Playing tourist in St. Andrews

With two weeks at St. Andrews behind me, I finally have wifi up and running in my flat. The time spent offline, with only borrowed hours at noisy coffee shops or the library, wasn’t convenient or fun. It didn’t liberate me from my technology addictions, I didn’t achieve a higher state of self awareness, and it didn’t enable me to concentrate more deeply. Mostly, not having wifi meant that I was less able to blog, more stressed about missing emails from my professors, and unable to Skype my parents, boyfriend, and friends. If anything, I’ve come away from this forced experiment with a greater appreciation for Murder, She Wrote and UK reality shows, because that’s what I watched during the free hours when I was done reading for the day but not yet able to go to sleep.

This morning, two weeks after we were promised wifi by our telephone provider and two days after our modem actually arrived, I awoke to find the modem glowing blue in the hallway. As I caught up on emails and read the NY Times online in the common room, my flatmates gradually came and joined me. When we had all assembled, we agreed that it was like Christmas morning, but for college students.

With frustration over the wifi situation on the rise all last week, a visit from a friend was especially nice. Last Friday, Maureen, my UVa roommate of two years, visited, bringing her new roommate, Christy, with her; they’re both spending this semester as visiting students at University of Edinburgh. My current roommate and longtime best friend, Susan, finally got the chance to get to know Maureen, and we all enjoyed getting to know Christy, who hails from Vassar College in New York State. New roommates, old roommates, new friends, old friends – the fact that we all ended up in Scotland continues to surprise me.

The visit began, as most visits do, in the bus station. After class last Friday afternoon, I hurried to meet Maureen and Christy. The cheapest way to travel between Edinburgh and St. Andrews is a £12 bus ride that takes you through two hours of Scottish farmland, so that’s what Christy and Maureen chose, arriving on time at the little St. Andrews station at the foot of Market Street. As we headed toward my flat, I explained the layout of the town. St. Andrews is organized along three main streets that fan out like the spokes of a wheel. All three streets converge near the ruined cathedral that now contains an ancient graveyard; weaving your way through the graveyard, you can cut through to the Fife Coastal Path and from there, the old stone pier that runs out into the North Sea. The three streets are named simply and accurately: North Street hosts many of St. Andrews’ academic buildings, including the library; Market Street features most of the shops and restaurants, including two tiny grocery stores; and South Street features more shopping and restaurants. To the north lies the famed Old Course, and roughly to the west lies another cluster of dormitories and academic buildings. Like any town, there are more landmarks and residential areas that I’m currently omitting, but, as I told Christy and Maureen, that’s St. Andrews’ basic layout.

St. Andrews is a great place to live if you love sweets.

St. Andrews is a great place to live if you love sweets.

After Maureen and Christy dropped their backpacks off at my flat, we all headed to Bibi’s, a cafe down the street that specializes in cupcakes. Emma’s sister, who lived in our flat for three years before we moved in, gave us a half dozen cupcakes from Bibi’s as a housewarming gift, and I was impressed by all of them. This time, I enjoyed a Nutella cupcake. Most of the cupcakes at Bibi’s are filled, so when I cut into mine, I was delighted to find a dollop of Nutella within the chocolate cake. Over cupcakes and a pot of tea, we chatted about classes and our respective Freshers Weeks. Both Christy and Maureen are taking History courses this semester, and I filled them in on my first week of literature courses.

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These stone markers help visitors to orient themselves within the cathedral's skeletal structure. As you can see, the grass actually is greener in Scotland.

These stone markers help visitors to orient themselves within the cathedral’s skeletal structure. As you can see, the grass actually is greener in Scotland.

After tea, we wandered over to the cathedral. The weather was beautiful, with sun drenching the old cathedral’s brown skeleton. At UVa, we have a small chapel where regular church services are held. Although I don’t attend church, I’ve been in the chapel a few times; it’s a large space that organizations sometimes borrow for events. Every year, my sorority initiates new members under the watchful eyes of the stained glass figures crowding the chapel’s windows. By comparison, the ruined cathedral now hosts primarily the dead. As the original structure decayed, gravestones filled the areas that nature reclaimed.

