The first time I ever visited Cornell was May of my senior year of high school. I had just gotten off the wait list and my dad and I were spending the day touring the school, trying to figure out, in the few hours we had there, if it was the right place for me. No pressure!
I remember that the weather was beautiful – sunny and bright but not too hot – and that the plants on campus were all in bloom. Between the lush flora and the stately old buildings, my first impression was that this would be a very nice place to look at. I got excited as I pictured myself spending an afternoon sitting under a broad, shady tree on the Arts Quad, reading a book within view of Goldwin Smith’s elegant pillars. But, a persistent concern kept asking me, would it be a nice place to live? What was the student life like? In short, would I make friends here?
It was hard to tell at first. It was finals week, our tour guide told us, and most students were in the library; the ones we did see looked pretty stressed. I was a little worried by the end of our tour – I had only an hour left here and I still had no idea what the student body was like. The preconception I had of Ivy League students – either really pretentious or really nerdy – wasn’t an encouraging one.
But then something happened that shaped my views of Cornell, of its students, of studying abroad – something that stayed with me since my first day on campus, and something that ultimately persuaded me to choose this school. And here, at the end of my semester abroad, I can’t help but think about this little moment I witnessed one bright day in May, and how funny it is when life comes full circle.
It was after our campus tour. My dad was off finding a bathroom so I was sitting in the lobby of Day Hall as I waited, looking at Cornell calendars and pamphlets with vague interest. Suddenly, the door to the lobby burst open and in flew a guy who looked like a student, but more bedraggled than all the other ones I’d seen. He was wearing a giant backpack, flowy pants, and a jacket with patches on it. And as soon as they saw him, the two girls sitting behind the tour guide desk squealed and jumped to their feet and ran and wrapped him in a big hug.
I can’t remember exactly what they all said – it’s been three years, after all – but I remember it went something along the lines of When did you get back, How was study abroad, I’m so glad to see you. The three of them were so excited to be reunited that I felt a little awkward sitting there, like I was intruding on something, even though I was on the other side of the room. It just was a moment so full of joy and love, and although my dad soon returned to the lobby and the two of us left Day Hall and those three students, I remember walking out thinking That’s the kind of friendship I want to find in college. Those are the kinds of people I want to come back to someday.
I’ll be honest: My decision to come to Cornell still wasn’t an easy one to make. It was a lot to commit to based on so little information. I had my doubts about the academics (would I like my major?), the weather (all anyone ever talked about were the winters), and yes, still, the student life (would I find my own place?). But on the last point, at least, I had a little encouragement, as I kept thinking back to that Day Hall reunion. Just knowing that Cornell was a place where bonds like that were made was enough to push me to take the leap of faith that was accepting my admission offer and joining the Class of 2017.
Jump forward three years to May 2016, only a couple weeks past the anniversary of my first visit. I’m back in Ithaca. I’m a little jetlagged and not responding well to the 90 degree heat (Scotland was so temperate and nice!), especially after slogging through a 7 hour car ride sans air conditioning. I’m dehydrated, groggy, and sweaty.
But I’m also excited – I’m meeting my friends, who I haven’t seen in six months, for sushi downtown. Some of them are seniors and about to graduate, which is why I’m here: to see them one last time before they go. I’m excited, like I said, but also emotional and a little nervous. What if it’s awkward? What if they aren’t as excited to see me as I am to see them? My stomach is in knots as I push open the door to the restaurant.
And… as always, my fears are unfounded. As soon as we see each other, they run to me and I run to them and we all hug and squeal and talk over one another. We eat sushi and then get ice cream and catch up and joke and it’s like nothing has changed, not really. I feel, I realize, how that guy in Day Hall must have felt. I feel like I have finally returned to Cornell, a place that to me has always meant people more than anything. I feel like I’ve finally come home.
Author’s note: Thanks for following my blog this semester! It’s been an honor to write for Cornell Abroad, to whom I’m grateful for giving me such an unforgettable experience. I’m sorry this last post is so late – life got real once I came back to the States and I got, frankly, too lazy to publish it. I almost hesitate, even now, because it will mean my time abroad is really over. But it’s nearly time to go back to school, and it’s definitely time to let go of Scotland. At least, it is for now.
The first thing they teach you in introductory Info Sci classes, before you even learn how to type an HTML <head> tag, is that the user is always dumb and always right. That is, that anything anyone does wrong while interacting with your product is valid, and it’s your, the designer’s, fault, not theirs.
This is Design 101 and actually, from a user perspective, kind of life-changing. When you realize that you push on pull doors because the designer messed up, not because you’re stupid, moving through the world becomes a much less shameful task. (For a good video on bad door design, which is itself a neat intro to design in general, click here.)
Designers are often smart, but the problem is they can be so smart they don’t realize what mistakes can be made with their product. (And there are always a lot of them!) That’s why users should always be assumed to be dumb, and thus always right. Your genius door handle design isn’t so genius if no one else can use it.
Anyway, this little intro on Basics of User Experience Design does, in fact, relate to my study abroad experience! In my months of booking and traveling in Europe, I’ve run into a couple of design issues online. Alas, as much as I’d love to be the Conscientious, Brilliant Designer Hero of these stories, I’m actually the Very Dumb Idiot User. Here are my exciting tales of user failure and why design is important, especially in high-stress environments like foreign countries.
I have perhaps never in my entire life felt dumber than I did one bright morning in April on the last day of our stay in Budapest. We had just eaten an early breakfast in a cute restaurant a few blocks from our Airbnb, and were sitting on a bench near a small park where an elderly man was watering the bushes, when it occurred to me to double check my bus ticket to Vienna, our next city. I opened my email and looked at the date and suddenly my heart stopped.
“Hey guys, what day is today?” I asked, dread seeping into my limbs. I knew what day it was. I just really wished I was wrong.
“The 15th, why?”
My ticket, a bundle of uncaring pixels, read, tauntingly, April 12, 2016. Oh no.
“I booked the wrong bus.”
Small chaos ensued. We discovered that my friend Julia, having used the link I sent her, had also booked the wrong date. The two of us suddenly had no way to leave Budapest and our Uber to the bus station was already on its way. Yay!!!
Luckily, our friend Matt had booked a different bus the night before and told us to try that one. So, crammed into the backseat of a sedan speeding through the city, I, the only one of us with cellular data, pulled open Google Chrome and found the bus company’s website. Time was obviously of the essence and my fingers nearly tripped over one another in their hurry to enter passenger details – Schmidt, Catherine and Joseph, Julia; American; email address, phone number; debit card number – until, finally, I pressed the satisfying green “Confirm Booking” button and breathed a sigh of relief. We had a way out of Hungary. I glanced over the booking confirmation page.
“Wait,” I said. “Today’s the 16th, right?”
Silence. The heaviest silence I’ve ever heard. And then everyone started talking at once.
“Did you just-”
“Are you joking-”
Julia just laughed. “You’re so dumb!”
