When you come back to a place after a long period away, or even a short one, you always expect things to be different. You expect things to have changed, to show some visual proof of the passage of time. After a year away, you wonder if the problems that used to exist – the leaky faucets, construction zones, faulty technologies… will have ceased to be problems. You ponder whether your favorite venues will still exist in the places and the state that you left them. Your life becomes a living game of Spot-the-Difference. Is this a new fixture? That wasn’t there before… Since when did The Apprentice start operating out of the White House?
Returning to my home campus, however, perplexed me by its stark absence of any evident change. I had disrupted routine and relocated to another country for an entire year, yet I was able to resume my former life as though the intervening months had never happened. Everything looked as it had looked. Everything proceeded as it had always done. Here I was, driving to school, parking in Foothill lot, walking down University drive. Here I was, sitting at a desk in Dwinelle Hall, logging into BCourses, signing up for Sections. Here I was, looking up at Sather Tower, buying prints at Bancroft library, paying my respects to the Last Dryad. It felt like I had traveled through time rather than space, and returned to exactly the same point in time that I’d left. Scotland began to feel more the dream it had been when I’d left; an alternate reality that had retracted.
If there was a lightning bolt moment that changed who I am as a person over the course of my time abroad, I probably won’t realize it until I’m older and looking back at the decisions I’ve made and what influenced them. Maybe I’ll pursue a PhD in a niche field of study and think, “This is because of that class that I took back in Scotland.” Or maybe I’ll go into politics and realize that my style of communication was inspired by the candid manner of Scottish Prime Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Or maybe I’ll notice that I’ve developed a habit of eating ice cream exclusively in the snow, because it takes me back to the East Sands of St. Andrews, watching the sleet tumble in off the ocean like a spray of sea foam from a dark cloud that has merged with the sea.
I do know, however, that the last year has changed me. Setting aside the obvious differences in casual attire, my lifestyle in Scotland was a little different from the status quo in California. Perhaps the biggest difference was transitioning from a car culture to a car-free existence, and learning how to remain mobile. During my previous semester in London, I relied exclusively on the London Underground railway, aptly known as “The Tube”. Naturally this wasn’t available in Scotland, so I had to learn to navigate by foot, bus and rail, often relying on multiple systems of transport in a single journey. To get to Edinburgh, for example, required boarding a particular bus line going in the correct direction at the necessary hour to deliver me to the rail station in time for my train, and then finding the correct platform and boarding the appropriate carriage. Once I had managed all that, I had to be sure to get off at the right stop – an easy thing to neglect as you stare off into the scenery to the soundtrack of a favorite album, wholly oblivious to mundane considerations of stoplights and street-signs. And Edinburgh was a fairly simple objective; getting anywhere more elusive raised the stakes to another level.
The entire affair requires a fair degree of planning and coordination, and once I’d gotten the knack of it I felt no small degree of accomplishment. Realizing that I could get around without a vehicle was not only liberating; it raised my confidence and sense of capability. As we grow up, we gradually accustom ourselves to the routine of our culture, growing a little more able with each skill we acquire. But at some point, the learning curve tapers and we become so comfortable with routine that any deviation from it is daunting. We know what we’re good at, and giant leaps into the unknown are rarely one of them. So having to relearn something as basic as how to get from point A to point B when there’s no car parked five feet from the front door, waiting to conduct me directly to whatever distant doorstep I desire, was as intimidating as it was empowering.
When I left for Scotland, excitement mingled with trepidation. I was realizing a goal I had been nurturing for eight years; I had been anxious to return to Scotland ever since I had departed it. Yet as the date of departure arrived I was deflated by an overpowering wave of guilt at the friends and family I was abandoning to pursue this dream, and the sacrifices that they were making to enable me. A heavy knot of foreboding settled in my chest, as I worried over what would transpire in my absence, while I was too far away to have any control or effect on situations unfolding. What was I letting go of? What would I be coming back to? The knot lingered for the first few months, as everyone adjusted to the change. Both my mother and my cats had episodes of ill health that I flailed frantically from across the globe to influence. Fortunately, the episodes passed and a new shade of equilibrium was restored. The knot slowly unraveled.