A peaceful moment just before the bee attack.

A peaceful moment just before the bee attack.

On our way to the pier, I was admiring the North Sea when Maureen said, “Watch out, there’s a bee – ” Instinctively, I ducked my head and immediately felt a sharp pain below my chin. For the first time in years, I’d been stung by a bee. But not just any bee – a killer bee. Since I’ve been abroad, I’ve noticed these bees. Near the Forth Bridge outside of Edinburgh and in front of the National Gallery in London, I’ve been chased by these yellow jacket-like bees, which aim for vulnerable places like the face and hands. These bees aren’t any more venomous than regular bees, as I found when my sting failed to swell, but they are very aggressive and persistent.

Ignoring the sting, I took Christy and Maureen to Maisha, a local Indian restaurant that’s a favorite among my flatmates. Over naan, jasmine rice, korma, and tikka masala, we compared stories about Edinburgh. Later this semester, we agreed to meet up for Edinburgh’s Christmas market, where vendors set up camp for the season and offer up mulled wine, sweet hot cocoa, and colorful ornaments.

Maureen and I sipped hard cider at Central pub.

Maureen and I sipped hard cider at Central pub to celebrate our semesters abroad.

St. Andrews students tend to go out to bars early in the week, with bars expecting highest turnouts on Tuesday and Wednesdays, unlike the typical Thursday-Friday-Saturday weekend at universities in the States. Since it was Friday, the streets were fairly empty. One acquaintance we ran into explained that everyone was home “resting up and recovering from whatever diseases they acquired during the week.” After the first week of classes, it was actually nice to have a quiet night.

The next morning dawned just as warm and sunny as Friday had been. We grabbed coffee in town and walked along the coastal path, pausing to admire the ruined castle that sits literally across the street from the two buildings where my classes take place. From there, we continued toward the little aquarium and took in a view of the Old Course and the cold beach where the iconic scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed.

Although the morning began sunny and warm, gray clouds obscured the sun by early afternoon.

Although the morning began sunny and warm, gray clouds obscured the sun by early afternoon.

The castle is right across the street from my classrooms, pictured just below.

The castle is right across the street from my classrooms, pictured just below.

From there, we hit some more highlights, including brunch at Northpoint where, as a tacky sign in the window exclaims, “KATE MET WILLS (for coffee!!)” After brunch, we walked back down Market Street and down to the St. Andrews Museum, a stone building that offers a little gallery of St. Andrews historical information and artifacts. Weaving our way through dormitories and academic buildings, we eventually circled back to the Old Course, where crews were working busily in preparation for the Albert Dunhill championship. Widely attended by celebrities, the annual golf competition offers ample opportunities for star-spotting. We finished up back on the beach, where the cold North Sea washed over the sand and we inspected piles of dark kelp and tiny sand fleas that skitter away as soon as they sense a footstep.

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Although I’ve lived at St. Andrews for a few weeks now, it was nice to see the town through fresh eyes once again. Recently I’ve been eying my calendar and feeling the pressure to plan another trip. My four months in Europe are already flying by faster than I could have imagined. But until I make it to Dublin or Amsterdam or Prague, I love the place I live.

You can read about Maureen’s semester abroad by clicking here! She’ll make you laugh, I promise.

Fear of falling

There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which Jimmy Stewart stands on a chair in order to change a light bulb. Stewart is a tall man, so the ceiling is within easy reach. But when he glances downward at the short distance to the floor, suddenly everything is spinning. He can’t move, he can’t breathe; frozen in the moment, he’s overcome by vertigo.

Vertigo. It’s often irrational yet deeply physical, a sense of destabilization and, for me, that the ground isn’t quite trustworthy.  In my nightmares, I’m walking uphill when suddenly I realize that it’s too steep. The soles of my shoes are slippery, and with every step it becomes more difficult to dig in and find enough purchase to propel me upward. At the top of the hill, there’s something important that I need to do. If I miss a step, I’ll plunge into freefall indefinitely.