Sitting there, staring in disbelief at my second time making the same mistake, I could do nothing but agree with her. I was so, so dumb. How had this happened???
The Uber was still making its determined way to the bus station, so after a few seconds of self-disparaging moaning I went back to the bus company start page and, beginning the booking process over again, I saw where my error had originated. It was a design flaw!
Or, at least, in my professional (potentially biased) Info Sci opinion, that’s what it was. The problem was that when you go to book a ticket on this website, the date automatically selected on their calendar form is the next day. That is, their assumed default customer is someone booking a ticket for tomorrow, not today.
I understand the design rationale behind this – What kind of doofus needs to book a same-day bus ticket? Might as well be clever and move the date up; this might save someone a click – but from a user standpoint it’s really annoying, and clearly problematic. When a user sees a calendar with a date already selected, their brain assumes that date is today (or at least, this user’s does, and I’d wager most other people’s do too). Even if the actual date selected is printed in bold red text at the top of every screen (it wasn’t), they’ll make this mistake, especially if they’re in a rush – visual intuition is a much stronger draw than something relatively meaningless like a date.
Eventually I got us tickets to the right bus and we set off for Vienna (moody Jennifer Garner style), where we had a fun time. No harm done.
Well… except there actually was some harm done to my bank account, and I’m not pleased about that. I accept that I made a mistake (and, okay, twice), but, listen: I’m a user. I’m super duper stupid. And while I’m not blameless here, neither is that bus company’s design team. Their default options were bad and I (literally) paid for them.
Luckily, the story of the second time I was duped by bad form defaults has a happy ending. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I was in a really good mood: I had just finished my two hardest exams (Foundations of Natural Language Processing and Computer Security) and my friend Meghan was in town, visiting Edinburgh from Copenhagen. We were chilling in my kitchen discussing our upcoming trip to London and I mentioned a bike tour company I liked; I’d done their tours in Barcelona, Paris, and Berlin, and knew they had a London branch, too, if that was something she was interested in. She was, and suggested we book tickets ahead of time, so I pulled up their website and went about booking two student tickets for the Friday tour.
The booking was simple. It was on another site – hosted by a secure payment company – with a clean, easy-to-use form. I double and triple checked the date, by this point very cautious about that sort of thing. And then, just like in Budapest, I happily pressed the “Confirm Booking” button only to realize with horror, on seeing the booking confirmation, that I had made a Big Mistake.
This time my error was that I had accidentally booked one extra ticket. Our two student tickets were there in the order, as they were supposed to be, but they were accompanied by an unwanted adult ticket. An unwanted adult ticket that was charging me 21 extra pounds. How had that gotten there???
The answer ended up being – you guessed it! – a design flaw. It turns out that when you go to this site’s booking, the form for inputting the number and type of riders already has one adult ticket filled in automatically. Again, from a design standpoint, I get this – your default customer is probably an adult, and there has to be at least one of them. Good for you for trying to make a single adult’s life just that much easier! But for a demographic you might not have considered – say, two students – who probably won’t look in the adult box because they don’t need to, this is a bad default. Add the tricky pound-dollar conversion that will make an American checking out think that £66 is a very reasonable amount to pay (since the price for two students is actually right around $66) and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
Like I said, at least this story has a happy ending. I emailed the company explaining my mistake, and they were more than happy to refund me the accidental ticket, making my alternative plan of scalping it unnecessary. And the bike tour was great fun! So this time, no real harm done. Takeaway: Design flaws are more forgivable when their consequences are reversible.
When you study abroad you end up booking a lot of things: flights, trains, museum tickets. Most of the time this works just as it should, and you probably don’t even notice that the forms you use are well designed. In fact, that’s another bit of Design 101 – if something is designed well, its design is invisible. It just works.
That’s what makes cases like these so striking and, in the Budapest example, almost a little dramatic. Bad design disrupts. And when you’re in a high-stakes environment, like trying to leave a foreign country, any disruption can be a big deal. So if you’re ever in a design position, especially if you’re designing a form that makes people pay Real Actual Money, consider the fringe case users – e.g., dumb American students – and make sure they don’t make the same mistakes I did.
The floor is wood, old wood, and it smells like gym class. It creaks under your heel every time you stomp on it, which is becoming more frequent as the band speeds up. You’re sweating – it’s hot in here! – but you don’t really notice or mind. The count in your head reaches four again, so you grab your partner’s hands and swing them around in a sloppy circle, laughing.
You’re at a ceilidh (pronounced “kay-lee”), one of the main social events on Edinburgh’s campus and (I think?) in Scotland in general. A night of traditional Scottish dancing led by a live band (think square dance but with more kilts), you can expect to find at least one put on as a fundraiser by some club or another on any given week. They’re usually held in the Teviot Debating Hall, a big room on the top floor of the student union, and cost a couple pounds at the door. If you get there early – that is, if you get there on time, and the band isn’t ready yet, which is often – you can go downstairs to the union’s Library Bar and get a pint to loosen up. And then, once the band is warmed up, you dance!
If you’re unfamiliar with Scottish folk dance, that’s okay. In fact, except for the few regulars you see at every ceilidh, most people have experience levels ranging from “hard none” to “I think I remember this one but I’m gonna mess it up anyway” – which is actually great! This means that the band teaches you the steps to each dance beforehand, so you get some practice, and even if (when) you do flub a move, no one cares because they’re all doing the same thing. But the dances are also all pretty simple – it’s usually some variation of step forward, step back, kick, spin your partner around, repeat – so you’ll probably surprise yourself by how quickly you get the hang of them. And, if you’re dance-averse like I am, by how much fun they are – I’ve been to three and still want to go to more.
Anyway, if you’re ever lucky enough to be invited to a ceilidh (there are like five ceilidh bands in the US but, hey, who knows!), here are my tips for making sure you have a great experience:
Bring a partner. Most dances in a ceilidh are partner dances, or else they’re dances that involve a group that’s a multiple of two. Don’t be like the awkward guys that prowl the edges of the dance floor looking for a girl sitting out – bring a friend (same gender dancing is totally fine, and actually kind of the norm!) and worry less about social interactions than remembering the moves.
Don’t stress too much about the dress code. This one is probably context-specific, but if you’re at a university ceilidh there’s going to be a wide range of outfits. I’ve been to ceilidhs with dress codes ranging from “none” to “black tie” and in each one people just kind of dressed how they want. Of course the black tie event leaned towards the fancy side and the unspecified one had more people in jeans but there was a surprising amount of overlap between the two. And no one really seemed to care, either. As long as you can twirl around in whatever you’re wearing, you’re ready to go! But also…
Wear comfortable shoes. If there is one piece of wardrobe advice I can offer, it’s that you should wear shoes you can dance in for upwards of two hours. I’ve tried to do a ceilidh in heels and I ended up sitting out for more than half the songs, which was no fun at all.
