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Return to Tennessee

Time June 8th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It has been a little over a week since I packed up my belongings, wrote my final blog post from Scotland, and dragged my two suitcases across Edinburgh at 3:30 am to get to the bus stop for the airport shuttle. It was very surreal, rushing from my dorm as the sunlight was beginning to creep up on Arthur’s Seat, the mountain that for five months had provided an extraordinary view out of my dorm window. The streets were relatively empty, with the exception of a few taxis. This was not the Edinburgh I was used to seeing, and it wasn’t the last sight I had wanted of this incredible city. I rushed past my favorite bookshop, wishing that I had more time to stop and look at it. Of all my memories of my last few days in Edinburgh, that one has stood out the most. I made it to the airport on time and took my first flight to Paris. I flew from Paris to Atlanta on Air France, a 9-hour flight that provided great opportunities for in-flight movies and even arcade games that could be played using the included controller. Atlanta, perhaps due to its size, didn’t feel like home. It wasn’t until I got back to Nashville and met up with my family that it truly felt like being back in the US.

Being back took less adjustment than I had predicted. For the most part, it felt as if I had never gone away at all. Very little has changed. The thing that has taken the most adjustment would be the landscapes. I wasn’t used to seeing so many trees, as most of the hills in Scotland are bare. The hills here are also much smaller and don’t have the same potential for hiking experiences as the enormous “hills” of Scotland. The landscapes are probably what I am going to miss the most about Scotland. I have also found that I miss the ability to walk or take trains to most locations. Where I live, driving is necessary to get even to a neighbor’s house, and nearby Nashville doesn’t have a train system. While missing public transportation, I’ve been reminded of how nice driving can be. Even my hour-long commute into Nashville to do research this summer is somewhat enjoyable. I think each method of transportation has different benefits, and I think I would miss aspects of each in its absence.

The final thing I wanted to note about my return to the States regards tolerance. While in Scotland, I enjoyed the benefits of feeling free to be myself without fear of being judged. For the most part, these were the same benefits that I enjoy attending Vanderbilt in Nashville. However, an hour’s drive away from Nashville takes you into a very different world. In the brief time that I’ve spent out in public in my home town, I’ve re-experienced that old feeling of needing to hide my identity. I didn’t feel comfortable meeting old friends of mine who must have found out about my sexual orientation through social media. I may be reading too much into this, but none of my friends from my hometown have spoken to me since I came out a few months ago. I think my time in Scotland made me overly confident in my ability to face discrimination. It’s easy to do when that discrimination is coming from politicians across the Atlantic from you. It’s much harder when it’s coming from your neighbors. But I see now that life can be different, that people can be kind and accepting. I know there are accepting people even in my rural area (my family, for instance). I look forward to and will hopefully help bring about the day when I can be myself as much in my hometown as I was in Scotland.

This past semester was not something I had been looking forward to. I had never been out of the country before, so spending five months away from home seemed like a poor decision. However, I am now very glad that I made that decision. It might have messed up some of my academic plans, and it might have used up money that could have been put toward graduate school, but it was more than worth every cost. There’s something almost magical about Edinburgh, and I feel as if I have just spent five months in a fantasy land. I also struggle to believe that I actually visited France and Italy, especially Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. I want to return to Europe someday, and particularly Edinburgh, with my family, the one main aspect that was missing. I might be biased in saying this, but I highly recommend a study abroad in Scotland over all other places on the planet.

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Preparing to Leave Scotland

Time May 22nd, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I am in the process of cramming as much clothing into my suitcases as is physically possible, the last step in a long process of packing that has involved numerous coffee breaks and a full day of hiking. As a final farewell to Edinburgh, I have gone to some of my favorite spots one last time. I went to the National Museum of Scotland on Monday. Unfortunately, Monday was a school holiday and thus the museum was very crowded with children. But I still managed to navigate it without too much difficulty and even discovered new areas of the museum that I hadn’t seen the first time. I spent all day Wednesday hiking at Pentland Hills, which has featured prominently in a few previous blog posts. I journeyed about twice as far into the hills as I had gone previously and was exhausted, hungry, sun-burnt, and very pleased with myself. I found a small bait shop near a lake there and bought a cup of soup from them. I then came across a historical, iron age bunker that I had not come across on previous hikes. Thursday, I spent several hours at my favorite bookshop, Blackwell’s. I have gone there at least once a week throughout the semester and have purchased a total of eleven coffees from their café. I have also purchased a total of 15 books from them, 13 of which I have read so far. It was rather emotional for me to part ways with this amazing shop. It’s by far the most “intelligent” book store I have ever encountered. They have all kinds of books on philosophy and science, and they have collections of ancient Greek and Roman works in the original Greek and Latin. I need to find a bookstore like that in Tennessee, if such a store exists. But finally, I am spending the last day, Friday, packing.

