could either be a lonely and embarrassing thirty minutes in the low, dishwater-smelling cafeteria or a productive thirty minutes reading alone in some empty hallway because no one questioned what the SCA president did with her free time or a wonderful thirty minutes with friends in the courtyard garden if the weather was nice — on the first day, who could predict what banal variation on routine would determine my happiness for the next nine months?

books

Even years after the fact, I can still readily pull the books we read in AP Lit from my shelves.

The most wonderful part of August was always receiving the syllabus for English class. What books would I read, what worlds would I glimpse? AP Lang in the eleventh grade stands out in my memory as my first foray into the world of essays, a genre that continues to capture my fascination and admiration. Senior year of high school was also wonderful — my first encounter with Marlow in Heart of Darkness, where a line stopped me cold:

I let him run on, this papier-mache mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.

And then on through Kafka, who did NOT just write about a guy who turns into a bug as my classmates would have you believe, and through Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot and to the hot beach in Algeria where Camus made a man kill another man for absolutely no reason.

In college, gym class fell away, classes didn’t determine my friendships, and the reading lists only got better. An ecological history by William Cronon, the Tibetan Book of the DeadUlysses, Woolf, stacks of books on the history of Latin America, copy packs of articles and essays and short stories and poetry, and speaking of poetry, Marie Howe, Seamus Heaney, Nick Flynn, and Philip Larkin. Before the anxiety of actually reading all of these books sets in, syllabus day promises the purest joy of learning.

But this year, before I even get to syllabus day, I’m facing two flights and a whirlwind trip through the highlands. It’s infinitely more exciting, but its unfamiliarity and newness is intimidating, too.

Regardless, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to actually, literally see new worlds rather than just reading about them. I can’t wait to leave an apple on Kafka’s grave in Prague and eat a mustard and gorgonzola sandwich at Davy Byrnes’ Pub, just like Leopold Bloom. The Thymes still flows through London, just as it did when Marlow sat on a creaking boat, telling the strange story of Kurtz and Africa by candlelight, under the bridge that T.S. Eliot used to cross on his way to work, the same spot immortalized in “The Waste Land.” And those are just the literary spots — every inch of Europe is saturated with fascinating history, from wars of religious strife to the devastation of World War II and beyond. I want to see it all. Everything.

Clearly I'm an organized packer. This will all be straightened out before I leave...hopefully.

Clearly I’m an organized packer. This will all be straightened out before I leave…hopefully.

As each day’s passing brings me closer to the travels ahead, I’ve tucked numerous gifts into my suitcase, which itself was a gift — Ruth, my summer housemate, has used it to travel to and from Ukraine, where her parents are missionaries, multiple times. It’s roomy and lightweight, and it’s bright pink — easy to spot in swirling baggage claim areas.

I learned from the box that Walkers cookies are made in the highlands and are imprinted with the image of a thistle, a plant common in Scotland.

I learned from the box that Walkers cookies are made in the highlands and are imprinted with the image of a thistle, a plant common in Scotland.

Linda, my friend from work, gave me a box of Walker’s shortbread cookies and a travel catalogue, a perfect pair as I browsed options for coats and travel bags. My parents have helped me assemble other materials for my trip, most importantly a few pairs of jeans, which I haven’t bought since high school. My mom also insisted that I invest in a pair of back up glasses in case I break my normal pair — nerd life.

Upon her return from Dublin, where she spent a summer working (and blogging), my friend and fellow American Studies major Emma texted me and offered me the Nokia phone she had bought. It’s small and simple, with a SIM card that I can easily replace, unlike my iPhone 4. She also gave me a few plug adaptors and dozens of wonderful stories over lunch at a sushi place last week.

letter jeff soc

The most unusual gift I received was a letter to be delivered to the current president of St. Andrews Union Debating Society. I’m a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, which is the oldest continuously debating society in North America, and St. Andrews’ Union Debating Society is the oldest continuously debating society in the United Kingdom — counterparts an ocean apart. A few semesters ago, an exchange student from St. Andrews came to a Jeff Soc meeting bearing a letter of introduction in the style used during the 1700s and 1800s. In an era of emails and Facebook posts, this etiquette is rarely practiced, but it isn’t dead yet. There is something official and weighty about carrying a parchment letter, as if somehow the yellow paper carries more than just the inky words.