Keep count in your head, or out loud. The trick to ceilidh dancing, like I guess to all dancing, is doing certain moves on certain beats. But it’s especially important in a ceilidh because all the dances are extremely repetitive, so as long as you remember to hop on two and spin on four, wash, rinse, repeat, you’re pretty much good for the whole set. And there’s absolutely no shame in counting the beats out loud, or saying the names of the steps as you do them – to be honest it’s more fun that way.
Hydrate! Ceilidhs are hard work! If you’re not prepared physically you might get in trouble. The room is usually hot, first of all, because of all the people in it and also Scotland is cold and buildings like to overcompensate. Second, you’re actually, like, exercising: On top of the real dance moves, a lot of sets involve literal running, which is fun, but gets you out of breath. And third, there’s a lot of spinning, so if you’re flagging there’s a real possibility you could get pretty dizzy. So eat and hydrate and maybe have a pint or two and you’ll be all set!
So, yeah: As far as club fundraisers go, I can’t think of anything much better than a ceilidh. It’s cool to do something that a) teaches me about Scottish culture, b) involves me in student life, and c) is really, really fun. And if any of my clubs back at Cornell ever need an event idea, I might suggest ringing up one of those five ceilidh bands…
I spent this St. Patrick’s day in two different European countries, neither of which was Ireland. My family was visiting for the week and after a few days of enjoying Scotland together we, glamorous world travelers seeking a certain continental joie de vivre, were jetsetting off to Paris for the weekend. So the morning of my St. Patrick’s day was spent packing and sitting in the Edinburgh airport and its evening was spent listening to French radio in a rush hour taxi ride and eating a delicious dinner at my Dad’s favorite restaurant in Paris. (Lest you think I’m the cultured one of the family, my father is urbane enough to have a favorite restaurant in Paris.)
Anyway, all of this is to say that the closest I got to any kind of Irish revelry was walking past an Irish pub in Paris where a bunch of drunk French students were standing outside, sipping Guinness and smoking. In fact, the most Irish thing about my holiday might have been my disappointment in not getting to celebrate it properly. Is that a sad thing to say? I just mean that my impression of Ireland, both historically and from personal experience, is that it is a land tragically and ironically devoid of luck.
For example, from a historical perspective, the Irish have had it rough. This Cracked article does a nice job detailing their various pitfalls of fortune, but I’ll summarize here for those of you averse to link-clicking: Viking invasions, anti-ginger prejudice, potato famine, and the English in general. Plus, even though it wasn’t on their list, I’d like to include the awful discrimination the Irish people have faced in places like Britain and America. So, yeah: Luck-wise, for every pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, there are things like “No Irish Need Apply” signs and the fact that Ireland’s population still hasn’t recovered from the potato famine.
It also turns out that bad luck in Ireland isn’t confined to history books – it is alive and well and you, too, can experience it! No, I’m joking. I know plenty of people who have traveled to the Emerald Isle this semester and had great, incident-free experiences. It seems that perhaps it was only me who, just as St. Patrick did with Christianity, singlehandedly brought over heaps of misfortune to this poor beleaguered sheep island.
I went to Ireland at the end of January with some new study abroad friends. (They’re actually all from Cornell, but with the exception of my friend Julia I knew none of them before coming to Edinburgh. School’s big, whoda thunk?) It was just a wee weekend trip: Saturday in Dublin and Sunday on a bus tour to the Cliffs of Moher. I had a 9 a.m. class on Monday I needed to get back to Edinburgh for, but the others all got to stay later that day and do fun things like sample whiskey at the Jameson distillery. (See what I mean about my luck?)
And on the whole, despite what my bitter lead-up might have had you believe, we had a great weekend. Ireland is lovely and super fun, but, I mean, of course it is! Any decent guidebook can tell you that, along with what to do to make your trip go right. So, I figure, I might as well tell you what can, with a few strokes of bad fortune, go wrong. In the Irish spirit!
First, you can fail a mission to find an important personal site.
My very first memory of anything, which I acquired at age one while on a family trip to Dublin, is a little weird. It’s in black and white, first of all, which I’ve always chalked up to the psychology of infant brains and the faulty nature of early memory retrieval, but who knows. I’m not a psych major. And then there’s the subject matter. My first ever memory, a treasured piece of the grand puzzle that is my very self, is of me lying on the ground, looking into a gutter.
Go ahead and make jokes about the significance of that (actually, I’ll just make one real quick for all of us: It was me looking into my future! Okay cool, glad we got that out of the way) but I’ve always really valued this memory. I think it’s kind of cool that I remember something from such a young age and that it was in a foreign country, no less. I was a glamorous world traveler even as a baby! So when I found out I was finally, at long last, returning to Dublin, I made it a personal mission of mine to find my gutter.
Long story short, I did not find my gutter. The plan started off promising: I texted my parents asking where in Dublin it had been and they replied right away with the information that it was in the northeast edge of St. Stephen’s Green. Easy enough. St. Stephen’s Green is pretty big, but I could manage the northeast edge. My friends were politely game to aid me in my quest, so we all schlepped through Dublin to the park of my destiny. I pulled out my trusty Google Maps, marched us all along the Green’s scenic, tree-lined paths, and arrived, finally, and anti-climactically, at the northeast edge, which was the most gutter-less area of civilized land I have ever been.
I poked around for a few minutes but could feel the futility of my mission grow more and more obvious. And my friends, good sports though they were, were obviously flagging. We all needed naps. So it was with a heavy heart that I turned from the memory of my gutter and walked, defeated, out of St. Stephen’s Green and away from my destiny. Irish luck had struck.
Second, you can be thwarted by nature.
The main thing I wanted to do in Ireland, having already been to Dublin (well, “been”, but you know), was go to the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs of Moher (pronounced “more”) are a series of huge, daunting, beautiful cliffs on Ireland’s west coast that have, I learned, been featured in movies such as Harry Potter and The Princess Bride but which I knew mostly from upperclassmen’s study abroad Facebook albums. Still! I knew they were incredible and I knew I wanted to see them, up-close and personal.
Luckily my friends all did too, so we booked tickets for a bus tour that would take us across various landmarks Irish landmarks in one day, culminating, as headlined, in the gem of the Irish coast: the Cliffs of Moher. We were excited: Landscapes! Castles! And those things no pictures could do justice, the only things worth seeing in Ireland, the Cliffs!
Long story short, we did not see the Cliffs of Moher. I mean, we went to them! We were there! We should have seen them, in a perfect world! But, alas, we did not.
This was due to what our tour guide called apologetically “the worst weather he had seen in a long time”. As our bus climbed up the hill that would deliver us unto the sight we had so deeply longed to see, had dreamed and wished about, a thick white fog closed in around us. “Maybe it will clear up, guys, but…” our guide said resignedly, and that was it. It was over. My hope shriveled within me as the view from the bus window yielded nothing but cloud and by the time we got out and stamped over to the viewing point, I wasn’t even surprised to see a mass of fog where my beloved cliffs should have been.
