As the sun rises in Scotland on the first of May, it illuminates a strange scene: hundreds of young men and women running screaming into the icy, frothing waters of the North Sea. Some of them are naked, most of them are drunk and all of them are cold. Towering behind them are the stately ruins of medieval castles and cathedrals. No, it’s not some Bacchanalian cult ritual; it’s tradition, man.
May Dip is one of many bizarre, ancient traditions at the University of St Andrews, a typically extravagant and exclusive event. Equipped with booze and good company, we stay up the entire night before, and when the sun rises — whether we're drunk, hungover, sleepy, whatever — we wade into the freezing sea.
I've been on exchange for a year, and it's still hard to explain this place, chock-full of peculiar idiosyncrasies and these weird traditions. Three small streets and thousands of students on a craggy, windswept coast; Seeing people you know constantly, everywhere, from the grocery store to the hospital. It’s the only place in the world I’ve gone from a crowded, thumping dance floor to a deserted seaside castle in the space of five minutes.
If I've learned anything over the past twelve months, it's that St Andrews is easy to fall in love with, particularly for North Americans. It's picturesque, romantic and so tiny you get intimately acquainted with every inch of it. Canadians and Americans alike wander around, starry-eyed with Anglophilia, rhapsodizing over the quaintness of it all: the accents, the pubs, the storm-swept beaches. It's the sort of setting that's made its way indelibly into Western pop culture, the kind of place you read about in everything from Harry Potter to Brideshead Revisited. And that charm never wore off, for me, stereotypical as it is. Every morning, I walked along the cobbled seaside streets to class, past the old stone buildings and the flurries of undergraduates in red gowns — and every morning, I marvelled at how lucky I was.
Of course, there's a danger in committing entirely to this idealism. Eventually, I became aware of a repellant, though fascinating, side to the town. It was the undercurrent of inherited wealth and fakery that sprung up here and there, the grinning, champagne shams reeking of elitism and exclusivity. Entitlement and mistreatment thrive in this atmosphere — as an editor at The Saint, St Andrews’ student newspaper, I looked into the culture of harassment that pervaded part-time work in the town.
Regardless, my exchange has been an incredible year. I've loved living in St Andrews, which is unlike anywhere I've lived before. I've done some of the most interesting, specialized studying of my life. I've made friends who have offered to put me up everywhere from Stockholm to Brisbane to New York. I hitchhiked across Central Europe, trekked through the Scottish Highlands, devoured tapas in Barcelona, snorkelled in Nice. I knocked back palinka in a Hungarian ruin bar; I quaffed limoncello beside a fountain in Rome. And equally important were all the days spent doing nothing in particular, chatting in pubs, walking along the pier, wandering aimlessly around Edinburgh.
Now, I’m sitting in Edinburgh Airport, whiling away the time until my flight back to Canada. It feels bizarre to be leaving. In some ways, I feel more at home here than I ever did at Western. Going on exchange was certainly the best decision I made as an undergraduate.
I'm not going to make an impassioned plea to go abroad, find yourself in the mountains, indulge in "wanderlust" or any of the other cringe-inducing aphorisms that travel writing seems to produce. Being an exchange student isn't necessarily a life changer, but it can be. It tells you a lot about yourself: how independent you are, the extent of your social ability and adaptability. It can jerk you loose from a narrow frame of reference or make you a pretentious, worldly twat. It might offer you opportunities you didn't know you wanted or introduce you to insecurities you didn't know you had. It makes leaving difficult, and even with my own brand of blithe optimism and terrible memory, I know I'm going to miss these people.
This year has brought into immense clarity an idea I already had bouncing around my head: long-term, I want to live and work in the U.K. It doesn’t feel like I’m leaving, because I’m not, really. I’m just taking an extended detour. Back soon, St Andrews — keep a pub seat warm for me.