Academics: A Semester Abroad in England
When in Rome, or Rather Edinburgh
by Kali McCullough '10
The first thing I do in a new city is roam. I get my bearings, establish the cardinal directions, spot things to do, places to see, foods to try, and people to watch.
One of the first things I notice in Edinburgh is the abundance of kilts. This is Scotland, after all. I, the silly uncultured American, operate under a mixed impression. Perhaps all Scots wear kilts, all the time. Or maybe, no one does, and I am just being a silly uncultured American. In Edinburgh, though, there are kilted men on every street corner, and kilt shops on every cobbled street. I have to wonder if it isn't just for the benefit of the tourists, to simply carry on the metaphor of the Ubiquitous Kilted Scotsman. The world may never know.
We cross North Bridge towards the Royal Mile, Edinburgh's cobbled lane leading from the Queen's Gallery and the Palace of Holyrood House up to Edinburgh Castle. We spot a man in a kilt waving flyers advertising The Great Green Céilidh on Saturday night. A Céilidh (pronounced "kaylee") is an informal gathering of friends who dance the night away to traditional Celtic accordion and fiddle music with authentic Scottish dances. We had already had a Céilidh a few weeks earlier and it was fantastic, so of course we take a flyer, and of course, we decide to go.
Knowing that a night of dancing lay in store for us, we make a valiant attempt at dinner. Unfortunately, at 7 pm on a Saturday night in Edinburgh, McDonald's is all we can afford in both time and pounds sterling. With much groaning and shuffling of feet we stand in line, then stand to eat our burgers, and then head out the door to catch our bus.
Before I elaborate, I have a quick confession to make. Regardless of their inconvenience, impracticalities, and irrational nature, I packed a pair of high heels to take to Edinburgh with me. I knew deep down that Edinburgh was a city of intense hills, uneven cobbles, and general no-heels terrain, but they were new and they were beautiful and they called my name. Thus, I wore the heels to the Céilidh. I did, however, pack tennis shoes in my backpack, which served me quite well before the night was over.
We get halfway to our bus stop when I realize I have left my scarf at McDonald's, so I turn around and walk briskly — which is much tougher in heels, I assure you — back to McDonald's. Scarf in hand, I step out of the door and it begins to rain. Torrentially. The rain and the bad luck and the pressed-for-time nature of the situation lead me to make a very rash and hasty decision: I'll just take my shoes off. So I do. The shoes come off, the pants legs roll up, and I run through the city streets in the pouring rain to get to the bus stop. About midway there, I step on a piece of glass and, thus, limp the rest of the way. Much to my chagrin, the piece of glass stays put — I suppose the bottom of my foot is a better place to hang out than the streets of Edinburgh. Who knew.
Once we arrive at the bus stop, however, we realize it isn't the right bus stop at all. I retire my high heels and stuff my wet feet into socks and tennis shoes, determined to tough it out until we get to the Céilidh and then take care of matters there. We finally catch our bus and settle in for a long ride. We mention to the bus driver our stop and he looks at us quizzically. We repeat the destination. Still, confusion. We show him the map.
[insert unbelievably thick Scottish accent]
"I've never heard of that place, lass."
"Are you joking, sir?"
Afraid not. There follows some detailed explanation of something we really don't understand, including some of what we think are expletives, but we can't be sure. We return to our seats in a sort of pained, hopeless humor, doomed to ride the bus forevermore through the dark, soaked streets of Edinburgh. Finally, a woman on the opposite side of the bus asks us where we are off to. We reply, dejectedly, of course, "To the Great Green Céilidh at Rudolph Steiner School on Grey's Loan."
"Isn't that the school for the deaf?"
Even better. We have begun to believe it doesn't exist at all, but she seems to believe it does. She marches up to the driver, asks what the problem is, sir. He admits he doesn't know the school, ma'am, doesn't know the district. She chides him with a sidelong glance, then quips, "Well isn't Steiner School just ... there!" She points, he slams on the brakes, and ten seconds later we're out on the damp sidewalk next to a plaque that reads "Rudolph Steiner School" and a tiny wet banner that says "Great Green Céilidh" in damp green script. We trudge. Or, in my case, hobble.
We finally arrive at the school and the atmosphere is instantly warm, dry, and soothing. They have saved our advance tickets, we pay a discounted student rate, and we're suddenly surrounded by spinning couples wearing matching kilts. The music emanating from the stage is folksy and spry, and the excitement from the dance floor is positively infectious. My feet begin to tap, and my knees begin to bounce to the beat. Unfortunately, my cut continues to bleed. I make my way to the toilet to take care of myself and while I'm in there, a man — in a kilt, naturally — approaches. He looks at me, cocks his head, and drawls in his Scottish way, "This is the men's toilet. Women's is around the corner." I think fast, stumble over some words, end up with something along the lines of, "I cut my foot and I'm sorry. I'm bleeding and I'm not from here" As he walks away he mumbles, "Stupid Americans." I know for a fact that I saw women exiting this bathroom all night, and I want to yell after him, "Just because you're wearing a skirt doesn't mean you can come in the girls' bathroom!" But instead, I clean up silently, ashamed.
We spend the first few dances sitting on the sidelines, getting a feel for the people and the protocol. The DJ, if you could call him that, suddenly announces that we're going to do an American dance and our ears perk up. Maybe, just maybe this will cast us in a better light and these Scots won't be so hard pressed to let us merge with them. One can only hope. He asks us to grab a partner and instructs us to "do-si-do." Everyone laughs. He exclaims, "Now yell 'YEE-HAW!!'" The crowd obliges. He looks straight at our table and announces at lightning speed, "I apologize to any American guests I may have offended by my politically incorrect cultural slur now do-si-do!" None of us are particularly sure how to respond to this, so we giggle and clap and tuck the comment away for future analysis.
By this time the dancing has reached an all-time high, so I ignore my throbbing foot and pull a friend onto the dance floor. We stand across from one another, shoulder to shoulder with other couples, and I say something mundane to her across the way. The couple to the right of us overhears me and the woman murmurs, "Oh, God, Americans!" She grabs her partner by the wrist and drags him to the opposite end of the dance floor. By this time I am feeling like a leper, so I succumb to the pain of my foot and sit the dance out instead. The night ends in disenchantment.
I have since made several excuses for the behavior of those individuals. After all, since it was an authentic Céilidh, perhaps they didn't expect Americans to be there at all and we simply caught them off guard. Regardless, I've never felt so aware of being a foreigner in my life. Now when I travel, I keep my shoes on, I keep my mouth shut, and I check the bathroom door compulsively before entering. When in Rome...
A native of Columbia, Tenn., Kali enjoys traveling, writing poetry, playing guitar and singing, snowboarding, reading, and making things out of paper. She is a French major with a double minor in Spanish and English. After she graduates, she hopes to teach French or work as a translator for an overseas branch of an American company.