We went to the visitor center and explored exhibits of what the cliffs should have looked like (somehow it didn’t help to lessen the disappointment) and eventually wandered back to see that the fog had lifted just enough to reveal their vague outlines. My brain could more or less piece together their general shapes, and even as approximations they were awe-inspiring, but still, I couldn’t help but long for a little… Moher. Sorry. But yeah, by the time we trooped back to the bus, sea-sprayed and underwhelmed, I felt as if Irish luck had thwarted me once again.
Third, you can… Well, you can have a Jimmy.
Because this was my first real trip while studying abroad, it was also the first time I stayed in a hostel. My expectations for hostels were low, and this place met them with aplomb. The bathrooms were shabby and far away, our room smelled like feet, and for decor one of the paintings on the wall had fallen down and torn. At least my bed was comfortable and, as far as I could tell, clean, but that was about all this place had going for it.
Yet I was willing to chalk this all up to the Total Hostel Experience. I was young! I was travelling around Europe for cheap! What could I really expect?
Well, I could certainly not expect one thing. Enter Jimmy.
We were spending our last evening in Dublin sitting on the floor of our room, playing cards, all old-school like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Titanic, since the hostel’s WiFi didn’t reach us. Around 10:30 our door opened and a middle-aged man, tall and disheveled, loomed in the doorway, silent. My first impulse was that he was a maintenance worker, since I figured anyone older than 30 in a hostel had to be staff. Yet he made no moves towards, perhaps, our torn painting or impotent WiFi, so I wondered if he might be another, if atypical, guest.
“Hello,” I said, after a few awkward seconds.
“Hi,” he grunted, shifting unsteadily. Whiffs of whiskey and smoke reached our side of the room, providing some explanation for his unsettling behavior. I noticed a bandage under his eye. He really needed a shave. For some time, our new friend stood in the middle of the room and we all sat there, watching. Would he introduce himself? That would be the normal thing to do, right?
In fact, he did the very least normal thing to do, which was take off his shirt and turn off the light without asking us if we would mind, which, like… We would mind! We were playing cards! (Actually, I was losing, so I didn’t mind so much, but it’s really the principle of the thing.) So we were stuck sitting in the dark, still in the middle of a card game, with a drunk, old, shirtless man lying in his bed mere feet from us. I had to run out of our room to keep from laughing. My friends followed shortly after and we all sought refuge in the stairwell, laughing from the absurdity of it all, until we were tired enough to go to bed.
Eventually we worked up the nerve to go back to the room and face our companion. Though asleep, he still managed to do plenty to disconcert us throughout the night, like moaning loudly and existing. I left before everyone else did (thanks, 9 a.m. class), but apparently they talked a little more to him in the morning. They discovered that his name was Jimmy, that his friend had gone missing and they were maybe going to call the police about it (unclear where the rest of the “they” were), and that he probably was Irish but he was “still so drunk it was hard to tell”.
I mean, at the end of the day, we all left Jimmy and the hostel unscathed and in good humor, so I can’t complain about him too much. And I do feel bad for whatever life had thrown at him that placed him in a crappy youth hostel, drunk and with a lost friend somewhere. Yet for my first time in a hostel, I can’t say sharing it with Jimmy was ideal. In fact, it felt downright… unlucky.
For all its mishaps, though, my trip to Ireland was really, really fun, and I’m grateful for every part of it. In fact, I often had the best times because, not just in spite, of everything that went wrong, if only because my friends were always at my side to laugh about it with. I think at the end of the weekend we were all closer, and got to come back with lots of funny stories. So maybe, just maybe, (sorry, cheesy ending alert!) the luck of the Irish was actually… good… all along.
I got the news about President Garrett’s death at 5 p.m. Monday evening. I was sitting in the library in a chair looking out at Arthur’s Seat, which was beginning to glow red in the setting sun, when my phone buzzed with an email alert. My stomach sank. The preview showed only the words “Dear Cornell Community, It is with utmost sadness that I write…”, but I was pretty sure I knew what the rest of the email would say. Still, I opened it, and read the words that confirmed what I didn’t want to be true: “…our president, colleague and friend, Elizabeth Garrett, passed away late last evening after a brave battle with colon cancer.”
I was gutted. I didn’t know what to do. I could feel tears beginning in the corners of my eyes and I knew I needed to get out of the library, which suddenly felt too small, and go… somewhere. Somewhere I could be alone and think and cry. And I needed to do something, I needed to move, I needed to… I don’t know, accomplish something. Honor her, maybe, somehow.
While packing my backpack, I looked out the window and saw Arthur’s Seat again. A crazy impulse seized me. I need to climb that. There was an hour until the sun set so I slung my backpack over my shoulder and left the library as fast as I could.
I passed students in the stairwell, chatting and laughing, and tourists on the street, slowly ambling about. I avoided eye contact with all of them and kept walking faster and faster. Why aren’t they upset? Don’t they know what just happened? Who we just lost? Of course they didn’t. Still, I resented them for it. I needed to be upset and the city didn’t care.
Finally I reached the base of Arthur’s Seat. It was 5:45 – there were only fifteen minutes until sunset and the sky was already beginning to purple, casting long shadows over everything. I would not, I realized bitterly, reach the summit before dark. But then I saw there was another path, shorter and closer, up to the top of the Salisbury Crags. I took it, sinking my boots into the soft, muddy earth with as much force as I could muster. I moved violently, angrily. I just needed to be alone.
There was, near the top of the Crags, a smaller path, leading to a little, grassy cove on the side of the hill, hidden from the main way. My best bet for solitude. I climbed gingerly down to the spot, overgrown with long grass and caked with snow, and settled myself into its indent. It was cold but I didn’t mind. There was a beautiful view of the sun setting over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth and no one could see me. I was free. I began, at last, to sob.
I count myself as very, very lucky that I have not experienced much death in my personal life. Still, I’m not wholly unfamiliar with it. I have been to funerals. I have known what it is like for someone I know to suddenly cease to be, and how awful and unfair it is. And yet, for some reason, I can’t remember a death that affected me quite so strongly as President Garrett’s did.
It was surprising how immediate and powerful my reaction was; I don’t normally get emotional about things that happen in real life. I love to cry over movies and TV shows and other things that don’t actually exist or matter, but I usually can’t seem to muster those same tears for real events. Every other time someone I knew passed away, I’d get upset, but it would be a numb kind of upset. A quiet mourning, sitting heavily in the bottom of my stomach. Nothing this explosive.
Moreover, I didn’t really know President Garrett. I did get to meet her, once, before she was installed as president, when my a cappella group was performing at a gig last spring and she happened to stop by. She listened attentively to our set and was gracious enough to take a picture with us afterwards. You could tell she was brimming with energy from being on campus. She looked sharp and kind and competent. I was so excited for her to be our president. And then in September I went to her inauguration on the Arts Quad, where her speech was enthusiastic and brilliant, and it all felt like we were on the edge of a great new chapter. I was so excited that she was our president. But still, despite all that, I wouldn’t say I knew her. Not like you know a friend, at least.
