Boardgames, Pokemon Go, & Irn Bru: My Study Abroad Experience

How do I even start this?

I wanted to take the time to write about my experience living in Aberdeen, Scotland for 9 months, in a form that isn’t a lengthy facebook post that no one will ever read (yes, I’m referring to you). I wanted to write a reflection, an advice piece, and a thank you, so this is my attempt to mishmash all of that into one article.

Living in Scotland was and will probably remain a very big chapter in my life. I mean, how often do I get to live in a foreign location for 9 months of my life? It’s been such a privilege to have been able to commit such a large amount of time to a complete and literal change of scenery. It’s such a cliche, but I really do think that I learned quite a bit about myself by moving to the other side of the world. By writing this collection of thoughts, I hope to share this part of my life as I turn the page and begin writing my next figurative life chapter. Pretty deep right? Okay here we go.

Me, Myself, and My Mother’s Folder

It didn’t really hit me until the day before I left the U.S. that I was going to be moving to Aberdeen, Scotland, for practically an entire year. I made the decision to study abroad about a year prior — I didn’t have much of an agenda, but I figured I’d only have this opportunity once or twice, so it’s probably something worth looking into.

On September 1, 2018 — I sat on a plane with my mother, flying into London Heathrow Airport for a quick layover. I was running on maybe 3 hours of sleep. We landed in Aberdeen later that day, and by then I was in a Mood (yes, with a capital M). I was pouty, quiet, and I refused to be excited in any way whatsoever. Truth be told, I was terrified: I was in a foreign location, and I knew no one (except the other exchange students, whom my mother took the liberty of embarrassing me). I came upon the realization that Scotland was where I was going to live and exist for the next 9 months of my life. I was scared and uncomfortable.

“It’s part of the process right?” I told myself. “That this feeling is completely normal and part of the experience?”. I didn’t like it, and spent the first week or two trying to retain any semblance of American culture and comfort — by socializing exclusively with other American students, watching American TV, messaging my American friends, and planning what I was going to do when I came home to America. This quickly proved to be a terrible and unsuccessful idea. More on this in a bit.

I should mention, my mother spent the entire first week with me. Which, in hindsight, I should have picked up as a red flag. My mother brought with her a neatly organized folder of things to see and do in Aberdeen, as well as everything I would “need” for my dorm, like a dozen reusable plastic cups, American ranch-powder packets (“It’s just not the same over there!”), and off-brand UK Pepto-Bismol (which was actually surprisingly useful later on). Her folder was filled with Google Maps printouts, TripAdvisor reviews, and email chains. For the entire week, we stuck to my mother’s folder like it was the Bible. The sacred printout texts in the folder, coupled with the employees at the local tourist information center, guided us on various tours through Aberdeen and the greater Aberdeenshire. It was…kind of exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad my mother came — I saw a lot of Scotland thanks to her, and I certainly didn’t feel as alone as I probably would have been. But on the other hand, I might have adjusted a bit quicker if I had been on my own for a bit.

Finding My Groove

Once classes started (and my mother left), things became more digestible in Aberdeen. The differences in lifestyle and culture were no longer these behemoths of fear — the whole “opposite-side-of-the-road” thing took a bit longer to get used to, and Celsius is still i̶n̶f̶e̶r̶i̶o̶r̶ weird — but I soon got into the groove of being a student at the University of Aberdeen. It was also around this time that I started putting myself out there — there’s no way I could have survived studying abroad if I didn’t make any friends.

Society day occurred early on in the semester, and I probably signed up for around a dozen clubs. Of those twelve clubs, I attended two of the “Freshers” (Freshmen) events, and one was a complete dud. The other, however, became my weekly dose of interaction and engagement: The Aberdeen Uni Gaming Society.

The Aberdeen Uni Gaming Society was described to me as a collection of social outcasts and nerds — I’ve never felt more at home! There were just about two dozen frequent members. We’d meet up once a week — every Thursday at 6PM, in the MacRobert Building, Room 303, and play boardgames until 10. And by boardgames, I don’t mean like chutes and ladders or monopoly. No, we were sophisticated nerds, we had class. We played games like Exploding Kittens, Town of Salem, DC Comics Deck-Building, Resistance, and other similar games.

Gaming Society was the highlight of every week for me. I met my closest friends from the University through playing cards with drawings of cat-butts, accusing each other of being a spy (or werewolf), and collecting fat stacks of super villain cards. Some notable moments from society include: arguing about whether or not tiramisu is better than cookie dough ice cream (it is, obviously), discussing our Pottermore houses and patronas, mimicking Hammer Bro — “Yo, yo!”, T-posing, battling at the nearest Pokemon Go gym, and drinking Irn Bru, a delicious yet polarizing Scottish orange soda, until we burst or belched.

Solo Traveling (And how to do it without beating yourself up)

When I wasn’t studying (fairly often) or hanging with friends, I was traveling. I planned many weekend trips to various places in Scotland and Europe — places like Glasgow, Edinburgh, Isle of Skye, London, Amsterdam, and Dublin, to name all of them. In the spring, I planned a two-week trip to Paris, Venice, and Rome. And obviously I was going to go to Disneyland Paris. One thing to mention: every trip I went on, I went alone. Solo traveling is … necessary sometimes.

Solo traveling can sometimes feel like eating an entire birthday cake by yourself. On one hand — it’s a birthday cake! It tastes so good and I can really enjoy it if I let myself. On the other, it would be nice to be able to share this delicious cake with someone else. It’s all about living in the moment when you travel alone — pay attention to that cake! Savor it in all its glory and when you’re done, lick your fingers clean.

