The following day, we awoke to a beautiful morning in Purmerend, with an exceptionally serene square to greet us. It was a lovely day, and we were excited to continue exploring.
First. Dogs in jackets. Dogs. In. Jackets.
Next on the docket was, of course, food. After a bit of wandering and canal-gazing, we made our way to Omelegg, a breakfast/brunch place with rave reviews online that we simply had to try.
While there was a sizeable line outside the restaurant, we were eventually invited inside and seated. I admit, I was skeptical about the free walking tour of the city with FREEDAM tours (get it?). We arrived at the meeting spot to meet our lively guide Sebastian, who warmly greeted us and the rest of the tour group. It was a pretty great tour, so I’d like to share some of the cool things we learned.
I’ve grouped it approximately by topic, in case you want to skip around a bit.
Small history lesson
There’s this old saying: “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”
Amsterdam, originally called Amstel-dam (a dam on the river Amstel), initially served as a critical port of access and trading hub, which meant that a lot of the people present there, at least for a while, were sailors on shore leave. And where there were sailors, far from home, there was always a great need for practitioners of the world’s oldest profession. With all that sin going around, these sailors needed a good place to go and confess after the fact – this led to one of the largest proliferations of churches in history, something that you can still see today, to some extent. The tithes and offerings provided by clients of prostitution allowed these churches to expand considerably. Eventually, sailors could make a deposit at the churches before they even sinned – like a prepayment of sorts.
Many parts of Europe viewed prostitution as depraved and sinful, illegalizing it accordingly. However, although Amsterdam had outlawed it, it was tolerated as long as it wasn’t particularly visible. This idea of tolerating things comes up a lot in Amsterdam.
After the Protestant Revolution, Sebastian said, people really liked what Martin Luther had to say, so Holland (which had until now been under the control of the Catholic monarchy in Spain) rebelled and gained their independence, and they started not liking Catholics very much, outlawing the religion for many decades following.
Due to the ban on open Catholic practice, people used to set up secret churches in the top floors of houses in order to hold Mass. In fact, one such church actually bore the name “Our Dear Lord in the Attic,” and we had the chance to see it from the outside.
Some other little tidbits:
When residential buildings were being constructed, the government would levy a tax proportional to the width of a house – to save money, then, you’d construct the narrowest possible house, and instead make it considerably long.
Also, if you look carefully, the buildings appear to tip forward toward the street. Don’t worry, it’s not secondhand smoke from the legal marijuana affecting you. Since the buildings are so thin, heavy furniture and equipment often had to be hoisted in through the windows.
So how do you pull something up? With a pulley, of course, hence the hooks on the eaves. And how do you prevent your heavy object from crashing against the outer wall and windows as it comes up? Make your building tilt forward.
Sebastian’s funny personal story
Sebastian then shared with us an anecdote from his youth in Amsterdam. As a young teenager, he loved jazz music, and his favorite Dutch jazz bar across town had a concert on Wednesday nights from 10 PM to 2 AM. But it was a school night, so he wasn’t allowed to go. So every Wednesday night, he would sneak out of his window, get on his bicycle, and head to the bar to hear the music. One night when he was 15, while biking back, his bicycle chain broke as he passed the red light district – and while trying to repair it, his hands became covered in dirty grease. If he showed up at home with greasy hands, he would be caught. As he lamented the situation, he noticed a lady of the night beckoning him from inside her window – somewhat embarrassed, he tried to explain to her that he wasn’t interested in her, but as he approached, she told him that she wanted to let him in so he could wash his hands!
Following the incident, Sebastian says that she waved whenever he passed by, and he waved back. The punchline of the story? His father knew he was sneaking out from the very first night he did it.
A little more history (including the Holocaust)
The East India Company, dealing with trading and (obviously) colonizing, which did have a counterpart in Britain, was the biggest company in the history of the world, with a modern adjusted value of 7.5 trillion euros, or 7 500 000 000 000 euros: more than eight times the current value of Apple. Yay for capitalism?
Amsterdam was also known as the Jerusalem of the West due to the thriving Jewish population – in fact, one of the old nicknames for Amsterdam is the Yiddish word for “place,” mokum.
Remember the “tolerating” that Amsterdam is known for? Unfortunately, this to some extent extended to the Nazis. 90% of the Jews of Amsterdam were murdered by the Nazis in the city or deported to concentration and death camps. However, there are many stories of the Dutch protecting their Jewish population. So it’s not clear cut, as so few things are.
We also had the chance to visit the Homomonument, dedicated to the struggles and sacrifices of homosexual Dutch citizens who have been persecuted throughout the history of the city and country. I had never seen a structural dedication quite like this – both in terms of its layout and its subject matter. The monument consists of three raised triangles, each 10 meters in diameter — representing past, present, and future. On the largest triangle, one vertex points to the Anne Frank House, one to the National War Memorial, and one toward the headquarters of COC Nederland, the oldest continuing gay/lesbian advocacy organization in the world. On it is a line from the gay Dutch Jewish poet Jacob Israël de Haan: Naar Vriendschap Zulk een Mateloos Verlangen (“Such an endless desire for friendship”).
