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November 8, 2000:

Scotland's great, but Princeton's better

By Emily D. Johnson '01

I spent my junior spring at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which kicks Princeton's butt for age (founded 1411), beauty (sunshine, snow, and rainbows - all at once), and golf meccadom. I loved it, especially the much-needed break from the stress of Princeton academic life.

Caption: Emily Johnson '01 is bundled up against the Scottish weather for a weekend field trip to Portsoy, Scotland.

But even better, somehow, I realized that I missed Tigertown. The food is a given. As much as I like haggis and fried Mars bars and corn-topped pizza and custard for three meals a day, Campus Club dinners held a special place in my heart last semester. I also missed 24-hour computer access, not having to pay for every computer print out, and computer lab staff who realize that e-mail does have academic uses. I missed students who ask questions in class (unlike the stodgy Brits) and Hoagie Haven and T-Sweets. I missed the Prince!

I missed Garden Theater class movie nights, where everyone in the audience is an '01 and they can relate to things like Chris Rock and the New Jersey Turnpike. (Try watching Being John Malcovich with two Scottish girls and a bloke from Manchester.) I missed being around people who realize that Jerry Springer and Colonel Sanders are not typical Americans. I even missed the library. I especially missed the library being open on the weekends.

Don't get me wrong here - branching out culturally was fantastic. I learned that the purpose of a dart game is not, in fact, to get as close to the center as possible. In Scotland, to be pissed is to be drunk, not angry, and "double fisting it" refers to sexual acts, not drinking habits, and when my geology professor told us to be alert on a field trip he meant look out for a good pub. Socialized health care does have advantages because it looks out for the poor; you can tell an American from a Brit on the street by the perfect teeth, and a 50-year animosity still smolders between the English and the Germans. I learned that the British cannot make proper ketchup. I learned that soccer is worth fighting over. I learned (by hearsay) that a real Scot wears nothing under his kilt.

Any student who studies abroad will tell you that she got "perspective." To me this means a new way of looking at yourself, your political beliefs, your culture, your gender, your eating habits, your education. For example, British university students pick one academic subject and stick to it for four years, learning colossal amounts of sophisticated and detailed information about their subjects and very little about anyone else's. This meant that in the geology department, I, the liberal arts major, came off as a Superidiot who knew nothing about rocks. "Ummm. . . . you're really a geology major?" I got asked again and again. "Yeah, I am, I swear," I answered. "Oh," they said, unconvinced. "But you don't know anything about sandstone?. . .And you're taking. . . Women in Medieval England?" For the first half of the semester, the geology students called me "The American" and politely left me out of the technical conversations.

On my side I thought they were all ignorant because they knew nothing about economics or Spanish or anthropology. But after I went on two voluntary field trips and attended as many Friday night pub runs as possible, we reconciled our academic differences and realized that both systems have a lot to offer.

For Princeton students, I think time abroad is especially important, in part to practice the broadminded and international ideas we are taught and in part to widen the narrow social experience a lot of us have had growing up.

That may mean seeing violence in Johannesburg, a different sense of time in Latin America, or religious tension in Northern Ireland, where city curbs are sometimes painted blue or red to designate Catholic or Protestant affiliations.

It may mean seeing something as basic as what I saw in Scotland: a self-perpetuating and fundamentally non-American system of small land area, public transportation, high gas prices, nonexistent suburbs, and lots of walking.

If you get the chance to visit St. Andrews, do it. It sits on the wide and windy Firth of Forth. It has been the home of golf since the 15th century. It has 500-year-old office buildings allowing my history professor, an adamant feminist who wears blue eye shadow and graduated from Oxford before they gave doctorates to women, to run her classes from Mary, Queen of Scot's former bedroom. Still, a semester-long visit there was enough for me. Hearing a Scottish accent makes me homesick like the dickens, but I'm glad to be back here.

Emily apologizes to the Scots for lumping them together with the English. Complain at edj@princeton.edu.

Emily especially misses chips, cider and black, and sheep. E-mail her at edj@princeton.

Even with broadened horizons, Emily still prefers the liberal arts system. E-mail her at edj@princeton.edu.

Emily now knows a great deal about sandstone. For more information on this subject, e-mail her at edj@princeton.edu