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The Wee Differences Between “Taking the Piss” and “Taking a Piss”


After five awesome, hectic, and educational months in Europe, I am finally home – and it feels good. I missed my family, friends, girlfriend, home, routine, car, bed, language (I consider Scottish a unique dialect), weather, beaches, and most of all, California burritos. With that said, my time abroad in Scotland and broader Europe was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I will always cherish. I was constantly learning, growing, and most of all, loving life. I consider Scotland my second home and am confident that I will return in the future.

I finished my education at St. Andrews on May 13th and departed for a trip I’ve referred to as the “Victory Lap” on May 16th. I went to Dublin, Amsterdam, Ghent (Belgium), Paris, back to Scotland (to show the family Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Isle of Skye, and Glasgow), and then Italy to visit Sorrento, Minore, and Rome. The Victory Lap was filled with bucketloads of stories, sights, and awesome people, but rather than regurgitating my whole trip for you all, I’m going to focus on something else. I’m going to share a few of my cultural observations from Scotland. Now I’m no anthropology major (whatever that is anyways) and I’ve done no major research on the subject; I’m just going to share what I noticed during my brief stint in Scotland. My views may be skewed, biased, or just flat out wrong, but I hope you found my observations interesting and enjoyable.

One of the most obvious contrasts is lingo and I’m just scratching the surface. Now here are some U.S. words and their Scottish equivalents: Gas is called petrol, studying is known as revising, time is on a 24 hour clock (what we call military time), knackered means tired, freshman year is known as first year and so on, they “have a look” instead of “take a look”, cheers is a way to say thank you (and I truly felt assimilated when I mustered up the courage to say it in public), pissed means wasted (and come on, this is Scotland, at first I had no clue why every was claiming to be so dang angry at 9 AM, it turns out they were just drunk which is makes so much more sense), aye means yes (never had the huevos to try this one, my voice is nowhere near Scottish enough or deep enough), wee mean little or small amount, and my personal favorite, to be “taking the piss” means to be joking and making something less serious.

Let’s put this one in some context because it took me a while. If someone cracks a joke or says something far fetched, their pal may respond “Aye, mate are you taking the piss?” In my early days, I thought they were saying “taking a piss” so I decided to try it out one day. I cracked a joke amongst a group of Scottish friends and proceeded to say, “I’m taking a piss.” I was met with short period of dead silence and then thunderous laughter. They were kind enough to explain the nuances of the phrase me, but only after about ten minutes of gut busting. I would have done the exact same thing if I were in their shoes. Imagine how bizarre it would be to be with all your mates when some new, silly American dude comes in and casually says he’s taking a piss. Yeah…they never really let that one go.

Now, let’s get on to a few infrastructure differences. Many people know cars in the UK drive on the left side of the road and there are typically roundabouts instead of traffic lights. But, I don’t think they realize how hard this is to adjust to. It goes against everything I’ve ever known and the concept of “stop, look, and listen” gets flipped on its head and once again becomes a lifesaving device. Trust me, when you’ve been within 4 inches of those big red buses, you’ll be thanking mama for ingraining “stop, look, and listen into your brain. Also, urinals don’t flush, they constantly drip in a way that almost mocks that elderly man standing at the urinal for hours as he regrets his decision to cancel his Flomax prescription. I don’t get if it saves water or is cheaper or whatever; it just is what it is. Lastly, in the USA, I’ve mastered the art of the light switch. If you need light, turn on the switch, easy peezy. However, what I have yet to conquer is the art of the outlet switch. Yup, you read that correctly, OUTLET SWITCH. Individual electrical outlets have their own on/off switches, DEAL WITH IT. It’s no longer a simple matter of: Is device plugged in? Check. Is device turned on? Check. In the UK there’s a whole other step – checking the pesky outlet switch. My college education allowed me to determine that that’s 50% more effort! So what if this switch helps prevent electrical fires and infant electrocutions (and the occasional high schooler electrocution); it’s more work! It took way too many painful lessons of contacting the dean or warden to complain that my outlets were not working, only to have them walk in to flip the silly outlet switch on, for me to get the hang of outlet switches.

Now, culture time! I find that no one sums it up better than my biochemistry professor, Jim Naismith – the bolo tie donning, cowboy hat wearing Scotsman. He loved America, LOVED IT. (Side note: when I say America, I’m referring to just the USA. I used to believe this practice was just a self-centered tendency of the USA itself. However, it turns out that all of Europe refers to the USA as America as well.) I became the token “America Expert” in his class and was called upon anytime he wanted to know something about the USA, whether it was how we vaccinate/prevent tuberculosis or why In-N-Out is so great. He even offered extra credit (the only extra credit offered during my time in Scotland) to anyone who could deliver him Blue Corn Tortilla Chips from Texas. Sadly, I was unable to take advantage of this opportunity, but I certainly tried. Many of my Scottish and other international friends had similar curiosities. Did my high school really have jocks and cheerleaders? Were there lockers? Do I see movie stars all the time? What is the food like? While there are many wonderful UK musicians, movies, TV shows, and pop culture icons, American culture ABSOLUTELY DOMINATES the scene. Kanye West seems to be even bigger in the UK than he is in the US. My non-US pals seemed to be more aware of the current cultural and political happenings in the US than I was while I was in Scotland. Some of them could even name all 50 states.

Yet, as always, there were some conspicuous differences. I was stunned when I first turned on a TV in Scotland and heard extensive profanity. There is less (if any) language censorship on national television and drinking alcoholic beverages in commercials or on talk shows is commonplace. Also, it seems like people are less afraid of being sued or politically attacked. The Scots are more open and honest, in a refreshing sort of way. This did lead to some surprises though. During my briefing on legal differences in Scotland versus the US during my abroad orientation a police officer came in as a guest speaker and blatantly said, “Yeah, we stereotype. It’s a great way to identify criminals.” My jaw dropped at that moment, but then I remembered I wasn’t in America anymore. Yes, we know police in the US stereotype, but an officer would incite outrage if he/she were to casually say it in a public setting. Finally, I would there is a cultural difference that I would love to export to the US. When hitting the town for a night out, large groups of friends dress up in ridiculous costumes, seemingly just for the hell of it. Imagine seeing a huge group of Waldos or twenty Smerfs breaking it down on the dance floor, it’s absolutely hilarious.

Here are some highlights from my “Victory Lap”







And if you happened to scroll through that obscene quantity of pictures, here’s the snippet video!

As this entry brings a conclusion to my journey abroad, it also brings a conclusion to my Hilborn’s Haggis. It was an awesome experience and never in a million years would I have considered that I might actually enjoy this whole blogging thing until I tried it. I may even maintain one for some other purpose in the future. With this in mind, I would greatly appreciate some feedback on what you liked, what you bored you to death, and things that I could do to improve my blogging skills in the future. Thanks so much for staying tuned and for all of the support I’ve received for this blog along the way.




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