I always feel compelled to visit monuments that aren’t as famous – while nearly all famous monuments celebrate and honor worthy individuals, causes, and events, I find that many are overlooked. Either because they aren’t particularly visually stunning, or the cause they promote isn’t a hot-button issue or one that seems incredibly compelling. Seeing this subtle but clearly significant monument reminded me of the incredibly diverse ways we choose to honor things – sometimes we erect great structures, we write epic poetry, we hold massive parades and celebrations.
But sometimes we don’t need all that. Sometimes, all we need is a few shapes and a line of poetry, and it’s just as significant and moving.
More about “tolerating” – the moralism of the Dutch is quite interesting. The idea is that “as long as you’re not bothering me, getting in my space, or harming anyone, you can do whatever.” This is often used for good.
For example, same-sex marriage is legal in Denmark, and the city of Amsterdam is host to a well-known Pride parade each year. Since it’s Amsterdam, it takes place as a boat parade along the canals. In fact, the city police have their own boat to participate. Sebastian told us that his grandma always attends because she wants to see the “boys on the police boat”.
The idea of tolerance itself isn’t a bad one – like almost any worldview, it is a double-edged sword. It allows you to embrace new ideas and expand your perspective much faster and more readily, but it also may blind you to ideological threats. After all, as Alexander Hamilton said (actually he didn’t), “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.” If we’re okay with everything, where’s the limit to what we’re okay with?
That’s the ultimate struggle. We can learn a lot from Amsterdam about how to approach the way we treat our neighbors as well as people who we consider to be “other” – but also when to stand our ground on principle.
A Fandom Visit
At Melisa’s insistence, we decided to pay a visit to the TFiOS (The Fault in Our Stars) bench – featured in the film version of the book by John Green. While it isn’t my favorite of his books, it was fun to visit that particular element of his work.
Wrapping up the day
As the day began to come to an end, we decided to split up – tired, I wanted to head back to the hostel to get some sleep before the obscenely early train to Brussels the following morning.
My companions decided to search for some alternative entertainment, so we decided to catch up later.
Although public transportation closures made the journey a bit confusing, I was delighted to find a lovely grand piano in the middle of Amsterdam Centraal Station. After jamming for a bit (Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Leonard Cohen, etc.), I decided it was time to catch my train and bus.
European piano count: 3.
I had been to Amsterdam before, primarily for layovers on my way to see family in India (so I guess that wouldn’t really count). On one occasion, I did spend a 6-hour layover taking a tour of the city, but that was many years ago and I don’t remember it very well.
From my short time in Amsterdam, I could see little traces of my adoptive stomping grounds in Copenhagen everywhere – the cobblestone streets, the architecture, the way that some of the busier areas looked at night.
And yet, it was fundamentally different.
For one thing, the canals changed everything. It was almost like the whole city was a pier, where you were never more than a stone’s throw from the waterways. The roads seemed to follow the water, sloping and curving accordingly, and the city very much felt like it was built in a sort of symbiosis with the water.
Initially, the city felt like “wrong Copenhagen” – just similar enough that it felt familiar, but just different enough that I didn’t feel quite at ease. But, as I found throughout this trip, it usually never took too long for me to find something about a city that I could appreciate and connect to. With Amsterdam it was street musicians, Indian food, and canals.
And ultimately, returning to the helpful Muslim man from the beginning of our visit, the kindness of strangers – something that I would find in almost every city I was to visit.
The travel week begins!
Note: as you may have noticed, I tend to write chronicles rather than blog posts, so I’ll try to organize my story in a way that’s easily navigable.
For our first stop, we headed to Amsterdam, Holland, where we planned to spend the weekend.
Upon landing at the Schipol airport just after 2 PM and making our way out of the building, we decided to begin exploring, luggage in tow, since our Airbnb was outside the city. But not before noticing this billboard ad.
As we struggled to understand the public transportation system of the city (no easy task, mind you), we encountered a Middle Eastern man who worked at a nearby mosque (he amusingly called it a “Muslim church”) and helped us figure out how to buy bus tickets. While he was quite nice and well-intentioned, his advice was a bit inaccurate, leading us to be unceremoniously kicked off a bus by a curmudgeonly old driver.
However, we were close enough to our first destination that we could walk the rest of the way there: to Vondelpark. Named after a Dutch playwright and host to an annual ten million visitors, it seemed a good place to begin and get some fresh air. The first thing that struck me about the park was how incredibly open it was – despite being a vibrant, bustling European capital, Amsterdam could hold within it a vast park with gardens, fountains, playgrounds, paths for bicycles and pedestrians, and a place for dogs to run and play.
There was this “big” feeling surrounding the park that really stuck with me.
Following our visit to Vondelpark (still dragging our luggage around) we decided to be touristy for a bit, heading to the “I AMsterdam” sign, made up of giant letters and a must-see for anyone visiting Amsterdam. There were quite a few people with the same idea as us, taking pictures and climbing on top of the letters.
“There’s an ‘n’ in Amsterdam, right?”
One thing I didn’t expect to see by the sign, however, was the live show taking place a few meters away – consisting of dancing, juggling, and various other forms of street performance. It was almost as if the little square by the sign had been turned into an impromptu amphitheater.
