It was no fun being the laughing stock at the Christmas table… especially as I’d only been back in the country for 24 hours. From the blue grey skies of Scotland, I’d arrived home in the midst of Sydney summer, with a look I liked to call ’lilac’…. Needless to say I was not in the best condition for the occasion that urges one to pull out that special ‘frock’ - perhaps even, a pretty little sun dress. Oh, no! The exposure of the sun on my china white limbs almost sent me reeling inside like an animal burrowing underground after the comfort of hibernation… Given the situation, I think it would’ve been far more admissible for mine and everyone else’s sake to opt for the role of Santa Claus…Then again, who would’ve born the brunt of the jokes?
Who am I really kidding? Yes, I looked like an adopted child in the family photographs and I had what my mum kindly and diplomatically called a ‘Cate Blanchett‘ look, but nothing could intrude upon the joy of the embracing heat….It’s the kind that you long for in moments of bitter cold (say, in the icy streets of Latvia walking home from a Russian night club at three in the morning!), the kind that caresses your skin in a gentle soothing way. Even better, it was Christmas and I was home with my family, a crescendo to a time I count as some of the best days of my life .
Flying out of London by the skin of my teeth, through the thickest fog for decades, the visions I had played out in my head of a Christmas spent in Heathrow Departures had mercifully dissolved. I love the UK - especially Scotland, but I wasn‘t about to settle for cold ham from Marks and Spencers express!
I love it for the charm entrenched in every stone wall, narrow country road, grand city building and smile. I love it for the way the landscape lights up like a stage with ever changing hues as the tumultuous movement of the sky scatters different light. Most of all, I love Scotland for the people I left behind… the friends I made who shared in five months of mayhem, fun and adventure and whose place in my life will always hold firm.
I’m stating the obvious by saying that travelling puts you in a position to enjoy all the spectacular sights and experiences the world has to offer. However, I think, just as important, are the everyday differences and the things you come to appreciate more at home. While I loved listening to the constant pattering of rain on the roof in the mornings, there were some days I imagined I would wake up and hear the next door neighbours lawn mower on full blast - then I’d know it was a Saturday and the weather was good enough to be in the pool all day without even pulling open the curtains.
Today, after almost three months in the lingering summer heat and onslaught of uni work, that cosy, charmed and fantastically crazy, spontaneous life I had in Stirling can seem like a long way away. THAT IS, until I’m jolted back to reality by things like a message in the middle of the night (their ‘lunch time’) reporting the local ‘chat’ and plans for that evening’s festivities. I may be home and a very long way across the seas but the experience still burns brightly.
The whole exchange experience was richer and more fulfilling than I ever could’ve dreamed. It’s true that it becomes what you make it… You’ve got to put yourself out there, be confident and involved, but that all goes with the territory. Apart from my precious Scottish conglomerate of buddies, the other exchange students you’ll meet will be as special a part of your time as anything else. It is, after all, with them that you’ll find so much in common.
Without wanting this to sound at all like an ‘I’ve done’ list, for anyone thinking about doing an exchange, especially to this part of the world, this is what I managed to fit in. After flying into Heathrow in early August I spent a month travelling through Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
This was the big ‘solo’ experiment. A little daunting at first, I soon realised that arriving in a foreign city on your own is far more liberating than scary. It’s all down to you. You can spend eight hours aimlessly wondering down streets, happening upon the delights of daily life, decide to cycle 30km to the ’next’ Slovenian town’ without any opposition (maybe in this case someone checking on my sanity would’ve been useful) or days in museums without worrying about taking an hour to look at the paintings in one room. Once you’ve walked into one bar alone, ordered yourself a drink and started up a conversation with any unsuspecting person around you, it’s all plain sailing.
While the people I met, sometimes only for a few days at time, still colour so much of my experience, there are, I have to say, also huge benefits in the freedom of conveniently ‘excusing’ oneself from the company of others you may not be quite so enamoured with! My only tip - take ear plugs (there is a snoring epidemic amongst the youth travellers of today) and perhaps some air freshener (extreme cases!) for those occasions when perfectly lovely but very smelly festival returnees descend on Berlin dorms from a week in the rain with a bag full of wet dirty clothes. I’m not really that pedantic and am normally all up for a bit of travelling ‘grot’ but this case was really out of this world!
I then went on to Holland where I spent time with friends in my old village. Finally, it was time to head over to London and of course, up to Scotland for mid-September where the whole exchange experience only grew. From Scotland, in semester breaks, during quiet weeks, on weekends etc, I managed to bundle myself off to Ireland, Paris, Stockholm, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania and into the cars of long-suffering friends who became my personal tour guides. Apart from all the travel and exploring, just living and breathing a different routine and way of life is a gift in itself.
I lived on campus in a flat of seven. Australian, Chinese, Austrian, German and Scottish - we all got along like a house on fire…Socially, I can honestly say, I had the best times of my life. The Scottish sure know how to party and, as in any ‘travelling’ atmosphere, while exchange students are there firstly for the wider ‘academic’ experience, they’re also there to have a GOOD time! So as not to neglect my ’university’ experience in any way I’d have to say I took some of the most interesting classes I’ve ever had. From Hinduism to the great figures of Scottish history, I came out with much richer perspectives.
From dinner with my Tanzanian neighbours where we shared their prized passionfruit and banana wine, to sitting in lectures listening to the curl and flow of the Scottish accent, to literally dancing the night away, to road trips up to my friend’s house on the Fife coast, to walks through the softly coated heathered hills to the belly laughs and heartbreaking goodbyes - I will cherish that time forever.