November seemed to roll around early this year, and accompanying it was the St. Andrews’ Remembrance Day ceremony. Much like at Western, Remembrance Day is a solemn ceremony, and this past year St. Andrews commemorated the 100th Anniversary of World War I. A group of history students from the university are currently working on publishing a novel concerning World War I, and a fundraiser for their project was held. It was an awfully cold, blustery night for a pier walk, and it appeared at first as if not many students would attend. However, I was glad to arrive early, as soon the pier, as well as the hill overlooking it, was crowded with the red capes of St. Andrews students. A speech was made and, as with any important Scottish event, a marching band of bagpipers and drummers led the way to the pier, which was illuminated by one hundred flickering candle lanterns. Although the night seemed to show the first traces of winter, it was wonderful to see so many people turning out to show respect for those who fought, and are still fighting, for our countries.
I had already celebrated the Canadian Thanksgiving in October, but this year I got to celebrate the American Thanksgiving with my flatmates and friends as well. We enjoyed a home cooked meal for the first time in a while thanks to my American flatmate’s mother who was visiting St. Andrews and invited everyone over for an impromptu Thanksgiving feast. However, the holiday one must celebrate whilst studying in Scotland is none other than the feast day of St. Andrew, the saint for whom the university is named. There was a festival atmosphere on South Street as people gathered for a Christmas concert where colourful Scottish folk songs were played. We gathered with a group of friends, sipping mulled wine, a favourite winter beverage, to keep out the cold. The night seemed to be a kickoff to the holiday season, as it ended with the illumination of all the Christmas lights strung through the streets of St. Andrews.
In the festive spirit, my flatmates and I went on an adventure to Edinburgh to visit the European Christmas markets which were selling a variety of traditional handcrafted gifts. Although we were in Scotland’s capital city, the smell of Bratwurst lingered in the air on Princes Street, and stands were brimming with Russian dolls, porcelain, and handmade wooden crafts from Eastern Europe. There was, of course, Scottish wool as well and a greater variety of tartans than I have ever seen! After finding presents for family and friends, our visit turned into a spontaneous exploration of Edinburgh. We wandered down the Royal Mile and found ourselves partaking in a good, old-fashioned Scottish tradition, a novelty pub-crawl. We peered into the windows of the “smallest pub in the world”, Guinness Book of World Records approved! As expected, there wasn’t quite enough room for us so we visited a Frankenstein themed pub, perfectly designed to evoke the nostalgic feel of the original black and white film. A life-sized statue of the monster Frankenstein greeted us at the entrance and arched ceilings emulated the interior of a cathedral. The space was flooded with green light and the bar resembled a chemist’s lab, complete with its own “electric chair”, which one can “try out” as it blows steam and makes a rather terrifying noise. Coincidentally, our journey came to an end in a pub named “The Last Drop”, which is actually built on the location of the city’s last hanging gallows. Rather shockingly, there is even a noose framed on the wall. Altogether it sounds a bit morbid, but it was actually a very interesting night. Pubs are a huge part of social life in Scotland, and this is reflected in the way they are woven into the culture of Edinburgh, so even on a night out one can learn a little bit of history! We ended our escapade at a surprisingly charming hostel. I had never stayed at a hostel before, and so it was a really fun experience for me as well. The convenience of the hostel and the amiability of the other travellers is something that I will definitely remember for the future!
With all the celebrations, the last fleeting days of first semester were upon me. Both my Art History courses utilised final essays rather than exams, which had both advantages and disadvantages. The beauty of an exam is there is often a section where there is a right or wrong answer, while the appeal of an essay is that you have time to perfect the final piece of work. I found that I’ve used the library increasingly often, and as a result, I’ve grown more confident in my research savvy. As well, the many new experiences I’ve had since I arrived at St. Andrews has made me want to go beyond my comfort zone and explore new areas in my studies as well. I addressed a contemporary photographer in my portraiture class, which was an unusual move for me as it is quite a chronological contrast to the Renaissance paintings I would typically study. In this way, I feel that having so many new, eye opening experiences has made me realise that it is necessary to branch out and learn about many more things within the field of Art History.
Perhaps too quickly, first semester came to an end. In early December, my flatmates and I gathered around a Christmas tree constructed of paper cups to exchange Secret Santa gifts and open Christmas crackers. I really enjoyed being in residence this past semester, and as I boarded the plane back to Canada, I couldn’t help in some ways feeling a little homesick for the small place I had carved out in St. Andrews, and I was glad to know I would be returning for second semester.
Speaking of home, I was surprised at the amount of reverse culture shock I encountered after just one semester away. I realise now that it takes distance to see things more clearly, and while in Scotland the cultural changes seemed relatively small to adapt to, going home I realised just how different our society is. Never before did I fully comprehend the fast-paced, working lifestyle we have adopted in North America. Chain companies with long store hours and all hours’ fast food restaurants epitomise a life where we are constantly on the go. In St. Andrews, where almost everything closes at five and the grocery store only employs one person after nine, I realised right away things were not going to be so convenient. However, this situation also helped me to develop an appreciation for the value their society places on time spent outside of work, perhaps at home with family, or simply time to find a bit of calm each day. It was fascinating how this aspect of society was thrown into sharp contrast for me when I returned home.
I was able to experience a bit of European culture at home as I had an opportunity to visit the Michelangelo exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The exhibit displayed Michelangelo’s sketches, and compared his ambitions to that of the much later sculptor, Auguste Rodin. However, what I found most interesting in this exhibition was how telling Michelangelo’s sketches proved to be. To me, there is always an element of the “undone” when one observes a sketch, something about it that seems preliminary, but it is exactly this element which I think makes it so much easier to see the creative process unfolding on the page. Even though these were not Michelangelo’s masterpieces, his sketches were where he made mistakes and revised his work, almost like a map of the artist’s thoughts on paper. Despite this perception, some of Michelangelo’s sketches were developed to a complete appearance, proving just as immensely beautiful as his other works.
Christmas at home was wonderful! I was able to spend time with family and friends and share a bit of UK culture. I enjoyed all of our yearly Christmas traditions with my parents and cuddled my dog! It was kind of strange because even though I had been gone for almost half a year, it felt as if I had been home all along. I had so many stories to share and things to talk about in person, but somehow it was comforting that I felt as if everything picked up where it left off. Although, shockingly for Canada, there was no snow on the ground, the holidays still undoubtedly felt like Christmas!