It was time for food. Indian food, of course! We discovered an Indian restaurant, Saravana Bhavan, pretty close to where we were. We would find out only later that this was the largest South Indian vegetarian restaurant chain in the world, and that it was founded in 1891! As we walked into the restaurant, I commented to my friends that “this is one of the most aggressively Indian places I’ve been to outside India.”
In the positive way, of course.
The all-Indian kitchen and waitstaff, the art on the walls, the Bollywood music coming from the speakers, and the smell of cuisine from the motherland was enough to take my mind back home, at least for a bit. Between the five of us, we all ordered various forms of masala dosa, a savory crepe made from fermented rice/lentil batter and stuffed with spiced potatoes and onions. And I also followed my personal rule of getting a mango lassi (like a milkshake except 1000% better) at every Indian restaurant I go to.
And it was all amazing – the dosas were top-notch, the lassi was fantastic, and the atmosphere was delightfully authentic. Without ever leaving Europe, I had the tiniest sense of being back in India and spoiled by my grandmothers’ cooking once again.
Late Night Exploration
Following dinner, we managed to pull our satiated selves out of our chairs for some quality time with the canals at night. I have to say, Amsterdam is quite an interesting city to explore at night – it’s fairly quiet, and it almost feels like you can get some quality time to commune with the canals. Even just walking around the canals at night has a distinctly different feel than seeing them during the day. As we wandered through the evening, we selected as our last stop for the day a café where we heard they serve a delicious apple pie. After finding the restaurant, we set up camp at an outdoor table (with candles to warm our hands) and got ourselves some apple pie.
Eventually, as the day began to end, we headed to Purmerend, a nearby suburb which had our lodging for the next two nights – a hostel.
After struggling further with the public transportation system (which I’ll return to shortly), we eventually made it to Purmerend, where we discovered a quaint yet vibrant town with a lovely square and a handful of small ponds. People were walking around, enjoying themselves at bars along the street, and it seemed like a wonderful place to stay. Our hostel host met us in the square and escorted us to the building, where we were able to set our stuff up and retire for the night.
Note about the public transportation system. There are two bus companies; buying an unlimited 2-day pass for one of them does not allow you to ride the other, and if you don’t find that out beforehand, you might end up (cough) spending a lot of money on bus fare.
More to come on Amsterdam in the next post!
“How big was the dosa?
Tomorrow begins my travel week – 9 glorious days of gallivanting around Europe, visiting 4 cities. Before I depart, I wanted to reflect on how I perceive travel and the ways I can make the most of it.
In my view, there are two types of travel: Immersion and Excursion.
Immersion is a depth-prioritizing experience. The number of places you visit is small, and the time you spend in each is longer. In a given city, you try to align yourself with the pulse of your surroundings, adapting to the “vibe” and the mindset of the locals around you. You can explore different parts of the city on different days, as you intimately familiarize yourself with the area. This type of travel allows you to more completely explore all of what a location has to offer.
This is the kind of experience I’ve been seeking so far – I’ve had the opportunity to do this during my study tour in Edinburgh, and I will hopefully do this again during Thanksgiving, when I visit southern Spain.
Excursion is a breadth-prioritizing experience. The number of places you visit is larger, and the time you spend in each is shorter. In a given city, your pace is a bit faster. You are able to hit the hotspots, taking in the greatest sites of each location, and getting a broader experience of multiple diverse communities. This type of travel allows you to get a broader variety of adventures and experience many different environments, cultures, and ways of living.
I’ll be doing something like this during my travel break next week – we will be visiting Amsterdam, Brussels, Madrid, and Rome in about a week and a half.
Which way is better? Depends.
Depends on who you are, what you hope to get out of it, and where you’re going.
I much prefer the immersive experience, as it allows me to spend long enough in a place to detach myself from my bubble and re-contextualize my identity in a new locale – to whatever extent is possible in a few days, of course.
However, there is something to be said about excursions – they would allow me to see a broader variety of interesting locales and get a more diverse sampling of different cultures.
Personally, I believe that the best overall strategy is a combination that incorporates immersive and excursive elements – where, at some points, you slow down and delve deep into the community you’re in, and at others, you stoke the rejsefeber fire and travel to many different places.
To make an immersive experience fulfilling, it’s important to make sure you still keep in mind the big picture – even if you’re exploring a particular city for a while, try to see a variety of things within that city. Parks, museums, music, restaurants, cafes, gardens, architecture. It’s all too easy to end up doing the same type of thing over and over again.
To make an excursive experience fulfilling, it’s important to stop and reflect frequently. It’s easy to fall into the tourist mindset: walk up to the Eiffel Tower. Click. Click. Move on. And then you’ve gotten nothing out of it except a couple of photos. Take a breather. Look around. Read the little placards that are next to the cool thing you’re looking at. Think about the context of what you’re seeing – why it’s here, what it means, and why you should care. This might seem obvious, but it’s sometimes hard to remember while you’re actually inside your experience.
Did I just try to create a formula for making the most of travel? Maybe.
Is it helpful? It certainly helps me make sense of it – hopefully, it might be the same for you.
As I write this, we’re about halfway through the semester at DIS, and these are my thoughts about the experience so far.
The halfway point. The place where I can see just as much of the journey over my shoulder as I do ahead of me.