What have I learned from this semester in Edinburgh? One of the things that I hoped to learn about was specifically the queer life here. But I’ve come to the realization that I don’t actually know anything about queer life in the United States. I only came out of the closet a couple of months before leaving for Scotland, and so I never had the chance to get too involved in the LGBT+ community. I attended meetings of the gender-sexuality alliance back at Vanderbilt, but it isn’t a perfect representation of LGBT+ life. So my impressions of the queer community in Scotland are really my first impressions of the queer community in general. What I’ve found has been less than satisfying in some ways. I’ve heard complaints in the gender-sexuality alliance at Vanderbilt about how the queer community can often be just as un-accepting as the general population. For instance, there is still prejudice in the queer community against people who are bisexual. That was discussed at the LGBT+ society here in Edinburgh, where many complained that they are treated as if they do not exist. I’ve noticed this in media coverage of the gay rights debate. In fact, the term “gay” rights is further evidence of this erasure of bisexuals, and this is one way in which the UK doesn’t differ too much from the US. Another thing I have found is that there are still gender stereotypes within the queer community. Men who are more “masculine” are often considered more desirable than men who are more “feminine”. Like in the rest of society, there is still an emphasis on physical attraction over personality. I tried dating for the first time, and I finally understood why so many people are obsessed with their looks. It makes a difference in whether or not people are interested in you. I never had any concern for my looks before, but it suddenly (and unfortunately) became important. I don’t think it should be that important, and I don’t think it should be important to be “masculine” or “straight-acting”. These are all new things that I have discovered in Scotland, and I can’t imagine that they’d be better in the US.

That being said, I do feel that the LGBT+ group on campus back at Vanderbilt differs significantly from the LGBT+ society here at Edinburgh. Both are full of great and fun people, but the group at Vanderbilt is a product of a general culture that is less tolerant than the culture in Scotland. Many meetings at Vanderbilt are filled with stories of the hatred that group members have faced, and it takes on the form of a support group. The Edinburgh LGBT+ society, from my brief experience of it, has less of a focus on the difficulties facing its members, and I would like to think that that is due to a lack of difficulties. I was told recently, however, that a certain church here in Edinburgh broke away from the Church of Scotland over its acceptance of gay pastors. I heard this from someone who was gay himself and was invited to listen to this church give an anti-gay rant in support of its decision to separate. Needless to say, he did not enjoy the experience. That someone would think it was a good idea to invite a gay friend to listen to an anti-gay rant is beyond my understanding. But it happened here in Edinburgh, showing that things might not be so much better here after all.

As I finished up my packing and gathered the last of my clothes from the drying room here, I ran into the custodians of my dorm. I’ve heard them talking outside my door on a number of occasions, and I’ve always had difficulty understanding their Scottish accents. But this time I stopped and had a conversation with them. They wanted to know when I was returning home and what my flight looked like. They weren’t familiar with Tennessee but got excited when I mentioned Nashville. It turns out that I should have been telling people all along that I’m from Nashville, as it is apparently known globally for its country music, cowboy outfits, and guns. They asked about the Grand Ole Opry, which I have actually never been to. They also asked if it were true that people walked around with guns. They said they are always amazed that Americans can just walk into any store and buy a gun. I can’t say that’s something I miss about the US. It’s been nice not having murders or armed robberies. However, the familiarity of the cowboy hats and country music will be nice. I will certainly miss Edinburgh, though, and I hope to return some day to revisit all of my favorite places.

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Elections, Fire Dances, and More Bovines

Time May 11th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The past two weeks have been very uneventful for me, involving a lot of procrastinating, a little bit of hiking, and a visit to Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival. The procrastinating needs no explanation, as it resembles occurrences of procrastination among other Homo sapiens. Namely, it involves watching many YouTube videos, reading pop science books that have nothing to do with your coursework, doing laundry in your sink to save money and waste time, and finding anything in the world that has the slightest semblance of being productive but doesn’t involve actually studying. I am now in the stage of actually studying, which comes with the required doses of coffee. This could get expensive.

As for the Fire Festival, this requires a little bit of explanation. Basically, there are people and fire. And then there is more fire. There are also a bunch of people painted red and wearing nothing but loin cloths. There are also giant glowing mushrooms, and there are people who act out various skits involving cool pyrotechnics and stories that most of us ignored because the pyrotechnics were cool. If this sounds confusing to you, then you understand exactly how I felt while visiting this festival. I was with two other exchange students from the States, and so none of us were sure of what to do. The festival took place atop a hill and was covered in humans to the point that it was difficult to see the main event, which was a story told through dances that moved around the hill to various stages. The stages that weren’t currently in use for the main event held other skits and dances, including a vuvuzela war between people dressed like birds. At one point, my friends and I ended up in the way of the loin-cloth people, who stole someone’s hat and ran around putting it on their faces. In summary, it was hectic and intentionally comical, a pagan ceremony infused with British humor.

