February 20, 2019
By Ella Gallego
I was at the San Francisco Airport with my parents. It was late August and we were sitting in uncomfortable, high-backed chairs next to bustling customs, waiting for the right time to say goodbye. Up until that point, I had never left the U.S. (neither had my parents, really); I had only just recently traveled to the East Coast to visit a friend in a small, podunk town in Maine 30 minutes away from the Canadian border. This country-bumpkin was nervous, trying her best to hide the jitters as she continued to glance over at yelling TSAs and trudging travelers. My mother’s smile seemed pained and my father was excited for me—he really was—but I wondered how much he was hiding, like myself, behind that energetic façade. Before I left, they asked for a selfie (something they, in their age, had never asked) and I obliged. It was awkward and each of our faces show how strained we felt; the excitement. Then, with my clumsy, large suitcases, I gave one last look to my parents before turning back to get in line.
I wish I remembered more about my first thoughts when I landed in Scotland. Instead—as memory often works—it is fragmented with useless, unsentimental snippets, like the loud, British, men’s rugby team that sat behind me on the plane or how many Europeans stared at my California aesthetic (short-shorts, backwards baseball cap, t-shirt) in the Frankfurt airport. But I remember my drive in. How ecstatic my cab driver was that I was studying abroad for a year in Scotland. He was a Scot himself and took the long route into Edinburgh from the airport (free of extra charge), pointing out landmarks and buildings proudly. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the old stone walls covered in moss. I couldn’t fathom the green I was seeing in the moss and the trees and the parks; it was green my drought-ridden, California mind couldn’t wrap around.
I remember my first morning. I was jet-lagged, and my eyes snapped open at 4 a.m. exactly. There was no going back to bed, so I crept out my Airbnb and walked to the park across the street called the Meadows. It was so early that no one else was awake. I walked through the Meadows as the sun rose, watching as the sky turned delicate rosé pinks and oranges over the top of the staggered skyline and sharp, church spires pierced its underbelly. In that moment, I was breathless. It was love at first sight. The city and that morning belonged solely to me.
I won’t bore you with every first impression, although it would be easy for me to ramble on about how intoxicatingly beautiful Edinburgh is at first sight. The drama of the gothic architecture like Scott’s Monument and St. Giles Cathedral; the impressiveness of Edinburgh castle perched hillside, looming over the city (only impressive to non-Europeans because castles are not so common for us); the rickety, cobblestone streets and narrow closes that wind themselves throughout (bad for weak ankles, any shoe with a heel taller than an inch, and anyone drunk); ancient graveyards with headstones older than colonial U.S. It is an incredible, magical, wonderful, historic city full of activities to keep people busy, but small enough that it isn’t overwhelming. The city does not lack things to do: there are many museums (most of which are free to the public), spectacular views after easy hikes (Calton Hill, Arthurs Seat, Scott Monument), and history around every corner and at every pub. During my time abroad, it was fun to go to pub quizzes, city exploring, and of course, clubbing. Many late nights were spent in a small pizzeria called Zaras on the Cowgate, ordering pizza and cheese, chips and curry after dancing and laughing in the club.
However, Edinburgh is not an anomaly. Scotland, as a country, is just as breathtaking. Take a quick train ride to Glasgow (or any city/town a trains ride from Edinburgh) and you will see the Scottish countryside rolling out from the window. For a fairly inexpensive price, you can take a tour (either through independent companies like Rabbies, the university, or through UCEAP) that will take you to famous places like the Loch Ness, the Highlands, and/or the Isle of Skye. Personally, I found these trips to be worth every penny they cost. The Highlands are surreal and sublime: dramatic Munros that sweep into green valleys, silver veined waterfalls running through the mountainsides. No matter the weather or the season, places like the Highlands and the Isle of Skye are phenomenal and must see, even if it is considered “touristy”.
Of course, not everything was roses and peaches. Any international student (including my friends who studied abroad as well, in different places) can attest that studying abroad is a challenge. I was frustrated by how foreign everything was at first (how silly of me, to travel to another country and feel that way!). By this I mean, things I took for granted in the U.S. (like constant sunlight, good Mexican food, certain groceries like black and pinto beans) were not so easily accessible in the UK. Meeting people from different cultures can result in clashing, despite your best efforts. Even academics are approached differently at British universities. For some, their field of study was easier abroad. But as a literature major, I felt an immense amount of pressure during my studies in the city of literature. I felt that I lacked so much knowledge about British literature that the rest of my colleagues already knew extensively.
However, once I opened myself up to these differences, instead of being frustrated by them, it pushed me to broaden my idea of normality and get creative. I started shopping at smaller markets other than Tesco that carried the groceries I craved; I got outside more when the sun was out to take advantage of it before it disappeared at 4:30 (yes, this will be a reality for people in the UK during the winter); I tried harder to be more perceptive to people and their cultural norms. Things are going to be hard and different and sometimes downright troubling; you just got to roll with the punches to the best of your abilities.
While there are great resources to travel elsewhere for cheap (thank you Skyscanner for all my cheap international vacations) I urge everyone, no matter where you are staying, to get to know your host city and country. These places can become second homes, as Edinburgh became for me. My last days in the city were spent in my favorite places with my favorite people, who I had come to know and love through this study abroad experience. We strolled through the Meadows, the very place I fell in love with the city for the first time. It was evening and there were people sunbathing and having picnics in the park. I remember standing still and looking at the city the same way I had my first morning in Scotland. It was spring and the trees were in full bloom, the petals dusting the pathways and the grass that lovely bright green. I was breathless again but this time because I was so heartbroken to leave behind my home, the people I had met, my new community. This place, and all the memories I had made in it (both good and bad) had shaped me in ways I had not expected, at least not so seriously. In the golden light of the evening, I gave one last look at Edinburgh, at the Meadows, before we turned and walked back home.