That wariness of heights and inclines dogs me in my waking hours as well. At Grand Canyon, I could spend a few precious, dizzying moments next to the guardrails on lookout points before I imagined that the gritty ground beneath me was tilting ever so slightly forward – just enough to make me slip through the metal bars like sand through strong fingers, tumbling down and down past scrubby trees and gnarled bushes toward the distant canyon floor.

When I booked my Highlands tour back in April, the website glossed over the itinerary. Loch Ness, Isle of Skye, the Wallace monument in Stirling – it would be a “Best of Scotland,” a trip based around hitting all the highlights with long stretches of bus travel in between, I thought. In reality, the itinerary posted on the website was a bare-bones guideline. We did see these famous and worthy places, but the long stretches in between were hours where our creative and fast-quipping driver Carol could show us her favorite spots along the way.

It started out small. Day one featured a whisky distillery where we sampled shots of pale liquor on fire with bitter peaty smoke. On day two, we spent a sunny hour clambering around an ancient stone castle. Day three was a free day at Loch Ness, where we hiked through deep mossy woods and swam in the cold, inky loch water.

All of which lulled me into a false sense of security by day five.

It started out like any other day of the tour. As mentioned on the website, we planted two trees to help offset the bus’ carbon footprint. Photo stop at Urquhart Castle, which was once featured on The Simpsons. A wander around Corrimony Cairn, a system of Neolithic burial chambers. Lunch.

But once we had all piled back on the bus after lunch, Carol switched on the microphone that amplified her voice so that we could hear her at the back of the bus. “When you get out to the Falls, you’re going to come to a bridge,” she told us as the bus sped down the curving roadway. “It’s a wibbly-wobbly one. Only fifteen people can cross at a time, so just mind that.” She must have noticed some surprised faces in the rearview mirror, because she added, “And the next bridge can only take six.”

I felt a shiver shake over me as we hiked out toward Rogie Falls – one that wasn’t caused by the chilly breeze sweeping through my thin rain jacket. With clammy palms, I gripped a skinny tree at the first overlook. To my left, a wiry bridge wavered over a churning stream far below. To my right, the falls crashed over huge boulders and jagged rock faces, inky water shooting off in white jets of foam. The foam’s brown color, we later learned, was caused not by pollution but by gases produced by the slimy layer of peat lining the bottom of Highlands rivers and lochs.

Directly in front of me, six footsteps away, the ground fell away in a sheer cliff face.

Quietly containing my fear, I stepped back from the skinny tree that anchored me as soon as my head began to spin. I took a deep breath and walked toward the bridge where my tour mates were already swarming, eyes widened to capture the dramatic scenery. I watched the bridge sway, so high over the fast-moving water, and I waited for a moment. Calm on the outside, I told myself again and again that I would be safe. And as soon as there were only fourteen people on the bridge, I stepped on, white knuckles gripping the handrail tightly.

I barely remember swallowing my fear long enough to snap this photo, but the off-centered subject betrays my distressed distraction.

I barely remember swallowing my fear long enough to snap this photo, but the off-centered subject betrays my distressed distraction.

In the middle of the bridge, I carefully paused. With both hands on the rail, I forced myself to look down through the metal grate underfoot to where foam swirled past rocks smoothed by millions of gallons of water racing downstream. I looked ahead and stared at the falls, memorizing the sight because part of my phobia involved a vivid image of fumbling hands and an iPhone slipping into the water below me. If that happened, I felt certain that fumbling in my hands would lead to slipperiness in all of my other joints, and like my iPhone, I would slip and slide through the railing and all the way down to the bottom of the gorge, whisked away by the rushing stream. Lost in this troubling visual, I stiffened when I felt hands on my shoulders.

“Gotcha!” our tripmate John crowed, scampering away to see what lay on the other side of the bridge.

Carol wasn't kidding about the six person limit.

Carol wasn’t kidding about the six person limit.

After twenty minutes of recovery on the bus, we arrived at Corrieshalloch Gorge. With a six person limit on the bridge and huge rocks tantalizingly close to shore, Corrieshalloch Gorge was even scarier than Rogie Falls. Higher and narrower than the last bridge, this one swayed wildly as people stepped on and off. We craned our necks toward the rapids, trying to spot salmon leaping futilely up the vertical falls. (We did glimpse one fish flop successfully over the ridge of rocks!)