So why, I asked myself as I sat crying in my little cove, was I so shaken by her passing? Why did I feel such an intense sense of loss?
As I looked out over the city, with its parks and streets and spires, and then out to the Firth, still and glassy in the evening air, and then further out to the snowcapped hills across the water, I was reminded of watching sunsets from the Slope. And I realized that I was crying because I had lost not just an amazing person – an incredible woman, leader, scholar, and role model, who had so much potential – but also the community I needed to mourn her with. I had lost Cornell. And although I’ve gained other places and things I love this semester, in this moment I needed to be in Ithaca, with people who understood. I needed to be on the Arts Quad for the moment of silence. I needed to hear the chimes and honor her properly. And I couldn’t. And so I cried.
Eventually, after several heavy minutes, my tears slowed down, and then stopped. I breathed deeply, jaggedly. I wiped my nose. I was almost ready to go home. There was one thing I needed to do first, though.
The sky stretched lightly over the city like a thin tapestry, dyed gold in the west and lilac in the east. I looked at it and pretended I was sitting on the Slope, as I’ve done so many evenings before. If I could not be on campus for the chimes, I decided, I would make my own chimes. I would bring Cornell to Edinburgh and honor President Garrett in the small way I knew how.
I looked at the red-gold spot on the horizon where the sun had set and hummed, softly, the beginning of Evening Song. When the sun fades far away In the crimson of the West…
The interior of Paradise Palms wasn’t like anywhere else I’d ever been. It was magenta, for starters; the neon signs on the back walls made the dark room thick with hazy pink light, so that it felt like maybe you were sitting in a fairy world instead of a bar. The ceiling was lined with rows of colorful, triangle-shaped flags strung together, while over towards the bar an entire zoo of stuffed animals was, bizarrely, stapled to the walls and ceiling. The seating was classy leather booths and small upholstered stools, and dim lamps with dusty, old-fashioned lampshades dotted mahogany tables nearby. A string of Christmas lights over the hard alcohol switched colors every few seconds – blue, green, red – so that the interior never looked quite the same, moment to moment.
I was in Paradise Palms for a poetry slam my friend Julia was reading (performing? slamming?) at. She’s really talented and brilliant so although I went under the pretense of “supporting her”, it was really more for my benefit than hers. Plus, I was interested in seeing what the poetry scene in Edinburgh was like. Or what it was like anywhere, for that matter – I can’t say I’m very (excuse the pun) well-versed in contemporary poetry.
The poets I watched take the stage throughout the night, glowing backlit pink, were enthralling. They made me laugh and think. They talked about everything from Harry Potter to ill-fated love to wanting to be a dinosaur. Their poetry felt like something alive, tumbling out of their mouths filled with emotion and draped in odd accents. Maybe my mistake this whole time, I thought to myself as I sipped a Guinness, was that I had been reading poetry. Surely this was how it was supposed to be done: out loud, corporeal, electric.
But then I thought, well, I do like reading poetry. I had, coincidentally, just spent my whole day in the library writing an essay about a poem: Robert Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseid, written in Middle Scots in the 15th century, which chronicles the plight of mythical Cresseid (of Troilus and Cressida). It’s an interesting text, and not just because Middle Scots reads like English put through a meat grinder – it brings up fascinating questions about feminism, theology, and the particular topic of my essay, morality. Moreover, Henryson’s language is dynamic and fun to dissect. I thought again to myself, I don’t know if I would have gotten as much from this poem had I only heard it aloud once.
I decided at the end of the night that there was no one way poetry was supposed to be done. I loved the spoken word experience – it was engaging and refreshing. I loved hearing so many voices at once. I loved its rhythm. But then I also loved diving into an older text and poring over word choice and arguing that its author wanted to teach his 15th-century audience not what to think about morality but rather how to think about it. I loved getting to know Henryson a little through this thing he had written so long ago, and through him his culture in general.
I don’t think Scotland is a particularly more poetic country than any other, but to have these two experiences in such close proximity got me thinking about the role of verse in creating a culture and a country. Not all the spoken-word poets at Paradise Palms were Scottish (Julia, for example, was the lone American), but a lot were, and so was their audience. Henryson certainly was. And while none of the slam poems were nationalistic in message, and neither is The Testament, that doesn’t mean they aren’t Scottish. They were written by Scots, in Scotland, performed and read there. They were, in some way, shaped by this country and through their release shaping it themselves.
If verse reflects its nation, and I think that it does, then I’d argue that spoken word is the heart of that nation and written poetry is its soul. Spoken word is the urgent, sometimes messy, current voice of a people. It is full of emotion. It pulses, like it is pumping blood from the stage to the farthest corners of the room. And then written poetry endures. It might seem more dry, less accessible, but it has just as much to offer if you work at it. It captures the beliefs and longings of a time and place and it stays, preserved, on a page to be read centuries later.
Sitting in Paradise Palms’ gauzy dark pink, I felt suddenly grateful to be surrounded by so much poetry. Spoken, written – all of it was a privilege. I was getting to learn something about Scotland through its own words. I closed my eyes and listened.
Not that you would ask, but I could tell you what all my childhood friends’ houses smelled like. There was one that smelled like laundry, one that smelled like nice wood, and one that smelled like heavy apple air freshener. A lot of them smelled like carpet. And dog. And I mean they all smelled like other things too, but scent is a really hard thing to describe, and besides, I’m generalizing for the sake of the story.
So maybe I couldn’t tell you what exactly they smelled like, but if you blindfolded me and took me to one today I’d be able to tell you exactly whose house I was in. Because more than any one olfactory ingredient, my friends’ houses smelled like them. It wasn’t a scent so much as the aura of a place, and that place meant a person.
One day it occurred to me that my house must smell like something too. I tried in vain to figure out what that was. What did my friends smell when they visited me? Was it pleasant? Gross? Stuffy? Whatever it was, I couldn’t tell. My house just smelled neutral to me. Sometimes, now, when I come back from a long semester at college, I think I can get a hint of what other people can. But it’s still, for the most part, a non-smell. It’s just home.
That, I think, is what’s been happening to me as I spend more and more time here in Edinburgh. Not so much with the smell of it (I am still very aware of the potent fish and chips that saturates the air), but with the culture. As I become more familiar with it, it gets increasingly difficult to talk about what Scotland is like. I probably could have made a longer list about what comprises this small, rainy country before I even left the states, or in my first few days here, than I could now. But it would have been mostly what my Scotland and Heritage professor terms “kilts and tartanry” – that is, the stuff you find in the touristy stores that line the Royal Mile, like bagpipes, shortbread, and, yes, all tartan everything – and thus, well, not as real.
