Imagine you’re 18 and leaving home for the first time. Your zone of authority has most likely been relegated to one room of the house for your entire life. It probably doesn’t have a lockable door, or if it does the rest of the household doesn’t take kindly to its employment. You may have decorator’s privileges, but not without inviting a stream of unsolicited opinions as to the quality of your particular tastes. Some of them probably have veto rights. You likely cannot come and go at your pleasure but must apply to the board for approval of your intentions, however well-planned or purely whimsical. They inevitably demand more detail than you’re comfortable or prepared to produce on a regular basis. Maybe your music bothers them, or your friends, or your gaming, or your internet search history. Maybe theirs bothers you. The concept of privacy? Veritably unfathomed. Heading into one’s first home-away-from-home, the bar hasn’t been set too high. Friendly roommates and you’re golden.
Now imagine you’re 36 and haven’t had to capitulate to anyone’s house rules in return for food and shelter in roughly a decade. You’ve managed to keep yourself alive, to varying degrees of success, for a while now. Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we do it anyway because creating your own home remains the province of the vertically advanced and the youthfully impaired. You can leave your bed unmade and your clothes on the floor and eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner – all without bringing your maturity into question because no one is the wiser. You can infiltrate the fridge or commandeer the kitchen at any time, day or night, without petitions or excuses. Bedeck the walls in whatever apparel appeals without answering for it. Finally acquire that massaging-recliner or four-poster bed you still resent Santa for withholding. Find the picket-fenced yard, start a fur family, develop that home theater or game room or man cave or lady lair you’ve always dreamed of. This is why we trade in our badges for business cards, flying capes for collared shirts, and home-cooked meals for freezer food – to be kids, er, kings of our own castles.
And this king has been unceremoniously uncrowned.
I admit, I was seduced by the brochure. Sure, I can handle a dorm… if it’s IN A CASTLE. I’m sure the bay-window reading nook and rustic rock fireplace will compensate for whatever trifling gnats the neighbors may make of themselves. Arriving in St Andrews, I lugged my backpack and two suitcases off the bus and, after a cursory scan of the horizon, made for the nearest towering, turreted stronghold. Lower the drawbridge, Dunwyn, I’ve finally arrived.
But the drawbridge never descended. Although the goal was in sight, it remained inaccessible and impenetrable. I wound my way around a large green, up a hill, through a parking lot, past the campus field, and finally arrived at the gate which was, rather unwelcomingly, sealed shut. Making my way around the perimeter I tried various doors with no success. Finally I followed my ears to a nearby spot of activity and made inquiries. A staff person led me around to the back of the beckoning stone masonry where a no-nonsense, asylum-looking structure was hiding in its shadow and impersonating its name. “The main building is under renovation” the girl explained chirpily. That wasn’t mentioned in the leaflet. Sorry Mario…
The room was, to phrase it generously, a shoe-box. Four white walls, some recycled office furniture, and a stripped mattress. One of the more scandalizing discoveries I’ve made about Saint Andrew’s accommodations is that they are strictly BYOB: Buy Your Own Bedding. They generously offer bedroom and bathroom sets for your purchasing convenience. Determined to bargain-hunt, I spent the first week sleeping on thrift-store throw pillows and trying to turtle under a jacket.
Justice in the asylum is maintained by on-site officials aptly called “Wardens.” Ornamentation is absolutely opposed by the tricky tactic of forbidding all forms of fastening – from tacks right down to poster putty. Bring a pile of family photos to stave off the homesickness? They kindly supply a pin board for that which, incidentally, is also utilized for general notices and regulations, not to be removed or obstructed. I figured I could rig something up with string and clothespins, but the room has been meticulously scrubbed of any lasso-able extensions you might utilize to commit something so scandalous.
Despite the fact that the hallway looks like something out of a horror movie, it quickly becomes a happening social hub for the new arrivals, which I have the benefit of participating in from either side of the sociably eavesdroppable walls. The tiny window offers a welcome reminder of the breathably spacious outdoors, but the curtains look like they’ve been upcycled from Aunt Gertrude’s old school dresses, themselves upcycled from an antique tablecloth inspired by the lovely color patterns of an upchucked potato stew. One of my study abroad organizers, herself a former international student, raved about the welcome package included with her room, offering practical items like a UK sim card. I find a pinstriped french-fry bag filled with a lollipop, bubblegum, and a few pieces of hard candy. Malcom Gladwell would be proud.
But these are mere trifles. The real surprise comes three days into my incarceration when a sharp knock awakes me from blessed semi-slumber beneath my luxurious hoodie-blanket. Through my sleep-addled brain and the benefit of hotel experience I suddenly ascertained the word, “housekeeping!” and immediately ejected an emphatic, “No, thank you!” The door swung wide and a woman poked her head in. “I need to get the bins,” she stated patly. I sat in my shoe-box as startled as a hounded hare, and nearly as naked. “Sure,” I mumbled, shell-shocked and dream-dazed. “Go right ahead.”
In consecutive days, the incident repeated itself courtesy of the managerial staff and the porter. I studiously composed a pleading appeal to the management to inform me of impending appointments, but soon learned that students do not require such extravagances when my request was politely ignored. Welcome to the playhouse – it’s great to be a kid again.
The kitchen oven proves another insurmountable hurdle for my simple American mind. There are two separate knobs, each with its own little series of incomprehensible symbols. A pro-Googler, I soon learn about the wide array of conduction methods of which the modest English oven is capable. I expertly select the fan symbol, set the temperature after a quick conversion to Celsius, and watch my dinner sit in the dark, getting colder. But wait! Everything, and I do mean everything has a wall-switch in Scotland. Yes – here it is, marked: “cooker”! I flip it triumphantly. A little while later finds me improvising with two cookie sheets sandwiched over the graciously functionable stove. (Turns out English ovens can’t cook without knowing the time, and you have to depress a cleverly randomized set of buttons to do it.)
Not to be shown up by the kitchen, the bathroom has its own set of hurdles in store. It consists of a small room with toilet, sink and showerhead. The latter is hung just to the right of the throne in a deformed-diamond shape corner of the oddly-angled room. It’s partitioned off by a curtain which falls about a foot short of the floor, and a four-millimeter depression in the ground tile. These are there to present toe-stubbing opportunities and the illusion of containment. Don’t be fooled: the entire bathroom is your bathtub. Your toilet will be standing in a centimeter of water on the memory-foam bath mat. I initially sought to combat this unwelcome wading pool with sand bags strategically placed for maximum trippage, but ultimately found that an extra-long curtain resolved the issue more gracefully. Score one for Ravenclaw.
The shower diamond is about 30 inches across at its maximum width and barely sufficient to contain even a skinny sneetch like myself. A large horizontal pipe additionally protrudes into the space with adjustment knobs at either end for activation and temperature, respectively. The pipe gives literal meaning to the phrase, “piping hot”, so I spend my mornings skillfully tetrising myself between this and the lecherous curtain. Most tragically of all, my beloved hand-held showerhead is conspicuously absent from this Scottish dormicile. I’m forced to resort to the medieval method of standing in the stream.
So far, this grand new adventure proves commendably challenging. Level one starts off with a bang, dumping me into the playing field without even a tutorial (who’m I kidding? I never use those) and forcing me to relearn the basics. But I expect no less from this strange new Scottish world. The princess may be in another castle, but the game hasn’t defeated me yet.