The hiking that I did was only to places I’ve been to before in Edinburgh, although I took new paths and explored different areas of the parks. In the park behind my dorm, Holyrood, I visited a lake that I had not been to before, and I was greeted by a friendly and slightly shy duck who ambled up to me with its head down. It clearly wanted food but kept pretending to be interested in the grass directly in front of me. It got within a yard of me before another duck ran up out of jealousy, not realizing that I possessed no food. It’s quite entertaining to see how conditioned the birds in this park have become to associating humans with food. But it’s sad when you think about what might happen to them if the entire human race were wiped out by some terrible disease and they were left with the perpetually unfulfilled expectation of breadcrumb hand-outs. Let’s not think about such things. Another animal encounter of mine was with multiple bulls, in the same location where I was chased by one in February. I was with two other people, and we were very cautious not to make eye contact with the bulls who flanked the path we were taking. One of them turned, stared at us, pawed the ground, and then returned to grazing. I bet they get a lot of laughs out of teasing humans like that.

Meanwhile, while I was busy not being busy, the UK had its general election. I started following a lot of UK celebrities on Twitter recently and have been following their conversations on the matter. Due to a division in party loyalties among people who voted to keep Scotland a part of the UK, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) had a near-clean sweep. This was only in Scotland, of course. It would have been quite rude for people in England to have voted for a party that sought to get Scotland out of the UK. This major victory for SNP made it the third largest party in Parliament, behind the Conservatives (Tories) in first place, and the Labour Party in second place. Many people here have complained about the electoral system, as the SNP received less than half the votes of another party, UKIP, while also obtaining 56 seats to UKIP’s single seat. This is because they use the same silly, First-Past-the-Post electoral system that the US uses. The difference is that third parties in the UK are receiving rather large percentages of the votes but very small percentages of seats in Parliament, whereas third parties in the US receive neither significant amounts of votes nor Congressional seats. As such, the call for election reform seems to be greater here than in the US. And it is now the case that Scotland is represented almost entirely by people who want to leave the UK. Interesting things are expected to happen, and I will be back in the US, safe from politics until next year’s presidential election.

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Ah, la France

Time April 27th, 2015 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In my previous post, I discussed my difficult adventures in Italy and how I was looking forward to a better experience in France. It turns out that I was correct in assuming that speaking the language of the country you are visiting makes your visit much easier. This should not have surprised me. There were several occasions where I needed to communicate with someone who did not speak English, and my limited knowledge of French saved me. Also, unlike the places I visited in Italy, the places I visited in France did not have many signs in English. Almost every sign outside of the airport and train stations was only in French. This posed a problem for my friend Robbie, who had to meet up with me at one point. But I thoroughly enjoyed the practice and convinced myself that it was a way of studying for my French exam back at Edinburgh. I visited three places, all in the south of France: Nice, Cannes, and Fréjus. I stayed in a part of Nice that was not so pleasant (it took a strong effort to avoid a “Nice/nice” pun there). I booked a cheap hostel and ended up in a tiny room with seven other people, in triple bunk-beds. The owner was nice, however, and we spoke in Franglais for awhile before he suddenly exclaimed “Vous parlez français!?” I got this excited reaction from a couple of other people in France. I know my American accent must sound terrible, but the people I encountered were nonetheless impressed to encounter a tourist who spoke (some) French. It was a major boost to my ego after Italy. I must learn Italian eventually. Read More »

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When in Rome, Do as the Tourists Do

Time April 13th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

I am writing this post in Italy, on a small tablet, with minimal access to WiFi. This lack of WiFi has been particularly challenging and has add led to some of this post’s most interesting stories. Before beginning, however, I want to comment on the conclusion of my previous post. I stated that my plan for this post was to interview people in Scotland about the queer experience there, but I had difficulty doing so. I did interview one person, who was able to confirm my previous evaluations of the differences between Scotland and the U.S. Being from New England originally, he had experienced the differences in culture and claimed that people in Scotland are generally more accepting of homosexuals and are indifferent with regard to someone’s sexual orientation. A good example of this is the fact that this individual is openly gay in Scotland, but has not felt comfortable being out to people in the States (and shall thus remain anonymous). Listening in on conversations at an LGBT+ meeting, I found that people in Scotland consider the U.S. to be backwards. With regards to the new Indiana religious freedom law, one person said he felt sorry for me that I had to live in a country where discrimination can be legalized. I don’t think American society is a bad as it is perceived to be, but it’s still embarrassing that we have that reputation. Speaking of perceptions of different cultures, here was my first impression of Italy:

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It looks crowded, doesn’t it? Well, it was worse in person. This is a picture of the Vatican, which was so packed that it was impossible for me to get a good picture. At least, that’s my excuse for why that picture isn’t great. Italy is an interesting place, and by that I mean it was too similar to America for my liking. Like in the U.S., few people I encountered spoke any language but their native language. Also like in the U.S., the police officers carry guns and are not the sort of people you would go to for advice. (The police uniforms in Florence, however, are much more stylish than those in the States). The train system is also incredibly confusing, as I will describe below.

