A year studying abroad at Scotland’s University of Glasgow

An Innocent AbroadAll one needs to go out into this world of ours and study abroad is a certain sense of curiosity, openness to new surroundings, a strong want for adventure and a healthy mindset that you are capable of independence and can adequately solve any issue that comes your way. I had none of these qualities yet still left Calgary to study abroad.

What follows is part one of a three part series about my experiences as a traveler in an ancient land and exchange student at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Scotland is many things. It’s dark, it’s old, it’s castles, it’s cold. It’s fog at night, mist in the morning. It sounds like bag pipes and looks like red hair. It’s whisky, it’s golf, it’s plaid, it’s tea. It’s independent and nostalgic. It’s “nay” and it’s “aye,” smart but jaded. It’s William Wallace and Sean Connery, Adam Smith and James Watt. It’s the place I called home for nine months of my life during my third year of university studying Communication and Culture.

I think a brief history of the country and some interesting facts are in order before I go on, just to set the canvas before I paint the picture.

The history of Scotland began some 14,000 years ago when the first humans began to inhabit the land. It’s been through the Stone Age, Bronze Age, the Roman and British Empires and is now a part of the United Kingdom. There are some 28 million people around the world who claim Scottish ancestry, including myself and four million other Canadians.

My great grandfather was a farmer outside of Glasgow before he jumped ship and came to Winnipeg to start a new life early in the 20th century.

We Canadians have a strong Scottish influence and maybe don’t even know it. Our first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was born in Glasgow, “Nova Scotia” literally translates to “New Scotland” and not to mention the countless pubs starting with “Mc” or ending with “gan.”

The Scots pride themselves on being underrated in the modern world in a weird way. They like that they have such a rich history filled with everything from invention to glorious battles, the Enlightenment and a landscape filled with lochs and mountains, yet no one seems to know much about it but them. They have a proud streak from many battles against outsiders threatening their independence. Perhaps the most famous story is William Wallace and the Battle at Stirling Bridge in the 13th Century. Even today there is a strong push for complete independence from the United Kingdom. If a conversation was monotonous with a Scotsman in a pub or on the street, all I had to do was say how much I hated the English and I had both a new best friend and an hour’s worth of conversation.

The sport of golf was born in Scotland, as well as scotch whisky. Some say that there are 18 holes on a golf course because the inventors of the sport would take a shot of whisky at the start of every hole. In the old days you could carry 18 shots of liquor in a flask, so they reckoned that once the whisky was done, so was the round.

The general sense I got from the country was not unlike the feeling I get when reading Macbeth ­– black castles on stormy nights and a history plagued by bloody battles.

Now that I have painted this Scottish canvas, I can tell you what happened when I put myself into the picture.

The plane ride from Calgary to Glasgow was approximately 10 hours, and for me, seemed way longer because I was wicked hung over from a dumb night of drinking the day before. I had a fake feeling of being a man that day as I said goodbye to my old man, giving him a strong hand shake and keeping a straight face for my crying mom.

Even though I had a 50 kg suitcase full of clothing, books, toiletries and a couple pairs of shoes, it felt like all I was carrying was a stick with a garbage bag on the end; I felt like a modern vagabond. I kept replaying two songs on my iPod: “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen and “The Wanderer” by U2 featuring Johnny Cash. I was a wanderer on the run, no clue where the hell I was going or who I was going to be when I got there. I visualized it as packing up the circus in Calgary and moving it to Glasgow.

I made friends with the girl sitting next to me on the plane, Morgan was her name, who was 24 and just about to get a divorce. She gave me her number and helped me find my way once we landed in Scotland.

My initial impressions of Glasgow could be summed up in one word: grey. It’s an old industrial town, once pumping out ships in its heyday but now slightly run down and unromantic with all its grey, weathered warehouses.

People drive on the left side of the road over there, and yes, it scared me at first. On the bus ride from the airport to my apartment (or ‘flat’ as Scots call it) I thought we were constantly going to run into oncoming traffic.

All students should make sure to bring lots of snacks for the first day and night after their arrival. I didn’t. I crashed in my new bed and woke up at 11 p.m. Glasgow time with an empty stomach and no stores open to feed me. That was a long night.

When you’re lost and lonely, as I felt that first night, you start to appreciate little things you normally overlook. I was never happier than when I took my first shower, washing off the disgusting sweat and greasy hair from sitting in an airtight plane cabin for 10 hours.

My exchange took place at the University of Glasgow, which is the fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world. The dude who invented capitalism, Adam Smith, went to my school. My campus was a castle for crying out loud and I loved it!

It’s an interesting feeling to walk through a door that’s 500 years old. You start to think about ghosts and the amount of people who have gone through it before you. Young people who are 400 years dead and old people who still walk through it today. Interesting fact about old doors: they’re smaller. Perhaps people were shorter 500 years ago than they are today, I’m not really sure.

I gained a strong sense of excitement and confidence my first few weeks there. I laugh when I look at a picture of my closet from my first week: there’s some clothes, a case of beer next to a bottle of whisky, my guitar, a stack of canned beans and Dijon mustard. In all honesty, I had no clue what the hell I was doing, I was just trying my best to figure things out along the way.

I learned quickly that my body needed more than just beans and toast three times a day. People over there thought I was crazy but I just told them I was a cowboy and that’s how things were done where I come from.

I had a roommate too. His name was Axel and he was from Sweden.

As I adjusted to my new home, I slowly started to notice the beauty of the buildings around me. It’s an interesting sight to see moss or rust on an old building, an organic marriage between something that man made and nature added to.

I started to listen to the bagpiping buskers in the streets of downtown, playing notes written long ago on that famous instrument from the Highlands. And I maybe started to drink a little to much alcohol a little too early in the day. Either I packed my drinking problem in my suitcase or it followed me to Scotland. Either way it wasn’t good, but more on that later.

In the months to come I traveled around the UK, drank and danced excessively, learned how to throw knives and say swear words in Swedish, made mistakes with women, taught myself how to play guitar, talked to my grand-parents about Willie Nelson over Skype, joined the squash club and curling team, ended up in the Dublin Police Department and then a psych ward, all before catching my flight back to Canada.

This is my story. It was hard to write. I hope we’ll both gain something through my retrospection. If not, I hope you are at least entertained.

To be continued…


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