My suitcases are almost packed and my time at home is running out quickly. Tedious administrative tasks — photocopying all of my documents and sealing them into Ziplocked packets, submitting my ID photo and medical history to St. Andrews — demand my attention even as I fit in one more coffee! one more lunch! one more trip to the river! with my friends, family, and boyfriend.

As Janet, my U.Va. companion to St. Andrews, said, “Ready or not, it won’t matter next Thursday. I’ll be on a plane.”

See ya, C-ville!

With both jobs finished and my last paychecks collected, I threw my suitcase in my car and set off for northern Virginia, my home in Charlottesville behind me and my Scotland adventure directly ahead.

Everyone says that spending a summer in Charlottesville is something every U.Va. student should do before graduation, and with any luck I’ll be back again next summer to do research for a few projects I have in the works. With U.Va. drained of approximately 13,000 students, Charlottesville feels more spacious in the summer. The Corner isn’t as crowded. You have time to wander the Farmer’s Market early on Saturday mornings, when the bustling crowd gives that parking lot on Water Street the atmosphere of a festival. You can float in Grand Marc pool amidst the dead bugs and beer cans or spend a quiet evening sitting on the steps of the Rotunda, listening to the little squeaks of bats overhead and admiring the lit columns around you. It’s a hotter, slower existence than the school year provides.

I’ve spent the last week crossing a few last things off my list of things to do, among them seeking out some new experiences that I’ve been meaning to get to and saying goodbye to my favorite people and places. It’s hard to believe that next time I’m back at U.Va., the warm sighing summer will have hardened into an icy January and my life will be essentially bound to a big stack of books and endless cups of coffee.

Time has moved in a funny slow-fast tease for me; I’ve lost weeks to work before I lifted my head up to to even notice that they were behind me. My two days off seemed endless, a totally separate existence, and those few afternoons after working midshift at the clothing store are tantalizing reminders of the spontaneity I’ve longed for. Now that I’m home again, all of the tiredness that I didn’t have time to feel has hit me hard. My two and a half months in Charlottesville are a blurred tangle of images that are hard to put back in order despite my journaling and blogging, but here are some highlights from this strange summer I’ve had:

Late night Gus burgers at The White Spot – creepy, blonde-loving Gus lurking by the cash register while burgers and eggs sizzle on the grill behind the counter, ready to be paired into a sublime sandwich.

Wandering the Downtown Mall with creamy Chaps ice cream in hand, drifting past buskers with guitars and violins, tables weighed down with Pashmina scarves in wild, swirling paisleys, a capella groups, and, once, a children’s xylophone orchestra that did a sick cover of “Seven Nation Army.”

Laura playing “Started From the Bottom” on her speakers every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. Slowly growing to like it in spite of myself.

Discovering that Catherine, one of my fellow English majors, and I share a mutual love of Elliott Smith. Swapping stories of that Elliott album that saved each of us (her’s, XO; mine, Either/Or) on Tuesday night at Mellow Mushroom and reveling in the lack of competition among Elliott fans. Rereading the story of Ferdinand, the peace-loving bull tattooed on Elliott’s arm, and realizing just how sickeningly ambiguous the ending actually is.

Seeing my phone light up with WordPress notifications. Seriously, thank you to everyone who’s been reading.

Meetings at the Miller Center to discuss my future writing plans. Also emails. Also coffee meetings. Also lunch meetings. Also 5 a.m., panicked wake-ups as my ever-growing to-do list cuts into sleep. Also a big stack of things to read, to learn, to do.

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Intern life.