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This is Pompeii. It looks less crowded than Rome, as I got in when it opened at 8:30 and ran ahead of the other tourists. My original plan was to explore Pompeii on Saturday and visit Mount Vesuvius on Sunday. I took a train from Rome to a place called Salerno and was supposed to catch my train to Pompeii 8 minutes later. However, none of the trains on the timetable said Pompeii, and so I ran to the ticket office to find out which train to get on. There was a sign saying “Tickets” pointing down a stairwell, and so I dashed down the stairs. At the bottom, there was a sign pointing up the stairs that also said “Tickets”. I was very confused but eventually found the ticket office. They told me the name of the station the train was going to, and I found out that it was at platform 3. I had less than a minute left to get on the train, but I couldn’t find how to get on to the platform. A kind onlooker helped me out and told me that the train to Pompeii was actually at platform 5. I ran there and barely made it on to the train before it departed, thinking how lucky I was to have run into this man. Had he not told me to go to platform 5 instead of 3, I might have ended up in some small town in the south of Italy with no clue how to get back. As I was thinking this, the conductor came by to check tickets. When he saw mine, he exclaimed, “Pompei! Pompei!?” He said a lot of things in Italian and made some hand motions that I interpreted to be directions telling me to get off at the next stop and take a train back to Salerno. This was, of course, a misinterpretation, for the next stop did not have a train station, and I ended up in a small town in the south of Italy with no clue how to get back. No one there spoke English or French (of which I can speak a little). I was able to use the name of the train station, Salerno, to get some helpful hand gestures, and I ended up on a bus back to the train station. Through much confusion, I eventually made it to Pompeii, with no time to see the ruins. I made a plan  for the next day to see both the ruins and Vesuvius on a very tight time schedule. Somehow, I accomplished this and made it to my train on time. The train, however, stopped for some time and was 12 minutes late to the station where I had an 8 minute layover. I missed my train back to Rome, where I was supposed to meet my friends at a particular time and place. There was no WiFi anywhere, so I couldn’t tell my friend what had happened. When I talked to the ticket office, they sent me on a train heading south that would have gotten me to Rome about six hours late. I got off this train and bought all new tickets to Naples and then to Rome. I was three hours late, my friends were worried and had searched for me for an hour, and I had no idea where they were staying. Luckily, I found a place where you could pay to use the internet on a PC, and I was able to Facebook message and meet up with my friends. This was not to be the last of my troubles.

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This beautiful golden river is in Florence, a magical place that is much less crowded and much more Italian than Rome. My friends and I went around to all of the different tourist attractions, looking at them from the outside rather than waiting in line and paying the admission fees. We had a lot of ice cream (gelato) and ran into someone I know from the IFSA-Butler Scotland program. We all agreed in preferring Florence to Rome, and our next place was even better:

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This is Cinque Terre, the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It is a collection of 5 coastal villages along a span of 7.5 miles. There are two main trails between the villages, the coastal and the mountain trails. Part of the coastal trail was closed, so we took the grueling mountain trail and were treated to stunning views and sunburns. We stayed in a hostel in one of the villages Wednesday night and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean. Thursday, we finished our hike and bought train tickets to Venice. As you probably expect by now, this did not go as planned. Our first train was late, causing us to miss our second train. In order to get to Venice, we ended up having to pay close to $200 in addition to what we had already paid. The moral of this story is that you should never book Italian trains in advance. After two days in Venice, I left for France, where I am now concluding this post. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the train system will be better and that it will be easier to communicate with people.

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A More English View of Things

Time March 30th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

This past week saw me visit Hadrian’s Wall, a wall that once separated Scotland and England. It is now south of the border, meaning that I was actually in England for the first time. (It was the border that moved, not the wall). I went with my unlucky friend from previous posts, Robbie, and our intent was to backpack and camp along the wall for 16 miles. We barely made the train leaving from Edinburgh, and we arrived in the town of Haltwhistle (very English) late at night, without a place to stay. We ended up talking to the owners of a pub there, who told us of a campsite close to the wall, which happened to be somewhat far from the town. We made it to the campsite and found that it was eerily quiet (and closed for the night). There were some bizarre little creatures wandering around in a wooden pen. In the dark, we couldn’t tell that they were geese until they started going crazy, apparently frightened by us. We ended up traveling onwards and camping on a hill that was in some kind of pasture. In the UK, it is now legal to camp on private property, provided that you follow certain rules. This has been a controversial issue, as trespassing is still forbidden in the city, and farmers therefore feel that this law discriminates against them. As such, we left quite early in the morning, without leaving any traces, but not before taking this picture:

