Souvenirs and Memories

As my departure date increasingly looms over me, I finally realized the weight of what’s happened in my life since September. Coming to a foreign country for three months isn’t exactly something that many people do at one stage of their life, and my own reasons for coming here were more than to learn the customs of another culture. My friends have noticed a change in me lately, that I’m not as talkative or energetic in going out than I used to, when you’re trying to wrestle the joys of coming home to your friends and family but at the same time leaving behind those who supported you in a new environment for a semester; you can’t help but be a little introverted.

Each passing day we share our experiences of our first night in Dundee and those few harsh days in September slowly come back to life. As we do this we take stock of what we’ve learned, who we met and all the good times we shared. We were set to re-enact our first days of kindergarten when we arrived in Scotland; the excitement of going someplace new, not knowing where your class is, taking those first few awkward steps onto a strange bus. As time progressed we grew into our lives here more; going grocery shopping at Tesco, visiting the Union for drinks with friends, and planning trips to discover what the UK is all about. By this point I’ve become too engrained in Scottish culture and society. I shop for music at HMV with my membership card, know where some of the best pub food is, can estimate our time of arrival in Edinburgh by bus or train and use slang several times a day (chips and all). Although my heritage is not Scottish, I’ve learned enough to make my way here without anything getting to me. When life gets to you, you accept that there are flaws, but instead of wallowing in them, you persevere. I think that’s the Scottish attitude to life because if you can imagine the weather right now; it isn’t what you would consider “tropic”, yet I see people walking around in t-shirts when it’s 0 Celsius and are perfectly content. But understanding the mindset isn’t the only thing I’ve learned here.

The other day I was cleaning out my room in preparation for my departure home. On the desk buried underneath my graded assignments and matriculation information were several American dollar bills that I had brought over as emergency cash when I first arrived. It had been a while since I saw George Washington’s face on a crisp bill; as I was more used to Adam Smith and Robert the Bruce when handling money. I picked it up and held it for a while. It felt strange, coarse and stiff; not like the paper thin Pound Sterling I had been using all this time. I was feeling things I had never felt before; a strange disconnect from the United States and for some reason sensing that when I return, I will be a stranger in my own home.

My friends from back home talk to me with an increasing urgency, wishing me a safe flight back to the United States and inviting me to a night out in New Paltz or Albany. In my communication with them I sometimes slip into British colloquialisms like “flat”, “Chips”, “Taking the Piss”, etc. I don’t do this to flaunt my worldliness; it’s just something that’s happened as a result of interacting with people from the UK every single day. Just as easily as I’ve forgotten what my national currency looks like, so too have I adopted the words of another culture.

When I said I was bringing home “Souvenirs” I did not expect to bring home the Scottish mentality to life, but here I am with a few days to go feeling more attached to Scotland and its people more and more. I don’t really know what the future has in store for me when I return, but what I do know is that my experience here has shaped me into a new person. I’ve become someone who has seen the world from a different perspective and force to look at his own culture through another and as a result has become slightly distant from his nationality; save the New York accent. I’m going to miss my friends here and the nights we’ve spent going to pubs and visiting castles. I’m especially going to miss my UK and European friends who’ve welcomed me into their lives with open arms and were willing to show me how to live life day by day. As for now I’m off to do some house cleaning and throw out the clutter of a semester abroad, but I am making sure that my final days here are lived to their fullest.

Entry 13: Take Me Back Home

The past two weeks have been introverted and pensive at most. As strange as it sounds, the more acclimated I’ve become, the more ready I am of returning home. Not to say travelling abroad and living in the UK is boring (far from it), but eventually when the once “new and exciting” has turned into the routine and everyday, it’s time to move on to pastures new (or in this case old). I was reading theentryof another New Paltz abroad blogger in China last week who said he was missing home, and am finding myself in a similar situation. This was the first time my family celebrated Thanksgiving without me; and come the 16th of December I wont be around for my own birthday. I miss my friends as well and any opportunity I get of chatting with them on Skype or Facebook has become the highlight of my day.

On the topic of friends, it’s funny to see how the flat dynamic has changed since all of us have first met. In the beginning, we left most of our personality flaws at the door in lieu of trying to be as pleasant and un-offending to one another as possible. However, after living here for almost 3 months; the “new car smell” of new friends wears off after a while and you slowly revert into the comfort zone you’ve enjoyed back home. Although this shows  you’re secure in your surroundings, it comes at the price of shocking your flatmates and Scottish friends. Case in point, although I’m normally quiet and have been labeled “nice”, I do have a crude and cynical sense of humor which made everyone take a second look at me. Another habit of mine is eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (I know its disgusting but it can’t be helped, I dare you to try), which I’ve been accused of doing in front of people who are visiting, but I could care less. The most notable “change” in my personality has been my introversion. Since scoring badly on my last paper, solitary confinement with my work and books has become my new life; where before I would never pass up on an opportunity to go out or travel. My door that was once open for people to converse with me is now closed to distraction and like a virus it spread to the other people I’m rooming with. Then again with finals just around the corner, it’s a fairly common practice.

