The Last Queens of Scotland: Studying Abroad at University of Edinburgh

So, what should you expect moving to Scotland? Expect to be confused, befuddled by accents, constantly attempting to accept or escape the cold, and to be lost in old alleyways with wet brown cobblestone.

It is midday, you are late for class, and the wind is blowing icy pellets of rain horizontally right into your eyes. The water gets everywhere. There is no escape. At some point you just have to learn to accept the fact the your life here will be wet.

But as you look up, you find that beyond the icy rain pellets and your soaking wet hair, you stand underneath a castle in the centre of an ancient city, with the ocean peeping out on your right between extinct pale green mountainous volcanoes, and it reminds you why you are here.

Granted, no one comes to Scotland for the weather. You stay for the astounding beauty that surrounds you even in the darkest, wet winter days.

Princes Street, Centre of Edinburgh (on a sunny day) (Photo courtesy of Nina P.)

Edinburgh is a city like no other. It is a confusing place. It does not intuitively make sense to be living in a capital city where one building is an H&M and the other is a 300 year old castle from the middle ages and your backyard is quite literally an extinct volcano. You turn every corner of the cobblestone street feeling like you are the character of a Rowling novel (one was written here – check out The Elephant House).

The city is divided into pieces: the tourists, the students and the families. Although, often it feels like the entire city is tourists and students, and you forget that locals live here as well.

Other than the physical shock of beginning to live in a medieval city surrounded by mountain and ocean, the life of an international student in Edinburgh is quite the peculiar experience. You never really know where you are – although physically in Scotland, the city feels like so many different places. I walk down the streets to hear American slang, English accents, French babble, and Swedish chemistry students complaining about their 9 am lecture. “Where are you from?” is probably the most common question I ask because no one in this city seems to have the same story.

It is a strange hybrid of cultures dropped into a location where the architecture makes you wonder if you are in the middle ages while people walking around with neon dyed hair is anything but uncommon.

Edinburgh embraces its edge, to say the least. And although everyone has come here for different reasons, we all stay for the same. We stay for the late foggy nights walking home from Cowgate while someone demands, “Let’s climb Arthur’s Seat”, and you go climb an extinct volcano at 4AM in the morning overlooking the city and the ocean surrounded by thousands of lights and rural blackness. Granted, at some point once you are up there it will probably start raining, ruining your moment in the sublime as you head back down to your accommodation craving the warmth of the indoors while fighting the urge to stay in a place where you feel like you are on top of the world.

Student Club Nights – Taken at Halo Silk Fridays (Photo courtesy of Nina P.)

On a more cultural note, almost as persistent as the rain is nothing else but the pub club culture. There is a pub on every corner, and you will never hear the end of Pub crawls, Pub quizzes, Pub nights, etc, etc, etc, until you forget what it is like not to have 400 different options for pre-clubbing spots.

If there is one thing Edinburgh does well, it is student nightlife. It is probably the only city in the world where more students go out on Mondays than Saturdays, considering every night of the week is a student club night at a different place with shots and drink mixers for one pound each. WhyNot Mondays, Cab Vol Tuesdays, Crème Soda Wednesday, Temple Thursday… the list never ends. While the nightlife is certainly endless, keep reminding yourself that your student budget probably is not.

Budget-wise, this is probably one of the most contentious parts of coming to the UK for most internationals. With the Great British Pound being one of the strongest currencies in the world, living here certainly is not cheap. Tuition for international students without an EU passport is about £15,000 GBP per year with accommodation ranging from £3,000-7,000, mostly in student self-catered flats. Be sparing with your wallets.

Nevertheless, the extent to which the city is astounding generally makes up for its cost. In the same day you can visit castles, shop on Princes street, see the Scottish Parliament, go to the beach, take haunted medieval underground tours, visit art galleries, go climbing at the Crags and Arthurs’s Seat, get lunch from the local Tibetan sandwich shop …

Scottish girl and Father at Scotland’s Climate March, November 2015
(Photo courtesy of Nina P.)

Edinburgh stands strong in its sustainability initiatives. With the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI), there is constantly green work being done in the city and Scotland. Looking in the distance, you can see wind turbines at work atop the hills surrounding the city. Co-operatives stand on every corner, and swap & re-use stores are common. The bus system is extensive, however, bicycle tends to be the optimal method of student transport throughout the city.

So, back to the initial question – expect to question how the city works the way it does, how its ancient features and modernity strangely work together. And, understand that you will feel as if you are really far away from everything.

Sometimes Edinburgh feels like it is the end of the Earth in its own little, impenetrable bubble. But most of all, while you can expect to feel confused by the never-ending duality of the city, expect to feel grateful.
About the writer:

Expat-terns is so fortunate to have a such a talent shed some light on Scotland, international life there, and its culture. More to come shortly on Rwanda, Israel, and hopefully more from guest writers like Nina as well. Stay tuned, travel safe!