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It is quite English, is it not? The transition from the great treeless mountains of Scotland to the rolling hills of England seemed very abrupt, as if the landscape were conforming to tourists’ stereotypes. The towns near Hadrian’s Wall also seemed stereotypically English. I was informed by a UK resident that this is often done intentionally near the border in an attempt by locals to distinguish themselves from their Scottish neighbors to the north. (When attempting to buy a pizza with Scottish pounds, I was jokingly accused of trying to pay with “Monopoly money”). One of my favorite things about the change of landscape was the comparative ease of hiking. The hills below are not quite as intimidating as the mountains of the Scottish Highlands.

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We also got the privilege of seeing a solar eclipse on our hike. In direct defiance of what everyone told us, we looked at it. Shockingly, our eyes did not burn out of their sockets and we both maintain perfect 20/20 vision.  Now where did I put that keyboard I was just typing on? Ah, here it is! As I was saying, we looked at the eclipse along with some locals, who later offered us a ride to our destination. As tempting as the offer was, we chose to continue walking. They were very kind in giving us directions and even drew us a map of how to get there. They also told us to look out for a location up ahead where part of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was filmed:

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good place to stand and capture the entire tree in the shot. It does look the same as in the movie, though. We also learned from these kind folk that the town from which I had booked our return tickets was actually 5 miles south of our end point along the wall. So, after traveling about 15 miles that day, we gave up and took a bus the additional 5 miles. We camped out in a hotel room that night and watched YouTube parodies of The Lord of the Rings. We were truly roughing it, as this hotel didn’t even provide us with little bottles of shampoo. The next day, we toured an abbey that was mostly constructed in the Middle Ages. It’s absolutely incredible to imagine the amount of effort and resources that went into constructing this building, which had enormous stained glass windows, grand stone arches, and a museum detailing its construction. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of this, as my phone ran out of battery life. We made it back safely and without having anything bad happen to us (which is unusual for our trips). My next post will be from Italy, the site of our next trip.

As a postscript to this post, I would like to mention that I was invited to listen to a talk on gay marriage given by a Catholic priest, who gave a number of arguments against it. The goal was to invite a dialogue with the queer community, but only one active member of the queer community attended. She asked some important questions, and the priest gave the response that many Church officials in the UK are considering support of same-sex civil unions. In the UK, these offer the same benefits as a marriage, but with a different title. This is a surprising difference between the marriage debate in the US, where many of the arguments for gay marriage stem from the desire for an equality of legal benefits. According to the priest, the debate in the UK is more about an equality of terminology. This is something I want to look into more, and the plan is for my next post to contain interviews of locals on their opinion of the matter. Gay marriage is still a topic of much debate here, and there were protests scheduled (but cancelled) by the queer community in response to allegedly anti-gay religious services being held on campus. With regard to a different debate, I encountered a man the other day who was distributing pamphlets arguing against Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, at the same university from which Darwin graduated, 156 years after the publication of The Origin of Species. It made me wonder if the debate about gay marriage would last just as long. Perhaps some debates are here to stay.

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The Film Nerd’s Post

Time March 16th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

Two major events have happened since my last post. The first was an IFSA-Butler trip to the Argyll Forest, a forest in Argyll. The second was a concert called “The Music of John Williams”, which featured music from John Williams’s film scores. I have yet to decide which one was more life-changing. I will begin by discussing the Argyll Forest trip. Firstly, it must be noted that the hostel where we stayed was in the middle of a garden planted in the 1800s that happened to include giant sequoias brought over from the States. I never thought my first encounter with redwood trees would be in Scotland. Well, actually, my first encounter with “giant” sequoias was shortly before I left home, when my family got a few saplings that are at least a foot tall. Those were not quite as impressive as the trees in Scotland, which are about 130 years old and have thus grown tall enough to reach the knee of a California redwood. This forest was still stunningly beautiful, so much so that I forgot to charge my phone and could not take pictures of it. The first night at the hostel, we hiked through the forest in the dark, using ropes to guide us. At parts, we couldn’t see anything and had to rely on the cries of pain from those in front of us to determine where tree branches and logs were. The three people who were smart enough not to attempt this stayed behind and watched an obscure film about Scotland starring Liam Neeson, “of Taken fame”. We were stunned that, out of all of Liam Neeson’s films, they would name Taken as his most recognizable. Not Star Wars, or Batman Begins, or Schindler’s List, or even The Lego Movie. Taken. But I digress.