That all being said, I’m still very much an outsider here. I still look the wrong way when crossing the street and don’t understand why one currency needs so many coins and I can definitely still make some expat observations. So here are my notes:
The first day I arrived in Edinburgh it was gray and rainy. My new flatmate apologized for this with a grimace as she made me a cup of tea (dat British hospitality!): “It’s a shame you arrived on such a miserable day.” I didn’t want to be rude and dismiss her sympathy, but I tried to reassure her that this was exactly what I expected from Scottish weather and that at least it was better than the gray and snowy Boston I had just left. Secretly, I was a little tickled. They think this is bad weather? I’ve survived two Ithaca winters. A little fall of rain can hardly hurt me now. Yet I was humbled in a matter of days, as there was one aspect of Scottish weather I hadn’t bargained for: its crazy wind.
The wind here doesn’t whistle. I have never heard it sing timidly through the trees. It blows. Like a freight train. There are some nights where I sit in my room and listen to the wind bully the heavy trash bins in our courtyard against the wall, over and over. It is, frankly, scary. I do not go outside on those nights. I don’t want to be a trash bin. I now understand why people apologize for the weather.
They Talk Funny
Here are some 100% real, sincere things I’ve heard people say:
“Smashing! Ta.” (The postman after I signed for a package)
“Good man!” (One rugby player to another during practice on the Meadows)
“Oh, what a spot of luck!” (A small British child in Seville, apparently running into good fortune)
I was shopping for new BB cream in Superdrug one day when I noticed something odd. Where I was used to seeing a spread of different shades of makeup, here there were only two: pale and less-pale. (I can’t remember their real names. One might have been Ivory? The other was probably something like Lily or Unsalted Butter.) Objectively, I guess this isn’t that surprising. Edinburgh, like the rest of Scotland, is predominantly white, with minority ethnic groups comprising only 8 percent of its population. Which, like, makes sense. But after living in the U.S. my whole life, little moments like this one, or later when one of my flatmates asked another’s boyfriend how his Christmas was (not his “holidays” or “winter break”), where I remember how homogeneous it is here, are still kind of jarring.
Everywhere in Edinburgh has a cool name! (Well, not everywhere. There are some duds like “Layzee Latte”, whose logo uses the exact font you’d expect the word “Layzee” to be written in.) But it does seem that a lot of restaurants, bars, stores, etc., have very imaginative, visual names, like “Black Medicine Coffee Co.”, the famous “Elephant House”, and my personal favorite, “The Codfather”. I’ve heard that this is because, back in the day, not everyone could read, so if you wanted to meet someone at a pub you could tell them to go to the “Brass Monkey” and they would know which one it was by the literal brass monkey on the signpost. Whether this is true or the Scots are just naturally more fantastical than Americans, I’ve really appreciated having the chance to get drinks in places like “Greenmantle” and “Panda and Sons” – Collegetown staples “Level B” and “Loco” seem dull in comparison.
Shopping is Better
I like shopping here better than in the states for the following reasons:
There is no sales tax so everything is exactly how much it says it is.
Shop workers don’t talk to you when you enter their shop.
(In general, really, I super vibe with the avoidant nature of the Brits. We all leave each other nice and alone and it’s lovely.)
If there’s one thing I’ve gotten from my two Scotland-themed courses so far, it’s that Scotland’s relationship with England is very, very complicated. It’s like something between a beleaguered kid brother and a rebellious child. This is a nuanced subject and I’m not sure I can do it much justice but it was interesting, in my first few weeks of class, to hear about, for example, how Scottish literature need not necessarily be read as a response to English literature, as if that were a given, or to learn about how many times the two countries have, or have tried to, split apart and come together again. It seems (again, from my limited outsider perspective) that at least some part of Scottish identity is very much defined by its tie to England, for better and for worse, and probably always will be.
My first night in Edinburgh, my necklace broke. I was fiddling with my jacket collar and in the process the chain, weakened, I guess, by a year of swinging around my clavicle, broke neatly in half.
I was bummed. I liked that necklace. It was pretty and it went with all my outfits. And I had paid good money for it! But a cleaved necklace chain isn’t something I have the talent to fix or drive to replace, and I knew that, so I could only accept my fate and slide the ex-necklace, wistfully, into my pocket.
There was another reason, though, neither financial nor stylistic, why my necklace’s loss struck me. I had bought it from a company called Dogeared, which gives each of its charms an inspirational phrase for a name. I like Dogeared and this concept; I’d gotten two necklaces from them in the past (“Explore”, a compass charm, and “Accomplish Magnificent Things”, a sun charm). It was nice having a little motto around my neck.
This necklace, my third from them, was a tiny gold pyramid, and its message was “You Are Mighty”. When I bought it last year it seemed perfect. I was a sophomore, just coming into my own at Cornell and in life: I was beginning to take on more leadership roles in my clubs and harder coursework in my classes, and was looking ahead to the world of internships and apartment leases. It was all intimidating but exciting and the necklace was to remind me that a) I was able do it all and that b), in doing it all, I was becoming a stronger person. At least that’s what I hoped! And I had a great two semesters and a summer, and accomplished a lot of stuff I’m proud of, and in a lot of ways my wish, and the necklace, were right.
So anyway, when my necklace broke on my first night abroad, the symbolism was pretty disconcerting. Just when I had arrived, alone, in a foreign country, and needed to “be mighty” the most, the universe was apparently telling me I wasn’t. Katie, the universe was saying, youactually aren’t mighty. You’re small and powerless. Lol welcome to Scotland! (Right? Like, that’s what you would take away from that too, isn’t it?) I knew it was only a coincidence, really, but the timing was just weird enough for me to keep thinking about it in the weeks that followed.
I thought about it, for example, when hiking Arthur’s Seat for the first time. Arthur’s Seat is a large, iconic hill on the edge of Edinburgh, the climbing of which is supposed to be an easy stroll on solid ground. It was recommended to us in orientation with the promise that it was so doable the presenter had once seen “a woman climbing it in high heels.” (Although she didn’t recommend that.) So with this expectation of a relaxed afternoon hike, I set out with a few friends one Sunday to mount the easy Arthur’s Seat. It had snowed the night before, but surely that wouldn’t be a problem. After all, I was a fairly experienced hiker; what could a gentle Scottish hill have that the imposing mountains of New England didn’t?
The answer, it turned out, was 1) my lowered expectations and 2) lots of ice. Like, straight ice, all the way up. On small, narrow steps with a drop-off immediately to the right. Combined with the little traction my rain boots (why did I wear rain boots?) gave me and my awful fear of heights, I walked up on essentially all fours, clinging to the rocks and shrubbery on the safe side of the path with my hands and scrambling for crevices with my feet. It was scary and tense and I barely got to enjoy the amazing views of the city stretching out below me. Eventually, relievingly, we summited and descended on an easier path and, at the end, I did feel accomplished and proud. But I didn’t feel all that mighty. I had done it, but barely. I had crawled, for goodness sake! The score stood at Scotland 1, Katie 0.
I thought about my necklace again while trying to find new extracurriculars on campus here. At Cornell I had just been president of my a cappella group and the chair of a committee in my fraternity and was deeply involved in things I liked to do and was (I thought) pretty good at. When I arrived at Edinburgh I was involved in… nothing. I had no commitments or community and it was liberating but also lonely.