The Highlands are full of waterfalls like this one - white ribbons of water plunging from steep rock faces.

The Highlands are full of waterfalls like this one – white ribbons of water plunging from steep rock faces.

No photograph could possibly do justice to how high up we were.

No photograph could possibly do justice to how high up we were.

Across the bridge and up a path along the river, I came to the biggest obstacle of the excursion: a narrow strip of metal that served as a bridge between two chunks of concrete sunk into the river. From the farther platform, you could nimbly jump out onto the big boulders, a vantage point from which you could see clear downstream. “This is the test,” I thought to myself. I had kept my fear more or less quiet until now. Three steps – one onto the little bridge, one in the middle, and one on the other side – was all it would take.

On the other side, Susan held out her hand. The strip of metal was the width of a ruler, and the water beneath it rushed by darkly. The trees around me seemed to sway.

Unable to make it to the rock, I was happy to play photographer for Susan and Janet.

Unable to make it to the rock, I was happy to play photographer for Susan and Janet.

One, two, three. Shaking, I stood on the other side. Too unnerved to make it out to the middle of the river, I looked back at the little makeshift bridge with a shudder. “Are you sure you don’t want to come out?” Janet called. No, I absolutely did not want to climb out onto a slippery rock in the middle of a dangerous river. But even though I hit a wall, I still felt that I had accomplished something, even if the something was knowing my limits in spite of pushing them.

Classes at St. Andrews started today, bringing with them a different type of vertigo. I felt the familiar nervousness and excitement I’ve felt every first day of every new semester. My heart beats and feels twice as much, it seems – collapsing in on itself in fear of saying something stupid, swelling twice as big with sheer love for the literature I’m studying and the way it makes me think. Pu-pump, pu-pump.

Today has of course made me recall my first day at University of Virginia two years ago, when the blistering Virginia sun made me sweat-soaked by the time I made it to my philosophy class, slightly late in keeping with my inability to arrive anywhere quite on time. Both times, there was a little dizziness. A pile of new books, a long list of assignments yet undone, a final exam worth 50% of my grade! But this time, the newness didn’t faze me. Although I had a moment of deja vu as I pored over my map of St. Andrews as I searched for the English department building, being a first year at St. Andrews does not feel the same as being a first year at U. Va.

At St. Andrews, my fear of falling is actually my fear of falling too much in love with this seaside town with its crooked cobbly streets and the quirky flatmates who I’ll have to leave all too soon. It’s a delicate thing, forming attachments that will somehow have to endure an ocean and a time zone. On the other side of the Atlantic, I haven’t been able to Skype my parents or my boyfriend for almost a month due to my currently limited access to wifi (which is itself a long and twisted story). It’s exciting, it’s sad, I don’t know. I didn’t realize that studying abroad would mean creating and maintaining two lives, one there, one here.

I wanted to step out of my comfort zone, and here I am.

*Note: I lost my wifi connection yesterday, per usual, before I could publish. So, classes started yesterday, but that’s when I wrote this post.

Feast flash: UK staples and missteps

Cringing, I checked my stats before starting this post. Let’s be real, they’ve been dismal recently due to my almost total absence from the online world. Between not having wifi in my flat, matriculation, and a spontaneous three-day trip to London, the four posts I’ve been sorting out have been confined to my notebook, the notes app on my phone, and a steadily growing Word document piled with thoughts.

I’m still not settled in completely, and this new place and new semester means that I’ll have to plan a new writing schedule. Something different from my 50-hour summer work weeks, thank God, and hopefully involving the desk in my bedroom instead of this noisy coffee shop where a few hours of wifi come at the cost of an overpriced latte. I have a few other writing projects in the works as well, and after having to neglect all of them for the past few weeks, I’m anxious to get back in the game. A new place, a fresh semester – the jumbling of all my routines seems a fair price to pay.

Travel is sensory in so many ways. From the whiff of brine that permeated our hostel on the Isle of Skye to the way my muscles ached from the hellish overnight bus trip back from London, I’ve experienced new levels of physical immersion.

