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Opinion

Experiences abroad immerse, enlighten traveler

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February 3, 2012

I’ve never stepped foot out of the country in my entire life. Until now. By the time this is published, I’ll have been in the United Kingdom going on two weeks. I’m here as part of the International Traveling Classroom, one of UW-River Falls’s study abroad programs. As a group, we’re heading to seven countries and 10 cities. There’s a bit of personal travel time worked into that, so I’ll be able to visit a few of the places I’m interested in that didn’t quite make it on the itinerary.

At the time of writing, we’ve wrapped up our time in Scotland and we’ve just arrived in London. Our week in Scotland was nothing short of a life-changing experience for me. I’ve really gotten the feeling that I was born in the wrong place. As much as I’d like to write about our time in the highlands, which were absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, or tell a few tales we heard in the pubs, it’d be incredibly difficult for me not to dedicate this column to our trip to the library. I know. I would have never guessed that would be a memorable experience either.

To put this night into the proper context, I have to start about 24 hours prior. We were told to meet in the dining hall of Dalkeith house, where the Wisconsin in Scotland program is hosted, and that we should bring our dancing shoes. Now, I’m not much of a dancer, but I’ve picked up a bit of swing and waltz from my time doing theatre. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still terrify me. I think most of the group was just as apprehensive as I was, but people seemed to be have a blast learning a handful of different ceilidh dances (pronounced “kay-lee”). The traditional dances are still done today in universities and pubs all over Scotland as a way to meet people and break the ice. They’re simple, with a lot of basic footwork and partner changing, but incredibly fun.

We were celebrating Burns’ Night, a Scottish holiday which commemorates the Scottish poet Robert Burns. We had haggis and other traditional dishes earlier that night. And yes, you have to try haggis if you’re ever in Scotland. It’s actually pretty good. Every Burns’ Night celebration ends with the group circling up and joining hands and singing through “Auld Lang Syne,” the most famous thing Burns wrote in his illustrious career.

While singing, you sort of wave your arms about. During the verses, you cross your hands and then raise them up and down. It may sound a bit silly, but it’s all part of a little ritual that celebrates friendship and togetherness. The next night, the actual Burns’ Night, a few of us went out on the town to take in the sights of downtown Edinburgh, which has to be one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. One of the other travelers has worked in a few libraries and is collecting library cards from each of the cities we visit. As we rounded the corner into the library, a few of us could hear singing. I just figured it was something coming out of the public address system, but was pleasantly surprised to see some 40 odd singers decked out in evening wear and various tartans singing, beautifully I may add, on the main steps of the library.

As we gathered closer, a perfect little old librarian shuffled up to us and asked,“Would any of you like a wee spot a’ whiskey?” Let’s be honest, of course we did. She brought over shortbread and six ample glasses of whiskey that made me think that the Scots may have a much different definition of “wee” than we think they do. We sat there sipping whiskey and eating shortbread when the director of the choir said a short bit about Robert Burns and we made the realization that they were singing Burns’ songs. Then he smiled and said, “Now, if you don’t mind, if you’d like to join us in a circle.”

A look of recognition shot around our group and we started giggling. There was no way this was actually happening.

Before we knew it, we were singing “Auld Lang Syne” in a circle of about 60 Scots, doing all of the movements. Afterwards, we chatted with a few of the students who were a part of the choir and they recommended us a few pubs to check out. That’s something that no tour group or faculty advisor could ever plan for you. It’s the perfect moment to sum up exactly just how warm and welcoming the people in Scotland are.

Those of us who lucked into that night at the library couldn’t stop yammering about it for days. It was a genuine cultural experience that I’ll never forget. I can only hope that I find something half as perfect in each of the cities we’re stopping in.

Chris Rohling is a journalism major with a passion for storytelling in almost every medium.