Learning Julian Bond’s verbal tics as I listened to him interview 47 black leaders…and copy-edited all 47 of those interviews, plus the accompanying biographies. (He tends to start sentences with “Now…”)

Eating cookie dough out of a bowl while Ruth baked millions of chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. Also food in general.

Learning how to play corn hole and reliving the humiliation of high school gym class as my lack of hand-eye coordination was painfully exposed.

I'm not sure when I texted this dorky selfie to someone, or why I didn't use Snapchat.

I’m not sure when I texted this dorky selfie to someone, or why I didn’t use Snapchat.

Long, quiet Sunday work shifts, where my only company was a good book.

Laughing – and I mean actually, authentically, spontaneously laughing – at The Internship. Maybe it was because it only cost me $1.50 or maybe working 50 hours/week has turned me into a drone of society. Maybe I just don’t take myself as seriously any more, or maybe my film snobbishness is just receding and I’m a less judgmental person than I used to be. Maybe the movie was actually good. Whatever happened, I want it to happen again.

Watching American Beauty for the first time and wondering how I had lived so long without seeing it.

Being minutes away from fantastic concerts. Summer highlights included seeing The National, Wild Nothing, and The Shins.

Being minutes away from friends. Having grown up in a rural area, I’ve never been within walking distance of so many friends during the summer.

The Rotunda, U. Va.'s spot of pilgrimage (and nocturnal streaking).

The Rotunda, U. Va.’s beautiful and historic spot of pilgrimage (and nocturnal streaking).

Beautiful spots in and around U. Va.

My goal this summer was to immerse myself in the home I’m leaving as I travel to Scotland this fall. Looking back through my posts and my photos, I know that no matter how stressed and tired I’ve often felt in Charlottesville, there’s so much to love about my college town. I didn’t think much about leaving until I said my post-brunch goodbyes over the weekend and sentimental feelings washed over me. These snapshots are just that – brief, frozen pictures that represent so much dynamic energy. They’re an imperfect tribute, but during my time away, they’ll be enough to carry with me.

TV Review: The Book Group

Welcome to another installment of my haphazard carefully planned guide to preparing to live in Scotland.   I recently decided to use my daily 30 minute lunch break to check out a television show that’s been on my list since Netflix suggested that it could fill the void that opened in my life when I finished watching Spaced last spring. That show is called The Book Group, and it’s set in Glasgow.

The show revolves around Claire Pettengill’s efforts to carve out a life for herself in Scotland, where she’s overstaying her visa and attempting unsuccessfully to write a book. Claire is socially awkward, rude, and incredibly insensitive. To round out these pleasant traits, she’s also pretty bossy. It’s Claire who kicks off the show’s action by posting an ad for a book group she’s hosting – not a club, she later distinguishes, because clubs are inherently exclusive – but a group without a leader. The first book is Kerouac’s On the Road, which Claire names the great American novel only to become frustrated when her non-American companions come to diverse conclusions about the book’s quality and the narrator’s purpose.

L-R: Janice, Dirka, and Fist are fabulous and utterly unsatisfied footballers' wives (http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/dvd/b/bookgroup.html).

L-R: Janice, Dirka, and Fist are fabulously wealthy and utterly unsatisfied footballers’ wives. (http://www.cineoutsider.com/reviews/dvd/b/bookgroup.html)

The show relies on an ensemble of actors, who carried the various plot lines for fourteen episodes before the show was canceled. There’s Kenny, goodnatured and wheelchair-bound, who writes a book and rises to success throughout the course of the show. There’s Rab, a closeted bisexual who is obsessed with football. There’s Janice, the stifled housewife who dishes about her affairs to her priest and eventually transforms herself into a “girl reporter.” There’s Fist and Dirka, wealthy Scandinavian friends whose boredom with their husbands drives them to compete for Kenny’s affection. And finally, there’s Barney, who dies of a heroin overdose only to be replaced by his brother (played by the same actor), an indecisive conceptual artist named Lachlan.

