Thursday, June 8, 2017

Campaign Part 2: Tobermory Unleashed

This is the follow-up to my first blog post about an away trip to Mull.

On our first full day in Tobermory, we visited the local distillery (where I tried no samples) and the homemade chocolate store (where I tried many samples).
 And we set off on a tour of the island with a wildlife specialist called Ewan, who we highly recommend to any future Mull-goers.
The lambs were out in full force. I sang them the "Little Lambs so white and fair" Primary song...
They were not impressed. Neither were my three, tolerant traveling companions...

 ...but the most exciting wildlife we saw (speaking as an Arizona girl) was the Highland cow, a long-haired, long-haired, ginger-colored specimen of bovinity that could give our black-and-whites a run for their money!
Indeed, at times the scenery was positively Tolkien-esque!

On our third day, we took the ferry back to Oban, a pleasant fishing village (currently rather touristy), where we ate -- more fish and chips!
 Among other good things...
And the whole thing was positively magical :)

Monday, June 5, 2017

Studying/traveling in the UK: FAQs answered!

I'm getting an increasingly high number of messages these days along the lines of "I'm thinking about doing a masters/PhD/vacation in the UK, and my third-cousin-once-removed said you're there, so..."

I'm going to start collecting all my responses to these FAQs. I will add to this as I go!

  • I am in Divinity School, but I am studying Arab Christianity (almost no one studies Christianity in the Middle East, especially the contemporary context, hence my unplanned move to a Scottish Divinity School.) 
  • I am not here to study, criticize, or even comment on LDS theology, although of course my faith influences all I do. As I explore the intricacies of other faiths, I have gone deeper into my own than I ever imagined I would. I hope (and believe) that God can use this experience to build His kingdom, but for right now, I am two weeks into being Relief Society president in my family ward in Edinburgh, and I feel that is all the power and influence I could ever want times 10!
  • I have been very happy here at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Most faculty come from a mainline Protestant Christian perspective, although they have some Catholic faculty as well, with one Muslim professor and one Jewish lecturer. The very first LDS PhD student started last year, and I will be the second starting next year, but neither of us do LDS theology, and I'm honestly not sure this is the place to go for that.
  • I'm told that Edinburgh offers the most funding of any Divinity school in the UK, which (if true) is a plus. I've been able to get funding, but many of my classmates have not. It depends on both your grades (they value consistent strength over occasional brilliance in that regard) and whether they appreciate your proposed project. 

  • St. Andrews, Birmingham, and Durham are also well-known for their theology. Oxford is an obvious one, although funding is iffy, but they do more apologetics, I hear. I knew someone who went to Cambridge and found the atmosphere challenging. 
  • UK PhDs generally do not receive funding at anywhere near the same rates that we are accustomed to in the US. Scholarships are just not the same here, although the tuition itself is lower (but rising steadily, perhaps due to the influx of American students...)
  • One difficulty of a UK PhD, is that they require a developed proposal upon entry, rather than gliding into it as we do in the US. This means PhDs take 3-4 years rather than 5-6, but it does make candidates less competitive on the US job market, I am told (we shall see!). 
  • I have been studying about half-and-half in the Divinity School and the Islamic and Middle East Studies programs at the University of Edinburgh. The IMES program seems to be Arabic and Islam-focused, but leans toward classics and international politics. 
  • The weather and the food in the UK can be unfortunate, as you have probably heard, and the differences in banks and in the educational system itself have presented unexpected, fairly complex challenges, but the university does have a lot of American students, so they are accustomed to working with us, which helps. 
  • I really enjoy journalism, but it simply wasn't the long-term plan I wanted it to be right now. I don't yet know what my next step will be, but I don't think I will be able to write about topics such as Christian-Muslim relations, refugees, and Arab Christianity and stay out of public engagement forever. And that is exciting to me.  

Sunday, May 7, 2017

What's the story in Tobermory?

The big news for this post is that this writer is now a fully accepted, fully funded, PhD-student-to-be at the University of Edinburgh School of Divinity! * This means I have my First-Ever Three-Year Plan, and I'll be spending some serious time in the British Isles and the Middle East. إن شاء الله
With this in mind, I am launching a campaign to persuade friends and family to come and visit me. The ongoing campaign will include travel, photos of varying quality, and weekly blog posts.
The summer's adventures began here, in Tobermory on Mull:

I left Edinburgh on Thursday, April 28 - I and a few friends from the School of Divinity.