The next day, we were broken up into activity groups. We had a choice of a number of different activities, including a half day of hiking, a full day of hiking, caving, kayaking, and gorge scrambling. I chose caving and was assigned a full day of hiking instead. In line with Scottish traditions ranging back hundreds of years, it rained. The hike was actually quite nice, however. There was still some snow on the mountains we were climbing, and so we ended up sliding on the snow to get down the other side. Many of us continued to slide on parts of the mountain without snow, although this was mostly unintentional. We got a great view from above of the lake that other groups were kayaking. We also got to laugh at the fact that they were kayaking in the rain. At the end of our journey, we stopped by the cave that other groups were exploring and drank hot juice. I’ve never thought of heating up juice before, and I have no idea how it remained hot through hours of hiking in the cold, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. That night we watched Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson, of Chicken Run fame. Many of the locations in the film looked similar to what we had been hiking. I also realized that I’ve visited the cities where the film’s biggest battles occurred, Falkirk and Stirling. Overall, this past weekend felt very epic, although not as epic as what was about to occur.

The day before the day that I am writing this (i.e. yesterday), I went to see the Royal Scottish National Orchestra performing John Williams music. Unfortunately, John Williams himself was unable to attend, due to working on some film called Star Wars VII. The music was still amazing, and they played some of his most famous themes from Jaws, Star Wars, Superman, and many others. I brought along my friend Robbie, of “Blog Post 6” fame. We got tickets two months in advance and managed to snag two of the last five (affordable) seats. We ended up in the nosebleed section but could fortunately still see the orchestra far below us, along with what we presumed must have been musicians and instruments. The acoustics were great, unlike the people nearby who kept clapping at the wrong times. They must have never seen these films. I have also never encountered the vast amount of nerdy conversations that occurred before the performance and during the intermission. I was responsible for half of them, but it was still uplifting to know that there are other people out there who spend hours watching the “special features” sections of DVDs. In fact, “uplifting” is probably the best word to describe the entire experience. The performance concluded with the soaring “Flying Theme” from E.T., which is still stuck in my head, along with about ten other melodies. The orchestra advertised that their next performance will play themes from Gone with the Wind, North by Northwest, and Lawrence of Arabia. Unfortunately, it is on the same weekend as the IFSA-Butler trip to the Isle of Skye. I have a choice between seeing one of the most beautiful places on Earth and listening to Lawrence of Arabia played by a live orchestra. Only in Scotland would you have a choice like that.

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A Tale of Two Weeks

Time March 2nd, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

These past two weeks at the University of Edinburgh have been, in order, “Innovative Learning Week” and “Week of Innovatively Bashing Your Head against a Keyboard as You Attempt to Finish Essays”. Most students prefer the former. What is Innovative Learning Week? It is a week in which students do not have class and can instead take free seminars in various subject areas, vacation around Europe, work on dissertations, or go to a local park and get chased by territorial bovines. Take a wild guess as to which activity I participated in! Naturally, I partook in the first and the last activities. I went hiking in Pentland Hills Park near Edinburgh (as foreseen in my previous post). Without even having to go to Spain, my friend Robbie and I managed to participate in The Running of the Highland Bull and the Two Stupid Americans Who Got Too Close While Taking Pictures of It. It didn’t occur to us until later that we were both wearing red, a bull’s favorite color. We made sure to keep a fence between us and that bull on the return journey. Having survived that, our next plan is to visit Loch Ness and try our luck with the monster.

Following this adventure, I went on a trip to the Scottish Highlands for Innovative Learning Week. The purpose of the trip was to discuss politics and to form a public policy plan. Many people, myself included, just wanted to go to the Highlands. A night at the hostel and two meals were paid for, so we only had to purchase train and bus tickets. We stayed in the town of Callander, a small town with some great hiking trails. There were ten guys on the trip, and they placed eight of us in one room. We went out to a pub when we first arrived, although I didn’t buy anything as we were about to eat dinner. Many of the guys there were from England, although there was one guy from New York. He was telling a story about the attractive women back at NYU, and he asked if we were all heterosexual. I told him I was homosexual, and he amended his story to include the attractive men at NYU as well. None of the guys cared that I was gay. That’s one major difference I’ve found between the U.S. and Scotland. In the US, at least in Tennessee, it’s a big deal to tell someone that you are not heterosexual, even if they are perfectly accepting of you. In Scotland, telling someone your sexual orientation is about as serious as telling someone your name. I think the U.S. has a long way to go.