For some reason, part of me thought this point would never arrive. It’s interesting – the passage of time is one of the few things that humans can predict with near-certainty, but it still manages to surprise us from time to time.
That being said, I don’t necessarily believe that the half-way point is the most interesting “midpoint” in the study abroad experience – rather, I like to figure out when was the point at which my anxiety about eventually not being here in Copenhagen began to exceed my anxiety about not being home in Minnesota. As the semester has gone by, the former started low and increased while the latter started high and decreased – the point where they became equal is the moment where I started feeling at home.
As I look back on the past several weeks, I’d like to reflect on a handful of things.
It took me a long time to feel at home here. Although the study abroad experience has been a lot of fun from the very beginning, I felt considerably out of place for the first month or so. Even as I began to establish my daily and weekly routine, as well as habits that I still have today, I was profoundly uncomfortable. I missed campus, I missed my friends, I missed the food at home (and at the Caf), and it honestly felt like I was missing out on so much back at St. Olaf.
For the first few days, I found it really hard to get off my couch – it took a lot of effort to go out and interact and get out of my personal bubble. But I tried, here and there. Going to social events, pushing myself to attend DIS-sponsored events where I could meet other students, and seeking out chances to go exploring. Even if being a little extra social led to some awkward moments, it still helped me find connections and stability during those first few days and weeks. Now, I feel extremely comfortable with the people around me – I have a few different friend groups with varying interests, I have delightful travel companions, and I have people to go to when I need to talk to someone. I have someone to watch Star Wars with, people to play Dungeons and Dragons with, and people to watch Bollywood movies with. Advice: for the first few weeks, embrace the weirdness. Go all-in and power through that feeling of unease or unsettledness that you might have – the only way to make the feeling disappear is to go about your activities as if you’re already used to living here.
Grocery shopping started out being kind of intimidating, especially since I couldn’t read most of the labels – I didn’t always know what brand to buy or where to find the things I needed. But now it’s second nature, and most of my trips to Netto or Irma are quick and efficient.
Wandering around a new place without a particular destination in mind used to give me a lot of anxiety – it took me a really long time to be okay just “going out”, not to go from A to B to C and then back to A. I started simple – going out to the Lakes to watch the birds, pet some dogs, and read. Eventually, I felt comfortable walking and biking around the whole city and just hanging out in squares, drinking coffee and peoplewatching.
Traveling. [I don’t mean to judge anyone here. Just my observations.] It’s a different experience for everyone. Personally, I found that a lot of DIS students tend to plan their trips very early in the semester, when I, for example, was still getting my bearings and wasn’t sure who my “people” were, if you will. I realize this wasn’t everyone’s experience, but I personally felt a lot of anxiety to quickly find people to travel with before everyone made their plans. Fortunately, I am getting the chance to travel with good friends, and it all worked out. In retrospect, I would say that I didn’t need to be so worried about not finding people to go with – for anyone starting a semester at DIS, don’t worry about finding travel companions. It’ll happen. I also believe that everyone should do at least one trip by themselves – within reasonable boundaries of safety, of course. For example, I took a solo day trip to Roskilde, a small city in Denmark – it was a little weird, but I ultimately value the experience I had, even though I still prefer traveling with friends.
Study abroad is hard. It’s a lot of work, both externally and within your own mind. But, considering how I’m doing now, would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
This post is going to be quite different from the usual fare. For one of my recent written assignments, I was asked to reflect on our Long Study Tour experience in Scotland, where we visited a number of facilities relevant to our study of biotechnology and drug development. Below is my response, with some additional context added for you.
Leave a comment if I forget to clarify something, or if you’d like to learn more about what we saw there.
Personally, I enjoyed the long study tour a great deal. Not only was it a fun and relaxing experience, but I feel that our site visits actually had an impact on how I see research, and I hope to use some of the lessons I learned to enhance my own mindset as a professional.
During our visit to the Institute for Genetics and Molecular Medicine (IGMM), the first thing that struck me was the photo they displayed at the beginning of the presentation – a wooden table covered in all the medicines that a cystic fibrosis (CF) patient must take on a regular basis — dozens and dozens of medications and therapeutic devices, with a total cost of up to twenty to thirty thousand euros per year: a truly staggering amount.
As someone who takes medication for depression/anxiety (though not a severe case), I understand the minor ways in which being medicated can be inconvenient to daily life – if I forget my medication or miss a dose, I often notice the effects on my mind. In addition, I can never drink alcohol due to one of the medications I take. This is all incredibly minor compared to the incredible inconvenience that a CF patient must face, not only financially but also logistically – it’s one of the unseen ways that illness can disadvantage a person. It’s not just an unpleasant physical feeling or a cost associated with paying for treatment – keeping track of all the things one needs to do to stay well is a full-time job.
On top of that, I feel that this particular display helped me better understand CF as a human condition – I’ve read about the molecular biology of CF, how it’s a defect in a chloride ion channel leading to mucous buildup in the lungs, but it usually takes a personal encounter with the disease before it actually comes to life for someone. I believe this display helped me gain some more empathy to be able to understand the struggles of patients with complicated diseases, something that I hope will serve my patients well when I become a clinician (at least, that’s the hope).