So I pawed through the societies (they call clubs “societies” here) handbook the students’ association had given us and I saw an a cappella group and sports teams and lots of things similar to clubs I’d been in at college and high school. But I figured I should try something new, being abroad and all, and in the end the activities I’ve chosen aren’t even things I’ve found myself.
The first, a literary magazine, was recommended to me by my new Edinburgh friend, Hannah. She had done it last semester and when I mentioned I liked to write she told me to go check out a meeting. It sounded fun, so I said I would.
Arriving at the first meeting was intimidating. It was in an off-campus cafe I’d never been to and I got there late. I didn’t know anyone there and I hesitated on the threshold, considering turning around and going home to my flat. But I wasn’t in Scotland to spend all my time in my flat, so I steeled myself and walked up to the table that looked most like a group meeting and said “Hi, is this Nomad?” It was, and they were very nice and welcoming, but I still spent the whole meeting sitting in the corner, silent.
And I spent the next meeting doing the same. Sometimes I’d laugh at someone’s joke or nod in agreement with a point, but I never contributed any of my own thoughts. Maybe I will next time; I don’t know. What I do know is that I’d forgotten how shy I am around new people and how communities, and my place in them, take a while to build. I won’t have a network of friends wherever I go – at least, not immediately. Which is fine and fair, but, again, I didn’t feel very mighty. So Scotland 2, Katie 0.
The other activity I joined was very out of character for me: Beginner Tango, run by the uni Tango Society. A few of my friends were going and I came along, not really because I wanted to but because I didn’t want to spend my Tuesday night alone. It was a revelatory experience.
Tango, and dance in general, is not something towards which I am particularly inclined. First of all, there’s no winner. I am a competitive person and I like activities where there is the chance of me beating other people. Otherwise, what’s the incentive? And don’t give me that cute, “Everyone’s a winner in dancing because it’s so fun!!!” answer. That is not true. Because, second of all, there are, in fact, losers in dancing, and I am one of them.
You see, I am not a very good ballroom dancer. It is an activity that requires you (as a follower, which I am, because I’m a girl – but that’s a whole other thing that I won’t go into) to give up control to your partner, a stranger, and act only in a way that is reactionary to them. I do not like this. I like having control and knowing what’s coming next and the weird, improvisational nature of dance (at least give me a routine!) stresses me out.
These are all the things I sullenly thought about for an hour as an enthusiastic English man instructed me to do things like walk on the balls of my feet and step backwards and forwards with a partner and, finally, do a little freestyle tango to an upbeat Latin song. I was determined that I was bad at tango and that I did not like it and so I was and I didn’t. The score ended Scotland 3, Katie 0.
I’m going to keep going back to Beginner Tango, though. I can’t say I look forward to it, but I’d be more disappointed with myself if I quit than if I went again and had a bad time. And I’m also going to speak up more in Nomad meetings, and I’m going to hike Arthur’s Seat again soon. And do a bunch of other things I’m bad at, hopefully.
Because I think that tango is good for me, just like I think that overcoming my shyness is good for me, and that crawling up slippery hills is good for me. I think that not being “mighty” is good for me, and I’m not sure I would have learned all this at Cornell.
I haven’t gotten a new necklace yet. I’ve contemplated ordering one from Dogeared, but I’m on a budget, and I’m not even sure if they ship to the UK.
But also I think that it might be good for me, for a while, to go through life without a motto. In truth, I am mighty sometimes, and sometimes I am not… and then I’m every other thing a person can be, just like everyone else.
Well, I made it! I’ve been in Edinburgh for a little over a week now and it is a lovely, lovely city, and I would love to talk all about it, but due to mitigating circumstances I’m actually going to spend this blog post talking about two whole other cities: Dublin and Copenhagen. (If you really want to know something about “The Athens of the North”, let’s see… Well, they call it that, apparently. I haven’t been to Athens so I can’t draw any comparisons myself, but I will say that I’m pretty sure the real one is a lot sunnier.)
So: Dublin and Copenhagen. (And, okay, Edinburgh, briefly.) These are our settings and foci for this week’s post. Let’s start with Dublin.
I touched down in Dublin last Thursday around 8 a.m. local time after a five hour flight from Boston. I was feeling good. I was feeling excited. I got off the plane and I could navigate the airport all by myself. I was feeling independent and competent and smart.
Then came the line for customs. I hesitated here. There were many signs and arrows and I wasn’t sure where I was supposed to go so I just picked a line at random. This turned out to be the line for residents of the EU, of whom I am clearly not one – I had guessed wrong. My self-esteem started to slip.
Luckily, a helpful airport worker was on hand to let me slide under the rope and into the next line over to join my fellow Americans. Once there, I took a deep breath. That wasn’t so bad. I had been resourceful and asked for help and it had worked out. My self-esteem ballooned.
But then, in a crushing and unanticipated blow, I looked around and realized I wasn’t supposed to be in the line for customs at all! I should have taken a different hallway to go to Connecting Flights instead! There was no saving face; I just turned around and walked out of the entire customs area as fast as I could and followed the (now glaringly obvious) signs for the Connecting Flights hallway.
To my relief, the rest of the process – passport check, security, finding my gate – was all easy. Actually, almost too easy. Suspiciously easy. But it was early and I was tired and just trying to reach my gate without incident, so it didn’t occur to me that maybe something was off, that maybe I should have gone through some kind of immigration process and gotten a visa at some point. And this point in Dublin – the point where I didn’t get a visa – is very important. In fact, it’s what set into motion all the rest of the events of this blog post, which together I will affectionately refer to as The Great Visa Adventure of 2016, and will go down in infamy in my personal history.
I touched down in Edinburgh last Thursday around 11:30 a.m. local time after a short flight from Dublin. I was feeling really good. I was here! Scotland! It was real! It was raining!
Navigating the Edinburgh airport was great for my self-esteem. It was simple and quick and I went to all the right places on the first try and exited in record time. And, again, it was… easy. Disconcertingly easy. Where had immigration been? I’d had all the papers I needed in a nice folder in my backpack and no one to show them to. I was torn between being worried I had done something wrong and excited I had found some kind of secret travel loophole.
As I stood, confused, in the lobby, I noticed that a few girls who had been on my flight seemed to be having the same thoughts. We asked around (“Did we miss something? Shouldn’t we have, like, visas or something?”) but all we could gather was that basically, yep, that was it. So I shrugged, assumed I had outsmarted the British government, and caught a cab to my flat.
I touched down in Copenhagen last Sunday around 12 p.m. local time after a cheap flight from Edinburgh. I was feeling determined. I was feeling no-nonsense. I hadn’t meant to spend my first Sunday here traveling to another country so I was feeling a little disgruntled. But I was also feeling excited; I’d heard Copenhagen was beautiful and I was about to see my friend Meghan, who’s studying abroad there. So we’ll call it a draw with respect to my feelings.
