On Friday, I woke up in Edinburgh. I also woke up in Nottingham, Leeds, and Berwick-upon-Tweed; National Express is rather helpful in waking you both when you do and do not wish to be disturbed. Nevertheless, I forgot the sharp pain in my neck as the city unfolded in front of me. The buildings, glowing blue in the damp morning light, seemed to be cut from one stone. Unlike my first exposure to any other city, the view felt aged.
It was a coffee-art gallery-coffee kind of morning, and by noon, I returned to Waverly Station for my train to St Andrews. I was en route to visit my longtime friend Jordan. It had been about a year since we had last met, and I couldn’t wait for what was sure to be a weekend of good banter, reminiscing, and whatever prompted him to text me, “bring a tux just in case.”
St. Andrew’s FS is the world’s largest student-run fashion show. Designers, models, students and self-purported cool kids dress to the nines for this charity event and display of good ole’ British debauchery. It was a remarkable coincidence that the weekend I chose to visit coincided with FS. Apparently it’s a be-there-or-you-wouldn’t-understand type of thing; unfortunately, I still don’t quite understand, given that FS was canceled only thirty minutes before the event due to winds. Yes, winds.
We were at a quaint early-evening event when the news broke on Facebook. Pantsuit-wearing and velvet slipper-clad attendees lamented their misfortune, cheese plates and wine glasses in hand. Reactions ranged from “I’m absolutely crushed” to more colorful complaints. “Let’s get a picture so I can at least post to Facebook,” quickly became the refrain of the night; odd, considering it was only 6:30pm. Anti-FS parties quickly sprang up on Facebook – one titled “FFS” became my favorite variation.
We spent some more time at the early-evening affair. I considered the general makeup of the room: people seemed to converse in small groups; others looked at their phones superciliously. It was similar but different from an American affair; it lacked the false enthusiasm that we Yankees pride ourselves in – or maybe it was too early in the evening. We were killing time around the living room dinner table when Jordan and I somehow got on the topic of British politics.
“Don’t get me wrong – the British have messed up. But the MPs will always do what is right. You know why? Because the Queen. They do it for Her Majesty. Winston Churchill believed it would be Britain’s responsibility to teach America how to rule. And he said, no matter what, ‘Britain will always be the elder statesmen of the world.’”
The conversation set the tone for a night that I wouldn’t otherwise describe as particularly elder statesmanlike. Much like a night out at American universities, the evening involved movement, both around town and between social groups. Flanked by buildings that predate America’s founding, Jordan and I hurried down the main thoroughfare of St. Andrews to our first destination, an apartment only a few blocks away.
We entered the courtyard to shouts of obscenities that I didn’t know existed. Apparently it’s not uncommon to be insulted immediately upon entering a room in a British university. It is up to you to fire back quickly and cleverly, or allow the affronts to continue. “Banter” has been shortened to “bant,” a result of how frequently the word is used. (The habit reminded me of the dramatic Questions to the Prime Minister, where the PM takes questions from representatives for 30 minutes and is expected to be as witty as she is knowledgeable.)
I liked seeing the aftermath of what would have been FS dress. People were in various states of formalwear; I was especially interested in those who rejected the business suit for something more creative. When you stuck your head above the crowd, you could see students pairing ripped jeans with tuxedo jackets, pinstripe pants with patterned jackets. Several partygoers wore outfits reminiscent of fallen empire: military-inspired coats or jackets with a vague Chinese print. There were also the boys in tweed coats and pristine leather shoes who rocked half-messy haircuts and started sentences with “back at Eton…” It was a funny sight – the juxtaposition of the traditional with the progressive, the base pleasures with the profound intellectual discussion, the “modern” university student with the 550-year tradition of a place like St. Andrews.
“You got a lighter, yeah?” I must have heard the question a dozen times as I stood outside an apartment, the only one without a cigarette in his hand. Conversation around smokers seemed more natural and less high-stakes than through the many-tiered apartment interiors. Words flowed naturally when it came to the third-years with whom I spoke. I realized that in introducing myself, it was the first time I didn’t have Jordan by my side to say, “This is Xander, my friend who goes to Yale.” It was a phrase that Jordan used, I could tell, to let people know I could play ball. It was not an intro that any of my friends would use in America.
We found ourselves in the kitchen of a third apartment – ground level and more spacious than previous venues. The students really covered all bases in their talking; conversation varied from Epicurean aesthetics to town gossip. Collective sobriety decreased, and I detected a hint of warmth from the boys of St. Andrews. The crowd gathered around a table, a collection of thin lapels floating in air, and decided on a game of cards (the name of which I won’t repeat here).
I told them I’d sit the first round out. Sitting at the windowsill, I chatted with a girl who graduated from the high school in my town. I was half in conversation and half in observance of the scene in which I had been placed, and suddenly everything began to feel a little more familiar. I wasn’t used to the tuxedos, the smell of gin and cigarettes, the Britishisms, and the curse-filled tirades that seemed to become more frequent, but for the first time in the night, I seemed to have some sense of how things worked around here.
I walked out several minutes later next to Jordan and his friends. One of them called my blazer cheap. I responded with a string of obscenities - in the British fashion, that is - garnering applause from the others. Off color, without cohesion, and undeniably British – that’s what my weekend at St. Andrews was to me.