The plot meanders as the characters attempt to form bonds that are broken as quickly as they are created. After the first few episodes, the books recede from the center of each episode’s plot. Although some reviewers expressed disappointment over this, I actually didn’t think the frame was too important.

To me, the show is about connection — who wants it, who has it, and how it can be formed. In each episode, the dynamics between the characters shift distinctly. Part of this has to do with the rules of the book group — each character has a turn picking a book and hosting the group, and the book selection and trip into the character’s home reveals new information about them.

But ultimately, connection eludes the characters. Misunderstandings erode their patience with one another. Characters retreat deeper into their fantasies. Rather than bringing the characters closer together, the books drive the characters apart as they veil attacks on one another behind the metaphors harvested from the texts. It’s a postmodern vision of simultaneous experiences of loneliness and intimacy; the decisive narratives are contained to books that have already been written, rendering the characters’ search for resolution futile.

So, what does this have to do with studying abroad at St. Andrews?

First of all, the characters speak in a variety of accents. Some sound English, some sound Scottish, some are refined and others clip the ends of words. I found it helpful to listen to characters like Rab and Kenny, whose pronunciations of English words differ from the American ones I’m used to. There are a few slang phrases that seem more normal to me now. For example, Kenny invites Fist and Dirka to “get pissed” at a local pub. Although the night does end in frustration and annoyance (the American definition of “pissed”), the slang obviously means that they get drunk together. These things are pretty basic.

But in a broader sense, Claire’s move to Scotland mirrors my own in interesting ways. She’s trying to become a writer. She’s starting over in a new place.

Claire wears a series of horribly frumpy sweaters. (http://onthedemo.com/tv-show?tmsID=SH005048110000)

Claire wears a series of horribly frumpy sweaters. (http://onthedemo.com/tv-show?tmsID=SH005048110000)

However, in spite of these overarching similarities, Claire and I are quite different. Claire doesn’t seem to be particularly open to soaking in her surroundings. In one episode, she repeatedly makes bizarre comments about not understanding why her Scottish guests drink so much tea. What does it matter, Claire? Who cares if they drink tea? Why not just have a cup of tea and stop criticizing everything you possibly can? I wanted to ask her.

Significantly, Claire’s long fantasy sequence, which spans the entire second season, is set in a desert that might be in the Middle East but might be elsewhere — anywhere but drizzly Scotland. Claire came to Glasgow to escape her life in Ohio, but as soon as she begins to settle in with a new boyfriend and a consistent book group, she begins to dream of someplace new. Claire is running from her insecurities and limitations, but they’ll follow her wherever she goes, the only constant companions in a landscape defined by broken connections.

Claire is a character who has yet to hit upon her purpose. Her aimless energy is channeled into symptoms of her frustration. There’s an emptiness in Claire’s life, something she’s chasing. Until she finds that one fulfilling element, none of her relationships or books can satisfy her. She’s stubborn and her frequent impatience puts up walls between her and the other characters.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed The Book Group, but I don’t think it was written to make the viewer comfortable. The show didn’t tap me into the pulse of Glasgow as I had hoped, but rather into the pulse of finding a niche — not just in a new city, but in life more generally. That’s a long, uncomfortable, meandering process, for sure, and one that isn’t contained in the neat peaks of a standard plot arc.

I tend to equate experience with value. How much have you seen, where have you been, what have you done — these seem to be the ways to accumulate authority. But while watching The Book Group, I realized that if this gathering is done without context, it’s rendered useless. No matter where you are or what you do, it’s not knowing someone or doing something that pushes you closer to some greater awareness. Just being there is not enough. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Glasgow or Omaha — people are people and your same old problems will stick to you like a shadow.

There’s a next step that makes these experiences useful, transforming them from simple events into moments of observation and reflection. The notion of insight and how to gain it is elusive to say the least. Maybe it’s a vulnerability or an openness, a willingness to let events move you and shape you. Maybe someday I’ll find out, from a book or a person or from myself. Maybe.