In 2009, it was about the point at which I had established this new equilibrium that I had to turn around and leave the terrain I was just finding my feet on. Three months is a torment; only long enough to get a handle on a new life and revert at the moment reintegration starts to represent a challenge. The year gave me ample time to settle into my new life, to exhilarate in it, and to miss what I’d left behind, without missing out on what I’d obtained. I felt satisfied, and ready to resume my old life and loved ones. Yet I still grieved for the world I’d be leaving behind. I also felt a certain anxiety about going back to a culture that had become a stranger to me; the president was elected while I was away, and the cultural landscape was becoming like a foreign country to the one that I had left. In some ways, Scotland felt more in line with the political climate that was familiar to me under the administration that had reigned during the eight years preceding my departure.
At some point, I became less lost in an exotic land, and more at home. The political climate, and universal healthcare, in particular, were alien to my experience on arrival. But as I came to understand the nuances of Scottish parliament, which I was fortunate to observe up-close during a critical snap election, and as I came to rely on the advantages of universal health care, these things came to be comprehensible and, in some ways, indispensable. These, along with the vastly more comprehensive and interconnected network of public transit, were perhaps the most critical differences to my country of origin. But I came to depend on them, and to see how the weaknesses of our own system might be improved by considering the efficacy of alternative methods. Scottish government, healthcare, and transit all have their own issues, but by viewing the system as a sort of control experiment along side our own we can more easily perceive what is most and least effective, why, and how we might adapt the strengths of each approach to our mutual benefit. This is, of course, one of the great advantages of travel; discovering the universal qualities of human kind as well as the unexpected disparities between cultures. Just as different individuals can learn from each other while retaining their own distinctive flair, so nations can build toward a more functional society by drawing from the styles of each and making it their own. Discovering new countries, like meeting new people, is always an exhilarating opportunity for discovery and growth.
But if there’s one overarching lesson that I have taken away from this journey, it’s that I’m fortunate not to be British. While I swim in an ecstasy of ancient castles, clock towers, cathedral spires and misty moors, the locals find only the mundane, and see just an ordinary world where I will always find magic. It is impossible not to take for granted the air you breathe, the only landscape you’ve ever known. And that is why exploration flips the lights on upstairs… makes us alive. Within a matter of months, I began to grow accustomed to the rugged stone masonry, the corner pubs, the cobblestone streets, the distant sound of carillon bells and bagpipes… But as my departure date approached, these aspects grew steadily more vibrant, as though someone were raising the dimmer switch behind the entire facade. They became ephemeral again, and consequently their significance, and the pleasure I drew from them, grew in inverse-proportion to the time that remained. As I watched the natives sulking past the scene with their heads down and eyes blind to the wonders surrounding, I knew the treasure of not belonging. I stood and stared. I struggled to memorize the dream before it faded.
On my last day at Berkeley, I sat for a four hour exam in Formal Logic. Eager to liberate myself, I evacuated the building before assessing the irritant of my bladder. I was passing Evans Hall when I realized it would be folly to commit myself to bay area traffic before addressing the situation, so I altered course, tracing a path I had walked many times in semesters of yore. Evans is your standard cinder-block structure, on the whole, with the sort of conventional American bathroom stalls that offend foreigners and nationals, equally, by the enormous gaps beneath the stall and the floor that admit every sound, smell, and prospective peeping Thomas. Thankfully, the less-trafficked upper story has a smaller facility that is less frequently used, as I’d learned when I’d sat for classes here, years earlier.
I sauntered up the curling sidewalk, broached the double doors, bypassed the elevators, and took two sharp lefts down a dim, L-shaped hallway, envisioning the faded pair of blue stalls across a worn tile floor, and flanked by a row of dilapidated sinks with paint cracked and flaking. But suddenly, I was someplace else. In front of me was a brightly-lit, contemporary black counter-top with a series of embedded sinks with shining chrome faucets, each with tiny digital screens above their automated spouts. Beyond was a corridor of toilet stalls, their latching doors nearly as flush to the floor as the solid walls between them. These would qualify as proper Wash Closets – European style!
My ablutions concluded, I exited the anomaly into an utterly unaltered foyer, business carrying on there just as it always had, oblivious to the incongruously ornate and inexplicably exotic phenomenon of construction nestled conspiratorially behind a deeply unassuming wall. I do not know what quirk of administrative financing funneled money into an obscure restroom on the extreme edge of campus, but I thank whatever absurd fairy of architecture manifested it in that unsuspecting space. At least now I know I’ve been away, and from that I can rest assured: Scotland really happened.