The Most Scottish Night of the Year

One of the most valuable aspects of going to University in a different country is something that I can't learn from writing an essay. In fact, it's something I can't learn from a lecture in my Scottish Studies class.

The cultural insight that I've gained from living abroad and immersing myself in the traditions and idiosyncrasies of Scottish life is unmatched by any learning experience I've ever had.

But at times I do feel as if I'm just living here without fully taking advantage of Scotland's distinctive customs. And as much as people like to assume that Scotland isn't much different from the United States in its culture, I'd like to point out one particular tradition that sets Scotland apart from the rest of the world: the famous (or is it infamous?) Burns Supper.

Going to a traditional Burns Supper has been on my mental bucket list since the moment I touched down in Edinburgh. A celebration of the life and poetry of Robert Burns, this night to remember (or forget, in some cases) is a highlight of the year for many living in Scotland. Anyone who's been to this event before will probably tell you that it's an incredibly unique and equally messy affair.

The Burns Supper I attended was fairly formal, as it was affiliated with Edinburgh's Officer Training Corps- okay, it was black tie so I guess it was really formal. However, it's important to note that a Burns Supper can range in formality from a simple flat dinner to a fancy three course dinner at a hotel. Either way, though, the night is sure to be a blast- particularly because there's a lot of alcohol involved (sorry, Mom).

Because the dinner is particularly traditional- and very strange from an outsiders perspective if you ask me- I'll use this post to run through what generally goes down, step by step. I hope that if you're not Scottish you find this event as fascinating as I do, and if you are Scottish, I hope you find my take as an American on the Burns Supper to be entertaining at the very least.

First off, let's talk about tartan- a fabric which both men and women will wear to a Burns Supper either in the form of a kilt, a pair of trousers, or a shawl. There are so many different types of the traditional plaid print and they all have different meanings- for example, there are "family" tartans, as well as "regimental" tartans if you're in the military. Not only are the colors different, but the sizes and patterns of the plaid vary depending on the type.

Alright, you caught me- I don't have any Scottish heritage and I certainly am not in the military. So what tartan can I get away with wearing without being labeled as a poser? Well you know how American colleges have official logos, colors, and merchandise? The University of Edinburgh has it's own official tartan- and that's exactly what I wore over my shoulders. This beautiful blue, red, and black shawl was custom made for me because I'm special (just kidding- it's because I'm too small to wear the standard size).

It wouldn't be a Burns Supper (or really any truly Scottish event) without some whiskey. An intimidating liquor to say the least, I generally associate whiskey with the prospect of burning my throat. But it was on the table, so it was imperative that we must drink it after the first toast. Despite the pain that my throat endured during that toast, the floral notes of the whiskey were actually fairly pleasant.

As always, the food was my favorite part of the night. And as expected, all of the food served that night was very traditionally Scottish. We started off with a bowl of "cocker leeky" soup- literally "chicken and leek" soup-  and moved onto the obvious main course of haggis, neeps, and tatties (neeps and tatties meaning turnips and potatoes, respectively). The dessert we were served was quite confusing, and no one at my table seemed to know the name of it- but a quick Google search tells me that this raspberry and cream-based dessert is called Cranachan.

Image credit: Jamie Oliver

Perhaps the most traditional aspect of a Burns Supper is the "address to the haggis"- a sort of ceremonial blessing of Scotland's national pride. In this tradition, the chef presents the haggis (sheep stomach and all) on a plate, and parades it around the room, swinging by each table, accompanied by a bagpiper. The two approach one table, setting down the haggis, after which a third person reads a poem by Robert Burns which expresses the poet's appreciation of the delicacy.

In addition to the address to the haggis, a few other poems by Burns were read- poems which celebrated love, friendship, and the country of Scotland itself. If I'm honest, though, I really couldn't understand any of these readings due to everyone's heavy Scottish accents (I swear most of them put their accent on stronger to emphasize the Scottishness of the evening).