What tires me most is the work; or lack of it. The hurry up and wait attitude of deadlines and anticipating grades. Our classes are finished for the semester and we only have our finals left. I have two timed exams next week consisting of two essay questions for each that will count towards 50% of my total grade; needless to say I wont be leaving my room anytime soon. Just as my friends have found reason to question my eating habits and social skills, I’ve eventually started to question the education system in the UK.  On the one hand, Dundee is a great school with an excellent History curriculum whose instructors are very dedicated and show a true passion for the subject. However on the other, I’ve had a pretty rotten experience with one professor and the system of lectures and tutorials to me is redundant. At least in New Paltz, we have lectures that include time for taking questions and going over assignments; whereas in Dundee, it is clear you sit in silence throughout lectures and then wait for tutorial for questions to be raised and answered. Since many of the classes are taught by more than 1 professor, it is frustrating to get a straight answer (many of them argue amongst themselves in class) so I’m often left wondering what I should write and did they answer my question. There is certainly a distance here between instructor and student and if you need help but this is more of a personal flaw on the part of the instructor as opposed to the whole system. Depending on your instructor, they will either be very open to talk with you after class, and others will just bolt out the door after lecture or tutorial and ignore you completely. Recently a friend of mine from Scotland asked me about how the university system in the UK compared to the United States and if I preferred one over the other. My response was that in the U.S. you get alot of papers, homework assignments and pop quizzes, but the teachers are willing to give feedback and work with you to personally to improve your skills, and the constant work keeps you busy and motivated whereas in the UK, you’re left on your own to do most of the work yourself which does help in you developing thoughts and ideals independent of the professor. Personally I prefer the US method because of the above reasons; which is not to say I’m not opposed to the UK design, its just not the right one for me.

Hiking Lake Minnewaska near New Paltz

Hiking Lake Minnewaska near New Paltz

Living the glamorous life; doing laundry and not caring how bad I look!

Living the glamorous life; doing laundry and not caring how bad I look!

Entry 2: Private Hell-written 9/21/09

Studying in another country for a year (or even a semester) can build character quickly. When abroad you are taken from your warm, safe home and are suddenly dropped in a country with a different set of cultural and educational values. The first week of my stay in Dundee has been nothing but an exercise in learning how to deal with real world problems and overcoming obstacles over 3,000 miles away from home.

Life Lesson I: Patience is a Virtue

My life lesson began almost as soon as I walked into my room. It was the first night I would be staying in Scotland and I was excited to show off the new room to a couple of my friends. We were planning on going into town to dine at one of the Scottish pubs we had seen when we first got off the bus and were meeting at my Flat before heading out. I had just to lock the key to my door and a night of taking in our new surroundings could begin. However after turning the key to lock I noticed the door didn’t close shut at all and to make things worse, the key was stuck in the tumbler. With a door that could easily be pushed open and my key now embedded in the door like “the sword in the stone” , I knew tonight’s plans were going to have to be put on hold. With that I picked up the phone and dialed maintenance. Dundee has an emergency phone line that is open 24/7 in case something should arise (such as a fire, injury, leak and being locked out). The maintenance crew arrived within 15 minutes and looked at my door; after a couple of minutes of trying to pry it out with a pair of needle nosed pliers, they decided to call the local locksmith. By this point it was 10:30 at night, I had been up for almost 24 hours and had yet to take a shower, I certainly didn’t look or feel ready to take on a pub crawl. However I still had to eagerly await the locksmith and that was torture in the cruelest sense.

Our group also felt the same and we decided to hang around the flat till late before everyone went back to their residences to get a well deserved sleep. I on the other hand continued to stand watch over my broken door like a guard at Buckingham Palace. Finally by 11:30 pm, the locksmith arrived and quickly set about trying to get the key dislodged. It turned out the only logical thing to do was to break the lock completely and remove the key that way. As the situation appeared to get bleaker and bleaker, I attempted to look on the bright side of an otherwise annoying and random event. First of all; I wasn’t locked out of the room, nor locked in, I could still get in or out. Second, the locksmith was pretty friendly and I attempted to pick up some Scottish slang from hearing him curse and try to describe to me why the lock “is all pear shaped”. At a quarter to twelve the lock was finally snapped and my key removed. As he had no exact replacement of the lock, he instead gave me a different lock with a special key before saying that he would “do his best to find a proper replacement for the dodgy one”. I thanked him for his help and finally for the first time since leaving home took well deserved shower and fell asleep; thankful that my door had been fixed and hopefully be the first and last of my problems; but it wasn’t.