One other aspect of the IGMM visit that appealed to me was the approach they took toward CF. As they explained, the primary hazard to patients suffering from CF is pulmonary (lung) complications caused by mucous accumulation. While the first task in a gene therapy approach to CF would be to discover a potential vector for this treatment (a difficult task in itself), the real challenge occurs when it becomes apparent that the mucous buildup actually acts to directly hinder the delivery of treatment to alleviate the buildup. That raises the question – what do you do when the malignant effects of the disease itself acts as a block to the treatment?
It’s a “Catch-22 – because the mucous is there, it is quite a bit harder to deliver treatment to the lungs. But if the mucous were removed, there would be no need for the treatment at all, since that’s the problem that we are trying to solve. Our visit to IGMM re-affirmed one of the key reasons I want to make research an essential part of my career – my fascination with solving puzzles. I refer to them not as problems, but as puzzles – I think the key difference lies in seeing setbacks not as impediments but as signposts that mark each stage of the intellectual journey and learning process.
While it is critical to separate the very real and human stories of the patients we serve from the conditions they face (and not treat the people merely as puzzles to be solved), the brain-tickling puzzles that we encounter in the lab challenge the way we think about obstacles in our path and compel us to be creative.
This leads rather nicely to my thoughts on FIOS, one of the other companies we visited. The first thing that caught my attention about their presentation was their discussion of combinatorial chemistry – using computers to predict what compounds might be effective drug candidates. For as long as I have been familiar with the drug discovery process, I’ve been fascinated with how we as a species have developed techniques to so rapidly and efficiently find compounds with biologically significant activity. Although there are many things that might rule out these so-called “hits” (chemical compounds with the intended biological effect), the fact that we have this capability awed me for a long time. To be honest, it still fascinates me.
But here at FIOS, they turned this concept on its head – they explained that “rational drug discovery” as we understand it is actually quite flawed. Blindly searching for hits in vast chemical compound libraries in a purely automated fashion is inefficient – it is low-yield with high effort, and it serves to build the drug production pipeline around the drugs themselves and not the diseases they are supposed to treat.
Instead, they said, we should be focusing on the creative process of drug discovery – rather than attempting to automate more and more of the process, we should apply human ingenuity and pattern recognition skills to speed up the process and see solutions that a computer may not. This particular mindset stood out to me – while I realize that scientific discovery almost always requires critical thinking, I hadn’t really thought about how the human element might in some ways be superior to a more automated approach.
Creativity, unorthodox approaches, and finding patterns between seemingly unrelated concepts – all abilities where humans far exceed computers, at least for the moment. In a field where automation is hailed as a panacea for the inefficiencies of lab work (and, to be fair, it does significantly increase efficiency) I found it incredibly interesting that the human element can remain a critical asset to advancement and further development.
This emphasis on mindset and novel approaches was also discussed by Professor Chandran in his short presentation at the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic. (Yes, that Rowling. It was her mother.) As he described how difficult it is to study the brain due to the various challenges associated with human neurological research, he emphasized that the human element is what will ultimately change the game – novel perspectives and creativity will allow us to move past the barriers that plagued the previous generation.
And that’s what I think I learned from this trip – even though technological advancement can be an incredible tool to enhance our scientific prowess and efficiency, the human element is what will ultimately prove the difference between success and failure. We’ve been so conditioned to see technology as the facilitator for nearly all of the major puzzles in science – next-generation DNA sequencing, novel forms of PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction, a DNA analysis technique), microarrays (gene expression analysis), spectrometry (protein analysis).
But that’s what technology is, a facilitator. It will be of great use to us, and it has been – but only if we develop the creativity and ingenuity to match it.
Ah yes, the Long Study Tour – easily one of my favorite weeks in Europe so far. Filled with companionship, science, nerd gear, and awkward photos – some of my favorite things.
It’s a lot like Core Course Week – but instead of cities in Denmark, Core Classes get to travel to one or more cities in the rest of Europe! Some went to Estonia, some to Italy – my class voyaged to the capital of Scotland: Edinburgh. (Pronounced “Eh-din-buhr-uh.”
For this post, I’m going to try something a little different – rather than a synopsis of the trip overall, I’ll be making a conscious effort to skip any of the dull bits, jumping from outing to outing. In case you want to skip to a particular part of the trip, here is the table of contents for this post:
Hike up Conic Hill
She Blinded Me With Science
A Nerd’s Candyland
I had never been to the United Kingdom before, so I was beyond excited to finally visit one of its constituent countries (personally, I’m more a fan of Scotland than England). We left on Sunday, October 7 from Kastrup airport; the flight was mostly uneventful, apart from the perilous landing, where the turbulence made it seem like we would come tumbling through the clouds at any moment.
Perhaps I’m overstating it.
We landed safe and sound, and after clearing immigration (where the officer grilled me for almost 2 minutes), we were in the land of the Scots! Although the weather was rainy and overcast, I was ready to get started.
The remainder of the day featured some unpacking in our rooms, wandering around, and a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Note about the rooms: since there are 3 male students in my core class, and the rooms were doubles, I got my own room!
Our first site visit was the Edinburgh Castle: a magnificent representation of the region’s history and the struggles of the Scottish people.