Having given up on politics, everyone on the trip spent our last afternoon hiking Callander. Some people went to the additional length of getting lost while hiking Callander, but I was not one of them. The train ride back was nice and seemed to be shorter than the train ride there. Prior to last week, the only trains I had ever ridden were subways in Washington, D.C. It was nice to fly past Scottish landscapes while discussing differences between the U.S. and the U.K. with someone from Bulgaria. I also learned that Bulgaria is very jealous of its neighbor to the south, Greece, who totally stole the idea of yogurt, unfairly marketing it as “Greek” and “low-fat”. I concluded Innovative Learning Week by being lazy and unproductive, increasing the difficulty of the Week of Innovatively Bashing Your Head against a Keyboard as You Attempt to Finish Essays. In fact, the latter week is still not complete. Thus, I must leave you now to attempt to force myself to work on another essay.

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Some Lovely Hills

Time February 13th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

I came upon a shocking realization the other day. Looking past the cool bookshops, beautiful old buildings, stunning landscapes and interesting accents, I was able to see what I had been forgetting all along. I’m still at school!  I still have lectures, readings, and essays. I still have group projects. I’m still being graded (or marked, as they say here). This is rather unfortunate and quite unlike a 5 month vacation. What this means is that I have spent my past two weeks doing schoolwork. As I am fairly sure you would not care to read a blog post about fMRI studies of VLPFC and MTL activity with relation to HAROLD, I’m going to instead show pictures of Edinburgh’s lovely hills. That’s my coping strategy.

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This first picture is of Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano behind my dorm. I took this picture before making my first ascent several weeks ago. It is located in Holyrood Park, so named because, when seen from above, it resembles a holyrood. I followed the road that goes around the mountain and ended up climbing up the wrong peak. By the time I looked over at the correct peak, covered in tourists, and realized this, I had not the heart to continue. Instead, I waited until a few days later to try again, this time arriving at the top of yet another false peak. I trekked on, however, and made it to Arthur’s Seat. As before, it was blanketed in tourists, some of them attempting to do Gollum impersonations. As I pride myself in my superior Gollum impersonation, I felt compelled to leave at once and have not returned to that part of the park. However, other parts of Holyrood Park are equally stunning.

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This is a view taken from Holyrood Park of snow clouds over the sea. I had just gotten caught in that snow while hiking and was glad to see it leaving. In another part of Holyrood, one can see larger mountains than Arthur’s Seat, known as Pentland “Hills”. These are so called because, when viewed from above, they resemble hills.

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If you look carefully, you can just barely see Pentland Hills in the distance. From other places in Holyrood Park, the “hills” are more visible, but so are modern buildings and cars. I wanted to take a picture that looked like it was taken in the wilderness, with no civilization in sight. It’s cool that such a location exists in the middle of Scotland’s capital city. It would be perfect for filming a movie…

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I felt challenged after seeing Pentland Hills in the distance, and seeing that they were much taller than the mountain of Arthur’s Seat, (it appears that hills in Edinburgh are larger than mountains). I knew I had to answer that challenge, and this picture is proof that I did so. As you can see, there was snow. In many places, especially the steepest places, this snow had been compacted to ice. There were also ponies and a ski slope. These made for interesting obstacles one would need to dodge if one slipped and slid down the hill. Fortunately, I was able to channel my inner goat and descend without falling once. I was planning on hiking for four hours, but the wind was so cold that I left in one and a half. I plan on returning there soon, now that the snow has melted. I leave you with an image of that which I plan to traverse next. I’m not sure what you’ll do with it. Maybe put it in a calendar?

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Bookshops, Birthdays, and Sheep

Time January 30th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

Much has happened since last I wrote, particularly 3 important events, which I will treat separately. The first of these events was my home stay, where I stayed on a farm near Falkirk with a Scottish family and one other IFSA-Butler student. The family was kind and very knowledgeable about the States and world affairs. That made for many interesting conversations and comparisons between life in the States and life in Scotland. We were taken to see the local town of Falkirk, including the Falkirk Wheel, which is a large structure for moving boats along a canal that works on the principle of the Falkirk wheel. This enables the building of a canal in which one part of the canal is far below the level of the part it is supposed to connect to. Rather than using a waterfall, as I would have done, they decided to instead use something safe that would keep the boats level. I can’t understand why they would do that. They also showed us gigantic statues of horses, called Kelpies, as well as the remnants of a wall built by the Romans. Unfortunately, the only thing left of the wall is a pit of death traps and trenches that would have prevented people from getting to the wall, had it been there. Romans shooting arrows at invaders were also absent. After this, we saw a museum called Callander House, a name that I did not misspell. There, we found the Romans who were missing from earlier. This museum contained a mix of historical artifacts from the time of the Romans to the Second World War. This led to some brief confusion when I first noticed grenades among imperial helmets and medieval swords. Also, there were sheep. These were not at the museum, of course. They lived on the farm and were very confused to see us. Overall, it was a good weekend, with good conversation and good food. The home stay has been my favorite event so far.