Life Lesson II: The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

The next several days passed uneventfully. I went shopping in the “Wellgate” (a large mall to the east of campus on the High Street) in order to get some essentials, socialized at some of the local clubs and pubs in and around campus and bought tickets to see “The Jam”; one of my favorite bands. After a couple of days of doing this, the money I had converted at the airport was wearing thin and it was time to use the new Debit card I ordered from my local bank.

I was at first slightly worried that it might not go through as the bank that issued it only had branches in the mid-Hudson Valley and was not Federal. But noticing the MasterCard emblem and the fact there was a picture of a globe on the background gave me a slight confidence it would go through no problem. I tried to put the pin number in 3 times (thinking I had accidently typed it the wrong each time). On the 4th and last time, I struck out “Invalid Pin: Card Witheld By Bank” flashed the screen; and with that I heard the shredder within the machine swallow my only means of getting money. My heart dropped, my face paled and my knees buckled. Now I was in another country; far from home, with no bank account and only 80 Pound Stirling (roughly $160.00) in my pocket. This wasn’t as simple a problem to fix as my lock; this would require some real coordination between me and my parents.
I called home immediately after my card was swallowed; you can’t even begin to imagine how you have surreal the conversation was; “Hi mom! Oh yeah I’m fine, well actually the reason I’m calling is because my debit card got swallowed!” I was hoping that the “I’m doing well” would negate the latter part of the message, how naïve was I? We had planned for everything months in advance; we got the debit card thinking it could be used overseas and that would be my main means of getting money for travel and essential items, neither my parents nor I expected this to happen. What I got in response was “I’ll get your father”.

We worked on forming an ad-hoc “Plan B” for getting money until I could either set up a bank account with “Clydesdale Bank”; a bank located near the college that offers bank accounts for students at the University or have my parents sign for a new credit and debit card in my name and ship it to me. Luckily for me there was a Western Union station in a consignment shop not too far from campus where I could accept money orders from home. After finding out from Clydesdale that they would be unable to set up an account with me for another several weeks, I chose the latter route of Western Union money transfers; despite the fact they would charge an additional $50.00 for every order I put in. In the mean time, my parents helped set me up with a new debit card and credit card from home, and they would be sending them as soon as they arrived in the mail.

Once again, I re-assessed my situation. I was in a real bind this time; losing all of my money was one of my biggest fears before leaving the United States. Lucky for me I had two of the best parents in the world who I gave my personal information to ahead of time so they could establish a card and account for me. I also still had 80 pounds; 25 of which I spent on a printer so I could forgo paying a print quota at the library and write papers from the comfort of my room. Third; and most important in my mind, I had tickets to see one of my all time favorite rock bands! I had gone through another test of fire and came out unscathed; but I still wasn’t done.

Life Lesson III: Don’t Stop Believing

We’ve all been sick before. Living with several other people in a confined space has a way of spreading all sorts of nasty germs and diseases and we have all done the occasional phone call (or even travel) home where we can imagine ourselves in our warm beds with mom or dad making hot soup to make us feel better. But when living  in another country, you’re physically and mentally bombarded with emotions you never thought you had and “to be homesick” takes on a whole new meaning and relevance.

As my first week in Scotland drew to a close, I was feeling on top of my game. Not only had I survived the flight over, my lock being broken and my debit card getting eaten, I was making many new friends and was taking in the scenery of my new surroundings. Some of my flatmates; as well as Jen however, were going through various stages of getting sick. They all had the same basic symptoms one would expect; cough, sore throat, runny nose etc; but nothing out of the ordinary. I was almost too confident in my immune system as I interacted with my flatmates and Jen without keeping a distance. By Thursday the 10th of September however, I was feeling pretty sick. I was too sick to really get out of my flat and didn’t go out with my friends that night; thinking that rest and the Tylenol Severe Cold I had packed before leaving would do me good and by the weekend I would be much better.
Friday came and I was sicker than usual, worse still I was going out that night to see a punk concert with some of my friends. We got there at 8 pm; as the tickets said but the show didn’t start for another hour and a half. My flatmate Julie was also very ill and could only stay until the end of the first act. I thought of doing the same but I was determined to see the show through and enjoy every minute of it! For the rest of the night I forgot about being sick and head banged the rest of the evening away; it was my high point for the week.