First, we took a train, traveling west to Glasgow and then heading north along the western coast of Scotland. The train ride was itself a treat, as we rode through Loch Lomand and its environs. It was a beautiful area, and I can well see why someone would "ever wont to be" with his true love on the banks of such a lovely loch!
Upon arrival in Oban, we took a ferry across to the island of Mull.

Then a bus across the island of Mull to Tobermory, where we ate the best fish and chips I have ever tasted!

I tried my first-ever helping of a classic British pudding - sticky caramel toffee cake!

Then a 2-mile walk from the charming village of Tobermory (which, it turns out, is the site of a well-known BBC children's show, so my British friends felt duly nostalgic).

All together, we traveled non-stop for 7 hours. It was a relief to settle into two charming huts at a remote campsite run by a native Mullian named Angus.

*This discounts on premise any unforeseen disaster on my masters thesis, of course. That is how I will spend my summer - details to follow.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Conquering Edinburgh Castle

So, Edinburgh has a castle. A big one, built near the beginning of the last millennium, with stones and history and turrets and towers and tapestries and . . . sigh. It's a great castle.

It's right up the street from the School of Divinity, so I see it regularly. It's all rather romantic.

For my 25th birthday, I decided to go inside. After all, you don't turn a quarter century every day!

It has a wall for defense with slits - it has been attacked and conquered many times before in Scottish history.
 It houses the oldest church in Scotland, built for Queen Margaret in the Middle Ages.
 This is a view from the castle wall, overlooking Edinburgh. The grass patch is a dog cemetery for generations of castle canines.
 This is the best window seat ever, located in the castle great hall.
 In this room, Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to James, later king of Scotland and England. (Think King James Version of the Bible.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

How to see London in 4 hours or less

"Surrey is the garden of England."
"Yes; but we must not rest our claims on that distinction. Many counties, I believe, are called the garden of England, as well as Surrey."
"No, I fancy not," replied Mrs. Elton, with a most satisfied smile. "I never heard any county but Surrey called so."
                                                                               - Emma by Jane Austen

It seemed like a convenient, inexpensive way to experience a city I have long wanted to see and start the semester off nicely. On my way back to Scotland from a holiday in sunny (and snowy) Arizona, I could stop for two days in London, attend one of the United Kingdom's two temples, and see a few key landmarks of Western civilization.
But first came two international flights, customs, and two train rides. After I dragged three pieces of luggage through the pouring rain for an hour looking for a bus-stop on the outskirts of London, I began to wonder about my plan. The bus-stop, it turned out, would leave me with more than a mile to walk on a country road; I broke down and found a cab.
"I know where the Mormon chapel is - quite a local landmark," the driver reassured me from the safety of a dry cab, adding that this was unusually bad weather for the area. But as the landscape changed from city to suburb, and from suburb to pasture-land, horses, and herds of damp sheep, he added, "You'll be way out in the sticks though."

The LDS London Temple, I would later be informed by a missionary at the Visitor's Centre, is located on Surrey and is actually 35 miles outside London, 7 miles from the nearest public transport station, and quite, quite far from any place to buy food rations. I hurried to the cafeteria upon arrival, as only one meal was served each day, and made it to lunch just in time. By the time I exited the temple, darkness had fallen and a rare snowfall had begun, stranding scores of visitors unexpectedly at the 29-acre site.

The guest accommodations at the temple site, like the service I was able to do there, were beautiful (although - word to the wise - they don't include towels), but I was beginning to worry about how I was going to leave again. My Edinburgh flight would leave Saturday morning on the opposite side of London, from an airport that the moderately helpful visitor's centre guide had never heard of.
To make matters worse, a transit-worker strike was limiting or closing down several train lines - including the one closest to my location.

I had quite given up the goal of seeing the great British capital; I was worried about making it back to Edinburgh.