On the way, we had the chance to traverse the city, taking in the atmosphere of the city and adjusting to our new surroundings. Among many other things, we encountered a statue of David Hume, the most prominent Scottish philosopher of history.
When we arrived at the castle, the first thing that struck me was the incredible view – sitting atop Castle Rock, as it is known, the battlements overlook the city and provide a magnificent panorama to anyone standing atop it. As we picked up our tickets and entered the castle, I noticed the Latin saying atop the arch entrance – “Nemo me impune lacessit.” No one harasses me with impunity.
Pretty badass, right? Here’s another fact: it’s the motto of the chivalric “Order of the Thistle”. That’s right: the Scots picked as their national flower a plant that is covered in sharp thorns. In case you were wondering whether the Scots like to defend themselves.
The walls of the castle were very old, and they certainly appeared so – and yet, they seemed resolute in their task: defend the castle and the people inside it, usually from the English. Massive cannons were placed on the walls and faced the area outside the gates, the most obvious point of attack.
There were a number of smaller structures inside the castle – a barracks building, built in the 1790s, meant for housing a battalion of 600 soldiers (plus their officers) that protected the castle.
We also encountered a bagpipe man statue (because of course we did).
Inside one of the buildings was a gallery of medals and accolades awarded to soldiers of Scotland through the ages, commemorating their sacrifices and service to their nation. I was particularly struck by one, however, that commemorated the Scottish contribution to the brutal suppression of Indian freedom fighters in 1857.
We visit historical sites and are often awed by them – I am constantly fascinated by the richness of history, architecture, and the stories of old. But things like the Indian Mutiny Medal remind me of the cracks in this façade – even though I was thrilled by my experience in the Edinburgh Castle, it helped me contextualize this history in the scope of a larger narrative. Rather than using this particular artifact (and the oppression it’s associated with) to discount or condemn the history of the UK, I believe this helps us tell ourselves and each other a more complete story of Scotland and of Britain – to understand this narrative in all its aspects and perceive it as it is, and not as the romantic ideal we might hope it to be.
We also saw a sculpture piece that depicted the crowning of Robert the Bruce – a national hero of Scotland who led his people against England in battle and fought for Scottish sovereignty until his last breath. One non-obvious thing I always love about sculptures is how they depict clothing – the intricacies with which stone carvings can display the folds, creases, and ripples of garments always draws my attention, no matter what the subject of the work is.
We also had a bit of identity theft with Robert the Bruce, in which someone tried to be crowned in his place…
Fun fact: James III of Scotland was married to Margaret of Denmark, a Danish princess! This united the kingdoms of Scotland and Denmark for a time.
In another part of the castle, we encountered a memorial site for Scottish soldiers who had given their lives in modern history – chiefly, in the World Wars. As I mentioned before, even though Britain has a record of imperialism, I still feel able to appreciate this memorial and the sacrifices made by these soldiers to protect their home.
My favorite part of the castle, by far, was the melee weapons demonstration made by a wonderful guide in one of the military buildings. He explained to us the strategy behind melee fighting in the era of William Wallace, as well as how the weapons’ strengths and weaknesses played into such tactics.
First, he showed us the Claymore, also known as the “Great Sword”. It’s incredibly heavy (I could barely move it around) and required a great deal of strength to use in combat. One of its major advantages was that it could indirectly defeat many types of heavy armor – rather than piercing it, the sheer force would cause blunt force trauma, causing conditions and breaking bones.
Often, soldiers would hit their opponents with the hilt, or pommel, of their swords as a blunt force attack – hence the term “pummel” to describe an aggressive physical attack.
There’s some more nerdy idiom stuff here, so if you aren’t interested in that stuff, skip down to The Haunted Tour.
To combat the force of a great sword, many soldiers would put wads of soft materials underneath their armor – but after enough blows, this material would start to fall out, making them more vulnerable – hence the term “beating the stuffing out of someone”.
I was amazed at how many common terms come from medieval practices. I won’t bore you with all of them, just my favorites.
“Half-cocked” – to mean poorly planned; the firing mechanism of an early musket had a “half-cocked” and “fully-cocked” position, and only the full-cocked position could result in a successful firing of the musket.
“Flash in the pan” – to refer to a clearly visible display that ultimately has little substance; if a musketeer missed a step in the reload process, the newly loaded charge of gunpowder would ignite before the musket ball was loaded, resulting in the “bang!” of gunpowder without a bullet actually being fired.
“Best man” – to refer to the highest attendant male on the groom’s side. The term “best man” comes from the term “best fighting man”. Traditionally, the groom stands with his left side to the bride. Why? In case he needs to draw his sword to defend her (with his right hand), she shouldn’t be at risk of getting hit. In turn, if the best man needs to defend the newlyweds, he needs his sword side free to avoid hitting them.
Why do we show the front of our hands to people, shake their hands, or remove our gloves before shaking their hands? To show that 1) we don’t have the branded mark of a criminal on our palms and 2) we don’t have a hidden weapon or poison in our weapon hand.
We eventually did leave the castle, but not before meeting this boofer. He gave me a big cuddle.
The Haunted Tour
Some of us had found out that free walking tours were available in Edinburgh – particularly, one that focused on the spookier aspects of the city’s history.