The stories of wonder and horror will have to wait for another day, because I want to start with some observations concerning my favorite travel sense: Taste.

Maybe it’s because I’m stuck in this coffee shop until my advising appointment at 1:30 pm with no food and a profound unwillingness to shell out £7 for a sandwich, but the foods of my travels feature particularly prominently in my memory today. Wherever I go, whether it’s to a favorite restaurant in Charlottesville or a new city, I make a point of seeking out signature foods, typically things that I can’t get at home and/or can’t make myself. From lobster rolls in Maine to poutine in Montreal, fried alligator in a rural town in Florida and antelope at a restaurant on the DelMarVa peninsula, food has always managed to be a surprising and visceral way to experience a place.

Tragically my phone died and I was unable to photograph the haggis. This was Sunday dinner at Morag's - peppery turnips, carrots, potatoes, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding - to give you an idea of the massive portioning.

Tragically my phone died and I was unable to photograph the haggis. This was Sunday dinner at Morag’s – peppery turnips, carrots, potatoes, roast beef, and Yorkshire pudding – to give you an idea of the massive portioning.

First on my to-eat list was haggis, the Scottish food most likely to induce wincing among my friends and family at home. When I tried haggis, it was stuffed in a chicken breast and smothered with a whiskey cream sauce, with mashed potatoes and broccoli on the side. The hearty portion was a steal at £7.50 at our hostel (Morag’s Lodge) in Loch Ness. Even with the whiskey cream sauce and chicken to soften the haggis’ flavor, I sincerely enjoyed the bites of pure haggis I curiously scooped out of the chicken. Haggis has the texture of ground beef and is so heavily spiced that the distinctive flavor of organ meats is rendered undetectable. This description feels a bit anticlimactic considering the way my friends and relatives stared deeply into my eyes and half-whispered, “But…do you know what it’s made of?” It’s really tasty, regardless of the fact that it’s made of hearts and lungs.

However, I will say that trying it as a chicken stuffing is definitely a good call. The other common alternative is a mound of haggis with gravy served over mashed potatoes – it’s a lot of haggis for one person, particularly if you’re unable to stop yourself from visualizing fluttering lungs and pumping hearts.

You can see flaky white fish peeking through the crunchy batter!

You can see flaky white fish peeking through the crunchy batter!


I knocked out another UK classic at Ullapool, a small fishing town on the west coast of Scotland where I ordered take-away fish and chips. I’ve had this familiar combination of French Fries and battered cod before, but I’ve never had a version that was so flaky and crispy, nestled in a paper box and glimmering with oil. I doused the mound of fried potatoes and fish with malt vinegar and salt and enjoyed almost all of it on the ferry on the way to the Outer Hebrides, until I was defeated by the enormous filet and mountain of chips. A week of eating trail mix and raisin bread in order to save money while traveling shrank my normally endless appetite, but fish and chips are definitely a perk of living here. Not only am I frankly terrified of heating large quantities of oil on my stove top, but the fish is so fresh and flaky here on the coast of Scotland. Almost every town here has a fish and chips shop (or “chippy”) that claims to be the best, and I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity to try many of them before I head home in December.

I enjoyed a mocha at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

I enjoyed a mocha at The Elephant House in Edinburgh, where JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.

Other differences are more subtle. I don’t believe that every aspect of life is better in Europe – like the States, Europe has problems of its own. But I will say that certain things do seem to taste a little better here. Lattes are foamier, yogurt is creamier, and tea is served in pots. But my favorite difference is the bread.

Bread and I have a complicated relationship. In high school, as I grew increasingly aware of my weight, bread became my enemy. When I saw a fluffy loaf of bread, I immediately associated it with thick thighs and a bulging stomach, and I did everything I could to avoid it. This is ridiculous, of course. Bread is delicious and definitely not bad for you in moderation. Unless you’re trying to be gluten-free – and I made an effort to eliminate gluten this summer as I tried to keep my energy up during my grueling back to back workweeks. Until I came to Scotland and saw the open baskets of fresh rolls in every grocery store, I had forgotten how much I actually love bread. I’ve been on a toast-and-jam kick all week to celebrate my reunion with that trouble-making carb.