The funniest moment of the night was the "toast to the lassies" and the "reply from the lassies" in which one guy would poke fun at the girls, and vice versa. I won't say much more on this aspect as most of it was pretty NSFW, but I did find it hilarious, despite being a guest and not knowing so many people at the dinner.

Of course, the night was topped off with a few more trips to the bar and some ceilidh dancing to work off all the calories from the haggis. As I've said before, I absolutely love to ceilidh dance. However, I've been getting much more into reeling lately (a different style of Scottish dancing) so my love for traditional dance is currently being equally distributed between the two.

Some of my friends from home joke that I'm "becoming more Scottish" as I spend more time here. I'm not sure if I completely agree with that statement since I’ll always be an American. But it sure is fun to pretend to be Scottish sometimes ;)


Falling Down, Getting Up, and Skiing On

You know those adventurous girls you see in the movies that always catch the cute guy's eye? The surfer-girls with unreal tans and beachy waves, or the snowboarders who don't mind getting a little bit bruised. 

Well, I've never really been one of those girls. Shocker, isn't it? 

I'd have to admit that I haven't done anything physically adventurous in years. I think it's that once you pass a certain point in your life when it's socially acceptable to learn particular skills, it becomes hard to put yourself out there to try something new. Because of that fear of failure (and subsequent embarrassment), it's safe to say that I was absolutely terrified to go skiing. 

On the picturesque drive up to Stratton Mountain in Vermont, I was thinking about everything that could go wrong. From falling off the ski lift, to tumbling down the hill, to not having the strength to ski on the flat bits. 

And you know what? All of those exact things happened. But you know what else? I was totally fine. And I came out of it a better skier (let's just note that I had set the bar pretty low from the start- but hey, it was an improvement!). 

When we were picking up our skis, I remember the clerk asking me if I had ever gone skiing before. I said yes, but that it was a long time ago, followed by apologetically stating that I wasn't very good. As he fitted me in some very swanky skis, I suggested that I just might be better off in a sled. I wasn't getting out of it so easily but at least I tried. 

What helped was that my boyfriend had a decent amount of experience on the slopes and could guide me through the trials and tribulations that all novice skiers face. As in, he shouted "Pizza!" at me when I was going too fast, and let me run him over when I had lost all control. By the end of the day, however, "pizza" was no longer a part of my vocabulary and I was parallel skiing at least half the time. I'm not sure if it's impressive that I was going really fast, or that I had still yet to master my command of the slopes. 

But perhaps what helped even more was the incredibly friendly staff at Stratton who pushed me up the very small incline to the ski lifts when I couldn't find the strength to pull myself up on my poles. They even remembered me every time I came back to the lifts, congratulating me on the one blue-level slope I managed to survive. 

Of course, my favorite part of the day had to be lunch- and let me tell you, Stratton's brand-new food court is worth checking out. It offers everything you could ever want after a day of being cold and tired- from hot entrees, to gourmet sandwiches, to some wicked good clam chowder among many other hearty soups. The food here is definitely not to be missed.   

I think what I realized I liked most about skiing was the atmosphere of it all. Stratton, in particular, is a really inviting environment that makes newcomers feel as at ease about taking to the slopes as the regulars do. You don't have to be the best skier in the world to enjoy Stratton- and you can definitely go at your own pace. 

Despite all my fears about skiing as an adult novice, I found the day to be more than just enjoyable, but something I'd like to do again! I realized that once you fall down, shake the snow out of your gloves, and find your balance again, everything could only get better. I may not be a full-time ski-bum, but I think I've gained a newfound appreciation for a day on the snowy slopes. 

Thank you so much to the team at Stratton Mountain Resort for a wonderful day of skiing! I am honored to be able to share experiences that I truly enjoy here on the blog with my readers. 


Why the University of Edinburgh Should Be Your Top Study Abroad Choice

Word on the street is, it's about time that American college students started applying to study abroad programs. And since I've been attending a University that's a fairly popular choice among Americans, I thought I'd provide some unsolicited persuasion (as I always do).