We learned about everything from grave robbers (who killed people and sold their bodies to the medical school as cadavers) and a cannibalistic child (who ate part of another child and whose spirit apparently lives on). Too much? Probably.
The highlight of the tour wasn’t just the content – it was the incredible young Scot that led it! He’s a born entertainer, and I had the most amazing time hearing from him about his experiences in Scotland and his witty take on everything we discussed.
One of the experiences that DIS had planned for us was a medically-themed tour of the city of Edinburgh. DIS had forgotten to book the guide for day 2 of the trip, but we managed to get her on day 4, and it was worth the wait!
We learned a great deal about the history of medicine as practiced and developed in Edinburgh. For example, Joseph Lister, a physician and researcher at the University of Edinburgh, was a pioneer in antiseptic surgical technique. He discovered that a substance he dubbed “carbolic acid” (for you orgo nerds out there, it’s now called phenol) helped reduce infection rates post-surgery. This allowed sutures to be used more widely, since they could be sterilized. Oh, also, it’s Lister as in Listerine – the surgical antiseptic first released in 1879, and now a household name!
A student at the University Edinburgh took note of one of his professors, Joseph Bell. The student was struck by Bell’s skills of observation and deduction, later incorporating many aspects of Bell’s personage into a literary character – Sherlock Holmes.
John Bennett, the first physician to provide a description of leukemia? Alumnus of University of Edinburgh.
The first woman graduate of a medical school ever (Margaret Ann Bulkley), under a fake male name, no less? University of Edinburgh.
First use of hypodermic needles and IV drips? Alumni of U of Edinburgh.
Also, many American medical schools were founded by University of Edinburgh alumni – Columbia, University of Pennylvania, Yale, Dartmouth, and Harvard, to name a few.
Stirling Castle / Hike up Conic Hill
This particular excursion features some struggles. But then, what good adventure doesn’t have a few bumps?
On Wednesday, we visited Stirling Castle, one of the most significant castles in all of Scotland. Throughout the tumultuous history of Scotland, the fortress had been a key element of Scottish struggles against English rule.
Here, we had the chance to explore certain aspects of day-to-day living for the royals, including their private chambers, audience areas, and anterooms.
Following this trip, we took a trip to Conic Hill in the Highlands near the city of Stirling. Although the peak is shaped rather like a cone, the name actually comes from the Gaelic “coinneach”, which means mossy.
We had a guide with us, Michael – in the glorious Scottish accent, he guided us through our experiences of the day. It was a long hike, beginning first with a paved road which eventually gave way to a gravel path. This eventually led to a series of stone stairs, which in turn yielded to a long ascent covered only by a sloped dirt path – although, due to the rain, most of this was mud.
There were a number of stopping points for us to take pictures and reflect – due to the good weather, we could see the east bank of the famous Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Scotland. The picture was simply magnificent – figuratively and literally, since an artist had set up an easel on one of the grassy plateaus along the path and began to sketch as we sat down in the grass beside him.
I had hoped to climb to the top and gaze upon the landscape from the apex of Conic Hill, but alas, I slipped a couple of times and fell in the mud, which ended up approximately all over me, and inside my phone’s charging port (I got it out).
Despite these frustrations, my muddied self had the chance to sit down and truly look at what I could see. When hiking, it’s often easy to block out the larger surroundings – paying attention to where your foot goes next in order to not to fall, your throat which may need some water, your breath which might be getting more strained as the hill gets steeper.
Taking that little tumble (after which I sat down) gave me the chance to take a breather in the grass at one of the lookout points and really look at Loch Lomond.
Speaking of the Loch – some of you may have heard the song named after this lake. For those who haven’t, the lyrics are:
“By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,
Where me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
“Oh you’ll tak’ the high road an’ I’ll tak’ the low road,
And I’ll be in Scotland, afore ye,
For me and my true love will never meet again,
On the bonnie bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
“T’was there that we parted, in yon shady glen,
On the steep, steep sides of Ben Lomond,
Where in purple hue, the highland hills we view,
And the moon comin’ out, in the gloamin’.”
According to Michael, the story behind the song goes as follows:
Two Scottish soldiers, friends since childhood, fighting for Bonnie Prince Charlie, are taken prisoner by the English during an attempt to take Stirling Cast;e. Per custom, the soldiers were instructed to contact their families and ask for a ransom, paid to the English, to ensure their safe return to their homeland. While one family was able to put together a ransom, the other was not – allowing the first soldier to leave while the other remains to be hanged.
The second soldier laments his fate and his inability to return home, saying that his comrade would take the high road back to Scotland (returning home alive) while he would take the low (the path of the dead) – although his spirit would still return home before his friend made it.
It’s quite a sad song, really.
There’s something powerful about seeing a place that inspired a piece of music – sharing a view with someone who, nearly 200 years ago, was inspired to tell a story centered around this place. Like watching the stars above us, gazing upon Loch Lomond connects us instantly with the distant past – with a set of circumstances and a way of living entirely different from our own. And yet, we understand the soldier’s sorrow and resignation. We feel his nostalgia, and it makes sense to us. That’s the beauty of Loch Lomond.