Late Thursday night, while I pored over train maps and London maps and GoogleMaps, searching for a solution to the unwitting mess my ignorance had created, a friend reached out to ask how my flight had gone. I told her about delays in Canada that had meant I had to get my boarding pass printed three times, go through security four times, and run to the gate just minutes before the scheduled takeoff. And I told her about the current predicament.
We settled on a bus, which would leave at 10:30 pm on Friday from the center of London. And I had all of Friday to get there.
Temple service, a welcome lunch at last, and I decided to make one last inquiry about nearby buses at the visitor's centre before I tried my luck at a cab on Friday afternoon.
"There are no buses anywhere near here," the missionary told me. "And the cabs are spotty this far out, and expensive. You'll have to let me drive you to the station. We can leave at 5. Where exactly do you need to go tonight?"
I spent my last few hours learning about the faith of the British Saints from 1857 on, and I even received a garden tour (although January may not be its best month).
"It's gorgeous," I told the senior missionary, trying to be polite in my jetlagged and hungry state. "I have always heard that Surrey is one of the most beautiful areas of England, and I can see why."
"Surrey is known for it," he said seriously, "But Kent is the garden of England, and it's not far from here."
I restrained a laugh with difficulty.

After a ride from the missionaries, I took a train that deposited me in the middle of London at 6:30 p.m. It was pitch-dark, but my "rare excitement" would have had me dashing down the streets, if not for the luggage. I left it at the coach station and, with 3.5 hours to departure, set off to see London.

Did you know that the National Gallery, which lies within walking distance of Victoria Coach Station, is open until 9 on Friday nights? Or that a fast walker could see Westminster Abbey en route and, with enough wrong turns, catch the RAF World War II Memorial and Buckingham and Windsor Palace as well?
  I walked so quickly I had to dodge people waiting for the double-decker red buses, and I stopped at each site only long enough for a dimly lit photo. I had my four hours in London, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

A 10-hour bus ride later, and I was in Edinburgh, which was just opening to the sunniest Scottish winter day imaginable.

I dragged my luggage to a bus-stop, and with 30 minutes to wait, bought one of great mysteries of a Scottish breakfast: mealy sausage, fatty bacon, a floury roll, ketchup, and a fried egg with a sticky yolk that dropped softly onto my jacket front.
As I munched my Scottish breakfast, missed my bus, and instead met up with a friend who happened to land at just the same time, I reflected that this venture could probably have been done better - with more wisdom or basic knowledge of the geography around the London Temple, perhaps, it might have gone more gracefully, more cheaply, and above all, more sensibly.

But then again, it also might not have included a steaming sausage roll after an all-night bus ride that deposited egg yolk onto one of the few clean spots left on my jacket.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Tea-time in Scotland

"Yes, that's it!" said the Hatter with a sigh, "it's always tea time."
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland  

Thanksgiving in Scotland
...can be a lovely thing. The School of Divinity Postgraduate committee (of which I am part) put together a dinner in what I like to call our Great Hall. So far as traditional Thanksgiving fare goes, it was a valiant and lovely attempt, featuring as it did a stack of fruitcakes, an admirable selection of fine cheeses, and microwaved stuffing which I plopped out of its plastic containers onto trays I found in the PhD kitchen.

The pictures don't do it justice, I think because it's a dark room with rich colors and high windows, but it really does look like a (slightly) smaller version of  the Great Hall.

All this talk of food brings me very naturally to...

Grocery shopping in Scotland
I recently switched my grocery habits to Lidl, which is cheaper than Tesco but much more frightening, as it bears far less resemblance to an American grocery store in both size and structure.

They are terribly keen on self-checkout here, and also on bringing your own grocery bags (which cost 5 pence otherwise.)

When you make a mistake in self-checkout, the machine makes a loud croaking noise, and the light at your station flashes red. You have to wait until a clerk comes to reset the operation, then you stand there looking sheepish while he does so.

This always happens to me at least two times every single time I use the self-checkout.


This section is usually full of fresh pretzels, chocolate twists, and Nutella-filled crescents. I usually buy three to four.

I splurged on this monstrosity to go with the soup that I will make with the leftover turkey and gravy.

Scottish grocery stores don't refrigerate the eggs. I have no idea why.

This butter is terribly tasty, but I still don't know how it compares to US measurements, which is one reason that my cookies come up differently every time I make them. The girls on my hall still like them, though, and one classmate at the Thanksgiving dinner ate no fewer than seven!

I have been eating Muesli for breakfast, which is a Scottish staple - one of those oat-and-raisin concoctions that makes you feel very healthy while eating it (only it tastes like cotton, so I add fruit-flavored yogurt.) With the onset of cold weather, I am switching to porridge with Sultanas (see below).

The main reason I now shop at Lidl is because they carry an off-brand of Stopwafels (ie cheaper - I am actively representing an experimental "do Europe on a budget" research study. Inquire within to make a non-tax-deductible contribution.). They are a round, caramel-filled, and highly addictive waffle-based treat to be eaten with coffee or tea.