My low point came the next day. I was achy, feverish, sore and tired. Worst of all, the medicine I brought from home wasn’t working and I was ready to give up. Instead I made the most of the situation and wrote in my journal and watched some British Television on “Youtube”. Sunday came and went as I was still sick and in a vain attempt to prove to myself I wasn’t too bad; cleaned my room and bathroom, but in the end I got worse and Monday would bring the first day of class. Most of the week to follow was a blur of head congestion and fatigue. Something had to be done.

Registering for a doctor (or “General Practitioner”) should be one of the first things you should do upon arrival in Dundee. There are several choices for you to pick and all are within distance of your flat. The “Fresher’s” page on the University of Dundee website has a list of Doctors (or “General Practitioner’s”) you can register for (http://www.dundee.ac.uk/freshers2009/living_in_dundee/gp_surgeries.htm).
Using the list, I went to Tay Court Surgery to register. The whole process took only 15 minutes and as long as you are a student with the university they will treat you the same as a citizen of the United Kingdom. Several days after registering I was almost out of medication and I wasn’t feeling any better. Assuming I had a sinus infection, I made an appointment with Tay Court.

Dealing with a Practitioner in the UK is slightly different than dealing with a US doctor. For instance there is a certain protocol that must be followed. When I called Thursday (September 17) to see a doctor; I had to give my contact information and had to wait for the nurse to contact me when she got through the previous calls. When she did call, I told her my symptoms after which she told me since they were “flu like”, I was to go through a special back entrance to the office so as to not contaminate other patients and practitioners and I was to arrive at 5:25. The outbreak of Swine Flu in the United Kingdom has caused General Practioners and hospitals to adopt this policy and it is common practice to have two separate entranceways. After arriving at the rear entrance, I was greeted by a nurse wearing full scrubs and a face mask; who pointed out which room to use. The room was a typical of one you would see at your neighborhood doctors, but as I was being treated as someone with Swine Flu, the room was covered in protective paper and I was given a mask. The doctor followed soon after and checked my throat and sinus area; giving me the “head punch” test to see if it hurt. Turns out I didn’t have Swine Flu but an a bad sinus infection; although the doctor was never convinced in the first place that I had Swine Flu at all. He jotted down a prescription for anti-biotic and told me to hurry as all the stores close at 6:00 pm. The whole checkup took 5 minutes and did not cost anything. The only thing I would pay for would be the medication which came out to 4 pounds (8 US dollars).

There are several pharmacies in Dundee, but the one most people go to is Boots, which is like a CVS or Walgreen’s. Whereas most pharmacists close before 5:30, Boots is open till 6 and I was able to get the prescription filled with no hassle. Boots also offers coupons and discounts on its items and is the cheapest to get medication.

I finally made it back to my flat, medication in hand and secluded myself for the next several days. That night I was able to talk to my parents for the first time since getting sick. The first week away from home was easy for me as I was so engrossed with my new surroundings and socializing, I even made the statement that “I could live here if I wanted”. Being sick made me realize at this point that I wished to be home in my bed surrounded by family; and the hulusitory nightmares and feverish symptoms did not help me settle into Scottish life any better. Hearing my mother’s voice over the phone made me miss home even more and there was nothing more I wanted (and I’m not afraid to admit this) was a hug from her. We talked for an hour about my day and what happened to me that week. We had communicated through e-mail once a day and talked on Skype or on the phone several times a week but this time was different. This time I really missed home.

It was at this point I realized how lucky I was to have made such good friends. All of my flat mates helped me in their own way to get me on the mend. Julie, Sydney and Lauren made dinner or did my grocery shopping and Jen checked me every day and fixed dinner as well. What void was missing from home still existed, but had shrunk because of the hard work and patience of my friends. I really couldn’t have been able to get through that week without them.

As of today (September 21), I am feeling much better and ready to continue with my courses. I also received my credit and debit cards today as well and am now financially prepared to travel and take care of unexpected problems. What I’ve learned in the first week and a half towers over anything I picked up in school. I asked in my application to Dundee that I wished to learn just as much about myself as I wanted to learn about the past. What did I learn exactly? First of all, I learned I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I (with a little help) solved all of my problems and more importantly, solved them in a country I had never set foot on before. If I can do it in Scotland, I can certainly do it in the United States. Another lesson I learned: everything gets fixed, it’s just a matter of how. If you find yourself in a similar situation at home or abroad, remember to think positively and be patient. Being angry and frustrated solves nothing whereas a cool head and even temper will. Finally; and most importantly, never lose touch with home. An e-mail a day or a talking on Skype or the phone for a minimum of an hour with friends and family will help ease you into your new life abroad. Talking to someone from home will help add normality to your routine and home won’t seem so far away.
I learned a lot in my first week and a half abroad and I doubt that this will be the end of it. But as things are for the moment, I am planning a few trips, aspiring to meet my professor’s highest expectations and enjoying every day I wake up to a new day filled with endless possibilities.