I should probably take a step back and explain why I took an impromptu day trip to Copenhagen. Do you remember that point, that important point in Dublin, where I didn’t get a visa? Yeah, so… Apparently that was not as hunky-dory as I’d hoped. Because apparently you need a visa to be able to matriculate at the University of Edinburgh. And apparently you need to be matriculated before classes start. And classes started on Monday. So when I found this all out at orientation on Friday, there was kind of only one option available, summed up well by the Uni employee whom my friend Becca (one of the girls from my flight) asked about it: “Yeh naed ta laeve tha country – immadyetley!”
So leave the country we (Becca and I) did. Copenhagen was the cheapest place to go on such short notice (thanks, Ryanair and EasyJet!) and it was, if not serendipitous, at least convenient that I knew someone there (thanks, Meghan!). We had about three hours in the city before we needed to return to the airport, so armed with a few thousand kroner and the name of a metro stop to depart at, Becca and I stepped out of CPH and into our first new European country.
Copenhagen was grand. (What a fancy sentence to write!) It was very nice, though, at least the part I could explore in my limited time there. We got lunch in a cute cafe and met Meghan’s friends from her program and swapped stories about studying abroad. (Even though Scottish accents are sometimes hard to decipher, I felt very lucky that I don’t have to learn a whole new language, as they do.) They took us to a nearby tower which had a beautiful view of the city at the top and then to an event that is hard to describe in American terms but which I guess could best be put as “joint yard sale but only for clothing and it’s indoors”. I got a dress for 30 kroner which is 3 pounds which is $4.50 which is a steal, and I lamented that we don’t have these things in the states. (Look, I’m already learning about customs and traditions in other countries, through the most sacred ritual of all: shopping!)
Too soon, the time came for us to say goodbye to our Danish friends and catch the metro back to the airport. Becca and I went on high alert; we were not about to let anything get between us and our flight. This was the home stretch. We would have hijacked an airport golf cart if we’d needed it to get to our plane.
All our worries were for naught, though, because we got to the airport so early that our flight hadn’t even been assigned a gate yet. So we waited around, admired the various Burberry and caviar and fancy chocolate shops in their Fifth Avenue of a terminal, and finally (finally!) got to board our airplane back to Edinburgh, on which I read a chapter ofThe Martian and fell asleep.
We touched down in Edinburgh last Sunday around 7 p.m. local time after a crucial flight from Copenhagen. I was feeling jittery. This was it. This was what it all came down to. I double checked my paperwork and my passport and, with Becca, walked up to the (proper) immigration counter, ready to field any question the officer could throw at me. Bring it on, sir!, I wanted to say. I’ll tell you alllll about how financially stable I am.
Alas, the officer was a man of few words; he didn’t even ask to see any of the papers in my nice folder. Our conversation was short:
“Yeh a student?”
“The University of Edinburgh.”
“Fehr how long?”
A grunt. A survey of my landing card. And then he just stamped my passport and handed it back to me. Was that it? He must have sensed my concern that this was another Dublin situation, so he said, gruffly, “That’s yer visa.” I felt dumb so I thanked him quickly and scurried away.
But I also felt elated. I had a visa! Finally! I could matriculate and study and they wouldn’t deport me! What a lark! What a plunge! Spirits were high on the bus ride back to the city and then later that night when I, triumphant, uploaded a scan of my visa to the University website. My self-esteem had been through a lot in the past few days, but at this point it was ascendant. My first adventure of the semester, and it had gone off without a hitch.
So, as I reflect on it now, have I learned any lessons from the Great Visa Adventure of 2016? Well, yes, of course I have. I decided to go abroad because I wanted to learn the kind of stuff I couldn’t learn in a classroom at Cornell, and this past week has definitely delivered on that. I learned about last-minute planning, navigating signposts in Danish, and how there is nothing like going to a different foreign country to make your previous one feel like home.
But I think that if there is one thing at all I’ve taken from this whole shebang, it is nothing sentimental or cute. It is short and practical and very, very important, and it is this: NEVER IMMIGRATE THROUGH DUBLIN.
Once upon a time (sorry – I felt like I needed to start this blog with a “Once upon a time”), I wanted to be a Psychology major.
I’ve always liked people and figuring out how they work, so it seemed like a good fit. I prepared myself: I took AP Psych in high school, read an Oliver Sacks book, and harassed my friends for their Myers-Briggs types. I was on track to a successful undergrad career that would lead to someday doing astronaut psychology for NASA. (Sidebar: NASA, if you’re reading this, I still high-key want to do that and my email is in the header of this blog. I look forward to our correspondence.) Anyway, I was going to be a Psychology major and… then I took an introductory web design course my first semester and coding turned out to be really fun and I became an Info Sci convert.
But! I still love psychology and people and stuff. So the next semester I signed up for PSYCH 2800 – Social Psychology to return to my roots. And I loved it, of course, and I learned a lot, as one does. But out of all the terms and dead people I memorized that semester, one thing stuck with me in particular: construal level theory.
If you’re too lazy to read the Wikipedia article (I don’t blame you), construal level theory basically dictates that the further something is from a person (spatially, temporally, etc.) the more abstractly they think about it. And, yeah, that might seem a little intuitive, but I’ve always found that having a term for something your brain does makes it seem way more normal and okay. And that’s been super helpful lately as I’ve been preparing to go abroad, because going abroad has gone from being exciting! and full of possibilities! and about to change my life! to…. very, very scary.
Last spring when I thought about studying abroad it was mostly in flashes of kilts and lush Scottish scenery and cozy foreign coffee shops. But now that it’s here, that all seems, I don’t know, pretty naive. I have other things to think about. I’m no longer adding photographs of Stonehenge to my “Travel” Pinterest board with the vague, romantic ambition of going there someday next spring – it currently is next spring and I’m instead worrying about just getting a cab from the airport to my flat. And getting the key to my flat. And living in a flat! With scary new people! In short, nothing I can pin to any board.
Anyway, I’d been having these anxieties and feeling bitter about how my notion of going abroad had taken a sharp left into Negativeville when my failed Psychology career rose from the dead to save the day. Remember me? It asked. (Somehow it was smoking a pipe and I was reclining on a leather couch.) Yes I do, Failed Psychology Career. Because of you we’ll never work for NASA. It frowned at me. We both knew that was actually because of me, and my choice to leave it for something younger and sexier. It had the tact not to say that aloud. Just remember construal level theory, Katie. That’s all I ask.
So I did. I remembered PSYCH 2800 and good ol’ CLT and realized that I had fallen into the trap of expecting the reality of something (especially something so big and exciting as studying abroad) to match up with my abstractions of it. And I immediately felt, if not less scared, at least less bummed.
I have no real idea what this semester is going to hold. I think a lot of it is going to be really cool and beautiful and I’ll probably even make it to Stonehenge. But then a lot of it is going to be weird and scary and nitty-gritty too, and I think when I’m in the heart of it it’ll feel more like that. So for now, I guess, all I can do is take things step by step and save the romanticizing for later. (It appears I’ll be too busy finding my flat anyway!)