Before too much more time gets away from me and I forget, I wanted to share some very practical things that I learned on this trip.
First, on blogging. I never did figure out the best time to sit down and write up my experiences while I was on this trip, so I’m afraid I don’t have advice for anyone undertaking this same experience, other than: be aware that your mind will be full and you will need time to process. I thought I’d have plenty of time in the evenings after dinner to write some posts here, but there were several factors that made that difficult on a regular basis. In my earliest days, I often had to get ready for my upcoming day by spending time on google maps and by reading up on where and who I was meeting with in the morning. After dinner was also my only chance to get in touch with folks back home, either by catching up on emails or by doing a live Google Hangout. Usually by the time I was done with all that, I was ready to collapse into bed. I’m a person who needs some time to process things, and I always felt I needed more time to process before the next day’s events came upon me. Also, a 5 hour time difference doesn’t seem so bad but … it will wear you down for a few days.
Second, getting on line. I didn’t even think about Eduroam until I looked at my phone one beautiful sunny morning while standing outside the Main Library. I figured I could check my email very quickly before my first meeting and not use up too much data. What a pleasant surprise to see Eduroam pop up as an available network! As a UMD member, you can log into Eduroam using your university id and password, so any time I was on the University of Edinburgh campus, I used this network and did not have to use up my personal data plan.
Speaking of data plans, I have Verizon wireless, residential, and email. I don’t know anyone who is thrilled with their service providers and Verizon has been minimally painful to me and their coverage has been excellent, so I stick with them. I did my research, and set up an international phone & data plan for my time in Scotland, and thought I was good to go. And I was, except for the fact that Verizon.net email will not work from an ip address from the United Kingdom. Yup, you read that right. I had read through the entire Verizon website on setting up international calling plans, and nowhere did it ever mention anything about email. So imagine my surprise when I tried to log in one morning and got the generic and useless error message: “There was a problem with your username or password. Please try again.” I tried again. And again. I tried to reset my password. Again. Finally I got on an ichat with an agent who right away said the issue was with my logging in from the UK. I even tried using a vpn, and he said, yeah, no, that won’t work either. Sorry.
Fortunately, I had no problems with my gmail account, which is what the University of Maryland uses. But I had been communicating with all my family using my personal Verizon account, so I had to send a message out to them all that we had to message each other with this gmail account. So just to repeat, you cannot log in to your Verizon email from the UK. I don’t know about other countries (it worked for me last year in Anguilla, which honestly, seems a little more sketchy given some recent banking practices there …), but save yourself some grief and look into it before you leave the US if you use Verizon email, and make alternate plans.
Next, packing. Last year I purchased a soft backpack from the RickSteves.com website, which served me well holding enough clothes for a 4-day conference in Denver, with room to spare. So on this trip I took that full of clothes that I planned out could mix and match. I took way too many warm clothes that I never wore, but such is the dilemma when you travel anywhere in February.
Whatever you do, make sure you have at least one pair of really comfortable shoes. Edinburgh is a very walkable city — in fact sometimes it’s just easier to walk if you know where you’re going than to take the buses which sometimes wind around. Although I got a weekly bus pass and did often use it, it also was not unusual for me to walk many miles in a day just going from one meeting to another, or one event to another, or to explore in my free time. It was not at all unusual for me to check my walking app at the end of the day and see that I had walked 4, 5, 6, or even 7 miles in a day — without really realizing it.
I also took a messenger-style laptop bag. I had planned to carry both things on to the plane, but when I got to BWI airport early on Saturday morning and realized I was wayyyy early, I decided to check with the British Air counter and see if they could check my backpack through to Edinburgh. They could, and so I ended up just carrying on my laptop bag in which I also had some essentials (saline for my contact lenses, toothbrush, etc.). Once I landed in Edinburgh it was easy to through the backpack over my shoulders and catch the Tram downtown, and then a taxi to the hotel. However, I realized I wanted to bring a lot of things back for family and friends, and I ended up getting a very good deal on a large suitcase on wheels at “T.K. MAXX,” (which is just like our “T.J. MAXX” in the States). I always wanted one of those suitcases, and it was on clearance. 🙂 For everyday use, I loved having the messenger bag, but a backpack would have been fine, too. I hesitated to bring a backpack, just like I hesitated to wear sneakers, thinking both would flag me as “American.” Clearly, it’s been a long time since I’ve been to Europe. Everyone wears backpacks and sneakers. But, still, I do like the Timbuk2 bag, and it was easy to carry my MacBook Air everywhere I went, as well as papers, etc. I also pack a cloth tote bag, because shops charge 5 pence for a plastic bag. That adds up, and also, I do not need to be collecting plastic shopping bags in my hotel room. So I brought along a cloth bag that rolls up very small when not in use, and just carried it everywhere I went, so that if I popped into the Tesco or Sainsbury’s for some tea bags or other provisions I could pull it out and save some money (and the environment).
Also, keep a folder for receipts. Maybe this is obvious, but on a long trip like this it’s very easy to set aside a small slip of paper and then lose it. I also kept a spreadsheet of my daily expenses so that once I got back to Maryland I could account for everything. When you apply for the grant, you allocate money for airfare and other transportation, hotel, and meals, and you want to be sure you’re accurate when you turn in your expense reimbursement form.
Lastly, take some time to enjoy your host country. I stayed on 4 extra days, and I still didn’t get to do everything I thought I would before I left. But looking back I do feel that I appreciated each and every day I was there, and I tried to be very “mindful” of my experiences. So I didn’t get to every historic site on my list, but at the places I did visit, I really stopped and looked around. I lit a candle for my mother at Rosslyn Chapel after my visit during the Festival of Creative Learning, because she would have loved the carvings and the stories behind them. Build some time into each day to experience the culture of where you are — as a white woman in Scotland (with a last name Johnston, no less), I fit in pretty well as far as physical appearances. But looks can be deceiving.
Or at least different. Be aware of the similar and the different. Take time to reflect. That’s easy to do in Scotland over tea (or usually coffee, in my case). But truly, it’s very easy to feel rushed, to feel that you need to always be heading for the next meeting or checking your email. But part of this grant experience requires that you understand the culture of the country you’re visiting, and you won’t get that from only sitting in meetings. You need to get out and meet people on the streets and in cafes. Have lunch or dinner with your hosts if you can, and get a more informal feeling for their institution, their positions, their experiences. It also may be your chance to try a falafel taco, or haggis. You just never know.
Stop, breath, look around. Learn and enjoy.