Where Stropwafels are concerned, I always consider it tea-time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Back by popular request: Abu Hamid

Many of you will remember someone who I will call Abu Hamid, from a previous post. He is a Syrian refugee who arrived in Scotland one year ago, and he is now living, working, and studying for a bachelor's degree in Edinburgh, although his family remains in Turkey.

Here is more of his story, back by popular request:

He reached out to me via WhatsApp to ask for help with his first writing assignment. We set up to meet at the University of Edinburgh library on a Wednesday evening (with some difficulty - if you struggle to make sense of my texts in English, you should see it in Arabic!). We found a spot in the library cafe, and he pulled up his document, a fairly simple, 500-word reflection piece.
It was quite a shock! The words were - in the most technical sense - English, but the structure and grammar of the piece was Arabic مية بالمية (100 percent)!
I began by line-editing, and we discussed how some of the words used were functionally correct but indicated "street language" rather than academic writing; others were idiomatic Arabic with no real equivalent in English. He took notes on the grammar rules as I explained them, asking me to write down Miss Gibbar's trusty FANBOYS mnemonic for all the conjunctions. (I refrained from singing him the song on that occasion.)
I knew we were making progress when he pointed to the juncture in a compound sentence and said, "Put a comma right there!"
He shook his head in some bemusement. "You really like commas, Lucy." 
(What can I say? Commas are my first true literary love, but like nearly all forms of punctuation, they make for rare finds in proper Arabic writing.)

When we needed to add a new paragraph, I offered to type while he dictated, which was still a bit rough on his laptop (aside: why are the keyboards different in the UK anyway?!) To my surprise, asking him to dictate in English all but solved our previous problems, as it forced him to think - and therefore formulate his ideas and grammar - in English.
An hour and a half in, we stopped by the library cafe for a quick break, and I saw a set of LDS missionaries waving at me from across the room. We walked over to greet them, and they explained that they were about to begin a lesson on the Word of Wisdom with a Chinese masters student who I knew - would I care to join?
I thought fast, then held a quick conference in Arabic with Abu Hamid (this caught the missionaries a bit off-guard, I am afraid. I don't think they had believed me when I told them I spoke Arabic).
I explained that these were friends from my Christian church, who were teaching an atheist student about God. Would he mind if this was our break? He seemed amused but unconcerned, and I made the introductions for the still-bemused elders.
"Where are you from?" they asked him.
"Syria," he replied.
"Syria," said one elder. "So what brought you to Scotland?"
Abu Hamid spoke slowly. "There is a war in my country," he said.
The elder continued to probe, "So, just here for studies then?" 
He glanced at me with mild incredulity, while I covered my mouth to stifle a nervous laugh. "I am a refugee."

Fortunately, that was our only "Aleppo moment," so to speak, and the lesson went smoothly. Abu Hamid noted that the Mormon health code was almost the same as one he follows as a Muslim. He nodded approvingly after I translated the word "commandment" into Arabic for him.
But I knew we were on thin ice, and I was praying internally the whole time that my faith that God puts different people in the same place for good reasons would prove correct.
My prayers would not stay silent for long. The Chinese student asked me to offer the closing prayer, and the missionaries asked to hear more Arabic.

It was the least graceful Arabic prayer I have ever sent heavenward. Nervous in the extreme, I prayed for the Chinese student's studies, his family, and his faith. I prayed for the missionaries' work, for our families, and for the influence of the Holy Spirit.
But I hesitated to mention the one person present (besides God Himself) who actually understood the words I spoke, lest I offend him with my stumbling Christian prayer.
When I closed, the missionaries and the Chinese student nodded approvingly, but the Syrian refugee to my right asked, "What about Abu Hamid?"
I launched quickly back into a prayer, asking our Father in Heaven to bless him in his studies, to help him to feel the love of God, and to bless his family in far-away Turkey. This time when I closed, he smiled and said, شكرا (thank you).

As we left the library, he told me how much he loved being able to study at the University of Edinburgh, and he used a rather beautiful word هبع- new to my still-so-limited Arabic vocabulary. To help me understand the term, he described several examples, using the word to describe his feeling of awe, gratitude, and wonder at God's bringing him to Edinburgh.

But to really help me understand, to really make his point, he added, "هبع - it's the same feeling I had just now, Lucy, when I heard you praying."