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?
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 Dead, Ulysses, 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.
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.
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.
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.”