Disneyland Paris felt like eating three birthday cakes on my own. I didn’t intend to go by myself, but plans changed, and I wasn’t going to give up the opportunity to meet French C-3PO and Remy from Ratatouille. At first, it was pretty tough to be there alone (not that you should pity me for going to Disneyland), but once I let myself enjoy it I actually had a pretty great time. I met Darth Vader and got yelled at by the photographer for pretending to be force-choked, I saw the set of Dinotopia — an old TV series featuring sentient dinosaurs from the middle ages? (google it, it’s a thing), and I experienced such an immense adrenaline rush on the Tower of Terror that I started laughing uncontrollably, scaring the other riders in the process. Speaking of which, shout out to single-rider lines!

In all seriousness, traveling alone can be really great if you allow it to be, and it can open you up to some incredible experiences that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve in a social setting.

Here’s some other fun anecdotes from my solo trips:

In Venice, I treated myself to a fish foot pedicure on a complete whim. Those little fishies went to town on my feet.

In Amsterdam, I got drunk off two beers from the Heineken experience (I had them on an empty stomach okay!?) and bought some beat up basketball shoes from a Dutch thrift store. I stumbled out of that thrift store and through the canals with my new, slightly used kicks. I still wear them to this day.

In Rome, I ate 4 tiramisus in one sitting (my personal record), and then immediately barfed. It was insane, but very delicious (the tiramisu, not the puke).

To Sum it All Up

Looking back, there isn’t a whole lot I regret during my time abroad. Maybe I could have done more, or traveled more (or eaten less), but for the most part I’m happy with the way things turned out.

I’ll likely always look back on my time abroad as a time of discovery and personal development. If I could give any advice to students out there on the fence about studying abroad: do it. You won’t regret it (the longer the time abroad, the better). And to any students who are about to study abroad: trust the process. Give yourself some time to adjust, but when you’re ready, put yourself out there and go meet people. Like, as many people as possible, until you find your group. And if you’re currently abroad and planning all your trips: go experience the world, even if it’s by yourself. It’s better to go do something by yourself than to not go at all. Eat that cake!

Most importantly, treat yourself, do what makes you happy. For me it was eating tiramisu until it came out of my nose.

To My Aberdonian Friends

It should go without saying that I am sad to be leaving Aberdeen. If anything made my time in Scotland worthwhile, it’s the people I’ve met — I’ve made so many amazing friends here.

Since I started university 4 years ago, I’ve had to say plenty of goodbyes, and let me tell you: they never get any easier. Aberdeen is no exception. Whenever I made a new friend in Aberdeen, I would typically get asked by said friend “so you’re gonna come back, right?” which, like sitting on a popsicle, both melted and crushed my heart. In those moments, I would always think about having to leave at the end of the second semester, almost as a way to precondition myself for that very interaction (you know, so I don’t cry like a baby [update: it didn’t work, I cried. I cried a lot]).

To the friends I’ve made here: thank you. Thank you for making my time abroad all the more worthwhile and memorable. I really wish I didn’t have to say goodbye. I’m going to miss you all so, so much. I’m so lucky and grateful to have had you all in my life during my time abroad.

If I could, I’d shrink you all down Ant-Man style and bring you back in my carry-on luggage, but there has yet to be a scientific breakthrough in Pym particle technology (and that would probably really selfish and unfair to you).

Pour out an Irn Bru for me and think about all the good times we’ve had together and chuckle at all our hilarious inside jokes (“Zoinks!”, *dabs*, “Where’s ‘Kelly’?”), because I’ll certainly be doing the same.

I wish I could stay in Aberdeen, but it’s just my time. It’s a weird feeling, being ready to leave but reluctant to change. I was never supposed to move and stay in Scotland (re: once in a lifetime opportunity), and I don’t know when I’ll be back. And honestly, it hurts a lot. Seeing you all less is going to suck, but I don’t think anything will ever change between us because of a different area code. We’ll be okay — trust me, I learn from experience.

Besides, we have the internet now! I’ll always be a few taps away, right?

In all seriousness, I cannot wait to see you again, and I promise you that the next time we see each other — whether in Aberdeen, the United States, or Mars (it could happen within our lifetime!) — it’ll be as if I had never left. Speaking of which, come visit dammit! Anyway, I’ll always be there for ya’ll. Keep in touch, okay?

Alright here it is: goodbye everyone! Take care, finish that degree, get that internship, and consider studying abroad! Love you all. Catch you on the flippity flip.

Thank you Aberdeen, and thank you Scotland.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to especially thank the following people/groups for making an impact on my time abroad in one way or another:

  • The Aberdeen Uni Gaming Society — all it’s members, the President, and committee members (old and new)
  • Team Rerige
  • BearingProTools, Jim MacPhail, and “The Dream Team”
  • Stuart Durkin, The School of Social Science
  • Joy Perkins, The Centre for Academic Development
  • Lindsay Gardner, The University Counselling Service
  • Bruce Scharlau, The School of Natural and Computing Sciences
  • Sam Longmire and everyone at FortyTwo Studio
  • The Kerfoot, Clarke, and Hughes families, and all my other family members in Dublin
  • Mary-Alice Clancy, University of Aberdeen International Exchange & Study Abroad Co-ordinator
  • Bill Naphy, Dean for North American Affairs
  • Councillor John Wheeler, Aberdeen City Council
  • Liz Bowie, Director of Development and Alumni Relations
  • Lauren Steinberg, Drexel University Assistant Director of Office of Global Engagement and Education Abroad
  • The Saint Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia and the McNeil Family
  • My Mom
  • My Dad — just cuz I love em too
  • And anyone I’ve had a coffee, tea, beer, or Irn Bru with in Aberdeen — you’re special too!

Sorry folks, no post-credits scene for this article! But if you want, you can follow me on Instagram!

Designer and student. aidantoole.com

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