The second major, important thing that happened is my 21st birthday, which was on Tuesday. I celebrated with flare, drinking lots of coffee, eating a cupcake, eating a pizza, and going to see a movie. Some of my business classmates took me out to coffee and one gave me candy that may or may not be Scottish. I had never really considered the problem of time differences when it comes to responding to Facebook birthday wishes, but this was certainly something that plagued me. Some people had to wait entire hours before I was able to thank them, at which point in time they were probably asleep. That about sums up my birthday, so I shall move on to an even bigger event.

The bigger event is something that I never in a million years (or maybe just a few decades) thought would happen to me, something so incredibly shocking that I am still trying wrap my head around it. I fell in love. The other day, I met the most charming, interesting, intelligent, and diverse bookshop I have ever encountered. I have already been there four times and am beginning to worry that this addiction may have effects on my wallet. The biggest issue will be bringing the books home, as shipping costs would be incredibly high. That being said, I have found a much larger variety of books here than at any bookstore in the U.S.  Part of this is due to the bookshop’s close proximity to the University of Edinburgh. It contains a lot of textbooks and other required course readings. In other words, the books here are scholarly and can be very difficult to read. Nonetheless, I shall attempt the task of reading many of these books. With classes on only two days out of the week, I’ll have plenty of time.

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Surviving the First Week

Time January 15th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | 2 Comments by

I have been living in my dorm in Edinburgh for a week now, although it doesn’t feel that it has been quite that long. I suppose I should go into the story of how I arrived here. For those of you who were wondering, I decided to fly here by plane. It seemed the most common thing to do. I actually arrived by 3 planes, one that went from Nashville to Detroit, one that left Detroit 18 hours later and eventually landed in Amsterdam, and finally one that went from Amsterdam to Edinburgh. This was the cheapest flight plan I could find, even if you include the hotel cost in Detroit. The first plane I rode on was the smallest plane I had ever ridden. I was confused when they started boarding us on to the plane, for it didn’t appear that the plane had arrived yet. Then I looked down and thought, “Oh, how cute!” for it was indeed small and resembled a pencil with wings. I sat next to someone on this flight who had a similar layover in Detroit, on his way “home” to China. I was very suspicious of this, as he had a strong Alabama accent. It later turned out that he works in China as an English teacher who cannot speak any Chinese. This was so intriguing that I did not bother to talk to anyone on my subsequent flights for fear they might ruin my experience with a mundane story. That flight was followed by a flight on the largest plane I had ever been on, and I was very excited to receive two wonderful meals and in-flight movies. I watched Amour for the first time and consequently spent part of my flight crying while sandwiched between two tough guys who were watching action flicks. Someone on one of my flights, probably the big one across the Atlantic, was kind enough to share their flu with me. I will not discover this until halfway through the second paragraph.

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Preparing for the Journey

Time January 6th, 2015 in 2015 Spring, College Study Abroad, LGBTQ Correspondents, Scotland | No Comments by

In less than 2 weeks, I will be in Scotland preparing for the start of classes at The University of Edinburgh. As I have never been farther from my home in Tennessee than Houston, (unless Daytona Beach is farther), I haven’t the slightest idea of what to expect. For all I know, the inhabitants of Scotland could have green antennae and wear kilts on every occasion. They may also assume that, since I am American, I must live out on a farm in the middle of nowhere, with no access to city water, cable television, or decent cellphone service. They would be correct in assuming this. The Scottish might also fit the European stereotype of being more knowledgeable and cultured than Americans. I’m sure that’s a gross overstatement, given how clearly knowledgeable I am about their culture. I shall keep an open mind going forward.

Before I outline my goals for the semester, I would like to introduce myself. My friends call me Josh. People who are not my friends also call me Josh. Only email spammers call me Joshua, so please do not do so, or else you may be deleted out of suspicion. As stated above, I live on a farm in the middle of Nowhere, (also known as Charlotte, Tennessee). I live with my Mom and my sister, Catherine, along with 17 chickens, 8 goats, 5 horses, 5 cats, 3 dogs, 3 miniature ponies, 2 larger ponies, and 1 cow in a pear tree. When I’m not at the farm, I attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where I’m double-majoring in Film Studies and Psychology and minoring in Corporate Strategy. I will be mostly studying film at Edinburgh. I will also be bringing my camera and will hopefully have some videos to post to this blog throughout the semester. As a final detail about myself, as one of IFSA-Butler’s LGBTQ correspondents, I am gay and will be focusing some of my blog posts specifically on the queer experience in Scotland. At Vanderbilt, I am involved with the Lambda Gender-Sexuality Alliance, and I plan to be involved in the queer community in Edinburgh as well. Other than being gay and walking around in confusion while searching for my classes, what do I expect to do while in Scotland?

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