Day one in Edinburgh brought the wonderful discovery of my new favorite bread. Soreen, the “deliciously squidgy” raisin bread, is a dark, molasses-like bread with an incredibly moist texture. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I would guess that it’s at least 40% dates, plus it’s studded with sultanas (my new vocab word, synonymous to raisins). “Squidgy” is an informal British word meaning “soft, spongy, and moist.” It’s squishy but firm, almost sticky but not quite. It’s a heavy, dense breakfast bread that, with a little more sugar, could almost be a fruitcake. I haven’t tried toasting it yet, but according to the package, that’s even better than eating it cold.

In addition to my renewed relationship with bread, my diet has had another game-changing addition. In the States, the drinking age remains fixed at 21 and my 21st birthday isn’t for another few months. Predictably, buying alcohol is convenient but expensive. My favorite beer so far is Innis and Gunn (shout out to Emma for the great pick), a brew that’s aged in oak barrels. This unusual extra step adds incredible depth of flavor, an oaky vanilla warmth that softens the strong beer’s hoppiness.
The most unusual beverage I’ve sampled was definitely Drambuie, a whisky liqueur whose secret recipe is closely guarded. According to local legend, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled to the Isle of Skye after the bloody and brutal Battle of Culloden. To express his gratitude to the innkeeper who gave him shelter, Bonnie Prince Charlie shared his family’s recipe for drambuie, whose name means “the drink that satisfies” in Gaelic (Scottish, pronounced “Gallic,” and not to be confused with the Irish language of the same name). The liqueur packs a punch of flavor, starting with whisky’s signature singe and mellowing with a Jeger-like licorice sweetness. What was really cool about this whole experience was that we had visited the Culloden battlefield a few days earlier and sipped drambuie on the Isle of Skye. History and flavor have been preserved side by side, and through the liqueur you can gain a sensory experience that has been accessible to generations and generations of people.

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I could go on and on about food forever. I haven’t even mentioned eating sushi in SoHo while we were in London or the fact that Scots are so environmentally conscious that there is a movement to eat more venison in order to control the deer population or the fact that I now live above an ice cream shop. But like I said, not everything is better and more interesting here. When it comes to serving American food, the UK has repeatedly made a huge mistake.

On day one, Janet and I grabbed dinner at a café, where she bought a barbecue panini. Although it definitely did taste good, the small Southern part of me backed away slowly. In addition to the fact that there’s pulled pork on a panini in the first place, they served it with a slab of yellow cheddar. I never turn down melted cheese, but something inside me died a little bit. It would be like serving carnitas over mashed potatoes. Cole slaw is on the side instead of piled between the buns where the creamy dressing can cool down spicy barbecue sauce. It’s a delicate balance. And speaking of sauce, I haven’t seen any vinegar-based barbecue at all. It’s funny to see what is transmitted between countries. When I think of barbecue, it’s a Southern food first and an American food second, just like Robert E. Lee was a Virginian before he was an American. Especially in the South, regional identity is distinct and informative. However, along with £7 sandwiches at Burger King, American food is barbecue.

After a few weeks of traveling, it feels so good to be back in a kitchen. Two nights ago, Janet and I cooked dinner together – pan-seared garlic chicken plated next to a salad of juicy roasted beets, cubes of salty Grano Padano, soft baby greens, and slivers of spicy red onion, all tossed with a tomato-balsamic vinaigrette we improvised from a half remembered recipe. Late last night after going out with friends, I was (carefully) slicing tart apples from our back garden. I sauteed them with butter, brown sugar, and cinnamon, added a splash of water and a tablespoon of flour, and we had a spiced caramel apple topping for honeycomb ice cream. I’m used to cooking light vegetable entrees, but the cold weather here is driving me toward hearty, warm foods. Tonight we’re hosting a dinner at our apartment, so I’m off to buy some berries for a spinach salad. Wifi will be up and running in my flat in t-minus 2 days, so I’ll be back to the blog for good!