Before I delve into the numerous reasons why Edinburgh (both the city and the University) is a wonderful place for a study abroad experience, I'd like to debunk one sweeping generalization that people have said to me about the United Kingdom that really gets on my nerves:

"The UK isn't really all that different from the US."

Whoa. That's a pretty big- and rather unfair- judgement. Sure, the language is the same. But at times, Edinburgh can feel just as foreign to me as a country in which I don't speak the language (and let's not forget that the Scot's have a language of their own). I'd also be quick to point out that despite the similarities of the British and the Americans that might be apparent on the surface, the cultural differences are certainly there if you spend enough time in the UK.

So the UK and the US are pretty different in their own unique and amazing ways okay? That's not the main point of this post though, so if you need further proof I'd like to direct you to blog posts here, here, and here.

Alright, onto the convincing!

You can really get "stuck in."

Perhaps one of the most unique elements of studying abroad at a UK University like Edinburgh is that you won't feel like an exchange student. As opposed to going to the "American University of *insert country name here*" where you'll likely spend most of your time with other study abroad students, Edinburgh provides the opportunity for you to interact with local students (whether they're from Scotland, England, or elsewhere). Instead of being isolated within your "study abroad crew" you can join a sport or society whose members are a mix of full-time and exchange students (to be honest, our running club is probably more welcoming to study abroad kids than anyone else!). You'll really become a student at the University of Edinburgh and have the full Scottish experience- rather than the American version of a foreign experience.

The best (and coldest!) club around.

The city is beautiful- but there's countryside too!

If you're nervous about transitioning from a campus-based school to more of a city school, but still want to see what the city's all about, then Edinburgh is the perfect place for you. A medium-sized city with history at it's core, Edinburgh doesn't come off as intimidating- rather, it is welcoming in it's charm. Not only is the size of the city manageable on it's own, but just a 20 minute drive outside the center provides you with picturesque Scottish countryside. We really do have the best of both worlds here.

There's no (complete) language barrier.

Even though I did argue earlier that the language in Scotland (and even the rest of the UK) can be quite different at times, the fact that there's no "full" language barrier is actually to a study abroad student's benefit. I never really understood why people would study in a country where they know none of the language- not only is it a major headache, but it really limits your interaction with locals, which is kind of the point of studying abroad isn't it? So if languages aren't your thing, then Edinburgh couldn't be more perfect. And if languages are your thing? Then I dare you to master Gaelic or Scots.

Living costs are reasonable.

This is a good one for the parents out there. We all know that American colleges charge extortionate amounts of money for tuition and housing (if you were paying for that fancy dining hall yourself you'd probably think twice about skipping a meal). Even as an exchange student in University housing at Edinburgh, you'll likely be cooking for yourself. That means that if you do your grocery shopping right, you'll probably be saving tons of money. And even though you'll have to be buying alcohol yourself (say so long to frat parties), Edinburgh's nightlife prices are a lot cheaper than London or New York, and you might come back home with more responsible drinking habits and a deeper knowledge of wine or whisky (no promises though).

Those cheap Friday cocktails at Montpellier's are calling your  name.

You can visit me!

This is quite possibly the main reason I'm writing this post. While I won't be studying abroad next year, my master plan is to have tons of friends come to Edinburgh (whether for school or a weekend trip) so I don't have to leave this fantastic city that I like to call my home away from home.

Me! One of the many reasons why you should come to Edinburgh. Also note the #legality.

P.S. If you're thinking of coming to Edinburgh for study abroad, don't hesitate to shoot me an email (in my About section above) or post a comment below!


New Year's In New York

When I told people that my boyfriend and I would be ringing in 2016 in New York City, I was met with one of two responses. Non-New Yorkers would exclaim, "Wow, that's amazing! You'll never forget it." Anyone from New York, or who lives there, would say, "Good luck. You'll never forget it."

