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Vignettes from St Andrews

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October 30, 2014

10:22 PM

Over the course of my time studying abroad, so much has happened that the days blend together, even if those days consist of walks through ever-earlier sunsets on Victorian cobblestone streets. I thought the best way to impart a sense of life here would be through a series of independent vignettes connected largely by the singular absurdity that they all happened to me within the span of a few short weeks.

The Chance Encounter of Jamie

Scene: At St Andrews in a quaint bottle shop searching for a nice bottle of wine on a grey afternoon.

If St Andrews upholds one thing, it’s tradition. These traditions range from the wearing of red academic gowns to walks along the pier, but most importantly, these traditions include something called “Raisin.” Raisin is an annual event stemming from the tradition of Academic Parents, where third year students “adopt” first years (or exchange students), similar to sororities’ and fraternities’ bigs and littles. Raisin itself is a weekend devoted to the welcoming of the Academic Children to St Andrews by their Academic Parents (each student has an Academic Mother and an Academic Father). Many people have become familiar with the events of Raisin by its most prolific and widely shared component, which is the shaving foam fight. Both the tradition of Raisin Weekend and the name derive from a much older time when the parents were both social and academic mentors for the bejants/bejantines (first-year students at St Andrews). The parents would receive gifts of raisins for their troubles, as the student diet appears to have been typically poor even several hundred years ago.

Today, however, the only tradition of gift-giving which really remains is that the children give a bottle of wine to their Academic Mother. I was, naturally, going a tad out of my way to get something rather nice since I knew how much effort was going into the preparations. There I was in a small shop on one of the main streets of St Andrews, looking at wines, when I heard someone say, “Matt, is that you?” Surprised by a voice I didn’t immediately recognize, I turned around to see a face that looked oddly familiar. I soon discovered that this was my friend Jamie, who I had met in Montreal in Jan. 2013 at the annual McGill Model United Nations Conference. Aside from the initial shock, Jamie and I hadn’t become Facebook friends so his recognition was even more amazing, particularly when one considers that the Montreal Model UN Conference had about 2,000 attendees and our committee had about 200. As it turns out, I had met him when he was on his year abroad in America and he had since graduated and returned home to St Andrews, where he grew up.

Jamie and I got tea the other day, a pot for each of us. We started to catch up and had an absolutely marvelous time. We got on quite well in Montreal which was similar to how we’re getting along now. Jamie also has a car and offered to give me a ride to the Edinburgh Airport, should I need one — quite a useful thing, as it’s surprisingly difficult to get there without such a connection. And with that touch of absurdity, it seems that I met my first local in St Andrews not while studying abroad, but rather on an International Relations Club trip to Montreal two years ago.

The Just So Stories

Scene: Weighed down by a bunch of work, I pop into a small bookshop on a whim.

It had been a rather long day (as it occasionally is in college even without being an ocean away from home) and I was just returning from doing some shopping on the high street when I noticed a small bookshop. I’ve passed this bookshop many times before and have only stopped by once, but I have never bought anything. This time, I thought to myself that a bit of light reading would relieve my spirit of some heaviness it had been feeling of late, so I went in and after peeking about, I asked the shopkeeper if they had any short writings by Rudyard Kipling. As it turns out, they did, along with several unusual 1920s editions which were published before the Nazi Party’s rise to power. The deep red full-leather covers are embossed with a golden elephant head juxtaposed with a swastika, an ancient symbol of peace. The book was one of a series, but I chose to purchase only one: The Just So Stories. It’s a collection of light-hearted stories for children with titles such as “How the Camel Got His Hump” and “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.” With that find, I left the bookshop quite happy at the acquisition and I began to read the stories on my walk home, by the end of which I was chuckling at the obstinate camel and the reticent rhino.

The Black Tie Conundrum

Britain in general, but particularly St Andrews, is a much more formal place than the United States. At St Andrews, there is a formal black-tie ball approximately every two to three weeks. It is uncommon to go to many of these, but going to none is more uncommon. As such, I’ve been spending the past few weeks trying to figure out how I was going to get around this stumbling block. It appears I will finally give in to the sartorial pressures of St Andrews, the first of these concessions being the purchase of a rather warm Barbour jacket. I will also head off to Dundee to purchase a dinner suit so I can hopefully attend the Christmas Ball at least.

Additionally, this will provide a useful opportunity to visit a small town along the east coast of Dundee. Mentioned in a Dubliners song, the town was the site of the capsizing of a lifeboat in 1959 and it seems a waste to not visit and pay my respects at the mariner’s memorial there.

The Lack of an Autumn

Of all the things one misses from home, it seems that most of them can be cured with cool ranch Doritos. Some things, however, strike at the core of what will make a Virginia boy miss home. Something I’ve always expected and waited for with much anticipation is the beautiful Virginian autumn when the leaves change color and all of a sudden the sloping hills are awash with magnificent hues of red, yellow, green and brown. The sound of the leaves crunching underfoot as the crisp fall air brings the musty smell of their decomposition is almost as equally quintessential to a proper autumn day as the tapestry of color.

St Andrews doesn’t have any of that. At all, it seems. Trees here – which are rather lacking, in my opinion, to begin with – seem to have decided, en masse, that colours are overrated and that it would really be in everyone’s best interest if the leaves would sort of shrivel up and fall off the trees as quickly as possible. This has resulted in the ransacking of my favourite time of year and the elimination of the magic that lies in the air when all is still except for the sound of leaves underfoot as a solitary hiker walks on a trail along the Blue Ridge.

There are some things no amount of cool ranch Doritos can fix.

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  • Matt Heffernan