Whisky! (As the Scots spell it)
After our jaunt to Conic Hill, we bused over to the Glengoyne Distillery, makers of some of the most famous whisky in the world! Our visit to their brewing facilities began, of course, with a sample of some fine whisky – medically, I can’t drink alcohol, but I managed to mooch off one of my friends for a tiny sip. It was quite good.
In a way, this was both a scientific and a cultural visit – as we explored the facility, we were able to see each aspect of the fermentation and brewing process, as well as the massive machinery that powered it.
The alcohol industry is fascinating that way – wine/beer/whiskey tasting is considered an art, practiced only by connoisseurs with an “intuition” for the subtle notes and flavors in a drink; but the creation of alcohol is very much a science, supported by decades of meticulous experimentation and processing. It’s indicative of a trend that is more common than many realize. Science and art are hardly at odds, and they often grow out of and reinforce each other.
Less than 24 hours after arriving in Edinburgh, I realized that one of the early battles of Avengers: Infinity War (and one of my favorite scenes in any Marvel film) takes place in this very city!
With some meticulous analysis of online articles and stills from the movie, I managed to track down a few locations: Cockburn (pronounced “KOH-burn”) Street and the Waverley train station.
I dragged my friend Maddie along for my scavenger hunt, and we did eventually find the spot where Scarlet Witch was thrown through a window by Proxima Midnight.
More importantly, thanks to a kind security guard, we found the spot where Scarlet Witch and Vision prepared to make their stand against Proxima Midnight and Corvus Glaive. Behind us is the exact spot where Steve Rogers arrives to save the day!
It’s not as bad as it sounds.
Greyfriars Kirkyard, a cemetery named for a beloved dog, is one of the most famous in Edinburgh. In fact, one of the graves belongs to the dog, and people visit the grave, leaving sticks for him. (Did I cry a little? Yes. Definitely yes.)
Rumor has it that in this cemetery, it’s possible to find the graves of people with the following names:
So of course we had to visit.
Maddie and I headed over to the cemetery around 10 PM, well after the area had turned pitch black. Using our flashlights, we found the section where the graves supposedly were, and we went to work. Moving quickly but respectfully from grave to grave, checking whether the name matched, then moving on. Eventually, we did come upon all three graves, which were fairly close together!
Luckily, we didn’t run into any particularly grumpy Scottish ghosts.
She Blinded Me with Science
Although we did spend quite a bit of time on academic visits to biotechnology companies, we also had a chance to do our own scientific exploration!
One example of this was our visit to the National Museum, where we had the chance to see Dolly, the first organism ever successfully produced as the result of cloning!
My favorite scientific digression, however, was our visit to the Pathology Museum where they have hundreds of tissue and organ samples from donors with various medical conditions — everything from teratology of Fallot (a heart condition) to hydrocephalus (fluid buildup in the brain), including many disease I hadn’t even heard of. It was incredible to actually see these samples from real people who actually suffered from these ailments — though I do not mean to diminish their anguish and suffering as a result of their conditions.
It always blows my mind how, long before we even knew how infection worked or how cancer spread, we as a species were able to make use of the tools we did have: our eyes, ears, our intellectual curiosity, as well as our ability to conduct systematic investigation and apply strategies of deduction. We could see patterns in diseases like leukemia and other types of cancer without having any idea that a particular gene was mutated or a specific protein had been misfolded, resulting in the growth of a tumor. And yet, we would not be where we are now, as a scientifically literate species, without the work of our predecessors, who had to blindly grope around in the dark (quite well, I might add) for explanations to phenomena they could hardly see.
(Photography was not allowed, hence the lack of pictures.)
A Nerd’s Candyland
Near the end of the trip, I had the chance to visit a store called “Galaxy” — a shop filled with memorabilia from Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek. It was like a dream — they even had replica combat-ready swords from Westeros (including Needle, Oathkeeper, and Longclaw, for y’all fans out there).
I managed to contain my exuberance, though my eyes misted up a little bit — I ended up getting a mug and a thermos, both of which I needed (or did I?).
Following this, I was fortunate enough to find a piano store, where they let me jam for a bit. I can’t begin to describe how wonderful it was to touch a real piano again!
One of my favorite parts of Edinburgh was the variety and quality of the food we had.
Most vegetarian-friendly places were unpopular among the rest of the group, so Maddie (a vegan) and I set out to find some meat-free alternatives whenever we could. By far, my favorite was an Indian restaurant called Kalpana (meaning “creativity” in Hindi), where I had a fantastic Mysore Masala Dosa (a savory crepe stuffed with potatoes, onions, and spices). To be honest, I kind of want one right now.
I also had the opportunity to try haggis – not real haggis, of course, since a boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with other sheep parts is hardly vegetarian. Rather, a vegan restaurant offered a vegan version of haggis – where the style of preparation was the same, but alternative sources of protein were used. I was pretty surprised at how good it was!
We also had a chance to get up close and personal with some stuffed animals at a vegan café.
When I returned to Copenhagen, I felt pretty disoriented – it’s that feeling you get when you’ve been gone just long enough to reset your usual routine but not so long that you’ve adapted to living in the new place. I suppose that means that Copenhagen had become my home of sorts – a place I could feel weird coming back to after a trip to another country.
And as strange as that was, it seems like a good thing.