Okay, so maybe celebrating New Year's in one of the world's most iconic cities was a little bit ambitious. At least, that's what I thought when I was planning the trip almost completely at the last minute. In the end, though, I found that despite what native New Yorker's warned us of, visiting the big city over just two days was far more manageable than I had initially thought it would be.

So, before I get into the highlights of the trip I thought I would share a few things that I've learned about traveling during busy times of the year in big cities:

Firstly, give yourself time- more time than you need- to move from place to place. You never know what could happen on the subway, and even if you're walking with your GPS glued to your hand you could easily make a wrong turn. This also allows you to take some diversions along the way without sacrificing your plan.

As convenient as public transit can be, try to walk as much as you can. It'll save you a boatload of money. Only take the subway when you really need to- for example, when you're wearing four inch heels and don't want to mess up your perfect hair. When you ration your transportation costs, you'll realize how much it can add up.

Don't pay an arm and a leg for accommodation- instead, try a hostel. We stayed with Hostelling International at their modern (and quite frankly, huge) hostel in the Upper West Side. The UWS is one of my favorite neighborhoods in New York, as it is a lot quieter and less hectic than the rest of the city. The HI hostel provided the perfect escape from the busier parts areas, while still retaining that big-city hotel feel.

And most importantly, be flexible. I'm not the most "chill" person when it comes to traveling. That is to say, I attempt to plan out every minute of every day and stress out if things don't go according to plan. But because we planned this trip so quickly, I learned to let go and just let things happen.

Now, onto the fun part- photos!

We opted out of taking the subway and decided to take a walk through Central Park on the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Even in the winter, Central Park is majorly impressive in its sheer size and beauty.  There are so many little paths to explore!

There's also an amazing view of the city from the park's reservoir.  

Much like everything in New York, the Met was absolutely huge. As much as I love Renaissance artwork, I think my favorite part of the museum was the section with older French furniture. It was a bit quieter than the main parts of the building, so it provided some much needed relief from the crowds. Also, apparently taking a photo sitting on the steps of the Met is a thing because of Gossip Girl. Who knew?

I just had to take at least one suggestion from my friend who goes to university in New York during this trip. And of course the recommendation was the one about the "best cookies in the City" from Levain Bakery. And let me tell you- these were the most crazy delicious cookies I had ever had, and they were well worth the wait.

Of course, we had to go to an edgy restaurant for our New Year's dinner. At least, a restaurant that was "edgy" by our standards. Dim lighting and an innovative yet unpretentious menu made The Milling Room the perfect dinner spot for a special night.

The night was topped off with a stunning fireworks display in Central Park. It was truly a night to remember.

The next morning, we hopped on the Staten Island Ferry (which is free, in case you broke college students were wondering) and took in the city sites from the warmth of a boat. When we docked on Staten Island, a lot of people just turned around and went back to Manhattan on the next boat. We, however, decided to stick around. And it's a good thing we did because the absolute best views of the city can be seen from the Island. 

The 9/11 First Responder's Memorial was another one of the many reasons why you should stick around on Staten Island.

As this was my boyfriend's first time in New York City (as well as America), we just had to do the touristy thing and visit Time's Square- I swear it was his idea! But I'll be honest- visiting the M&M Store was mine.

Grand Central was a last minute addition to our itinerary, but was definitely one of my favorite parts. It's so strange to think that a place that is so beautiful and iconic can be something that commuter's just pass through on a daily basis. 

I think it's worth mentioning that before we left the city, we managed to snag an invite to an exclusive New York house party. Just kidding- it was just my brother's friend's birthday party. But it was on the Upper West Side and there were lots of artsy musicians there! And, most importantly, there were endless piles of bagels. 

Despite any anxieties and preconceived ideas I had about visiting New York at New Year's, the trip ended up being one of the best short vacations I've had in quite a while. Everyone was right- it's something I'll truly never forget.   

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