Back in the Bubble
Seeing St Andrews with Fresh Eyes
My friends, flatmates, and anyone who I’ve bumped into on market street might already know that I’ve just come back from a year abroad. I mean, I do start almost every sentence with, “When I was in France” (it makes me feel slightly cooler and more sophisticated than I was a year ago). Walking around town in a blazer, carrying a Sciences Po Strasbourg tote bag, I have certainly leant into the rightly cringe-worthy stereotype of “that gap yah girl”. Yes, Strasbourg might not be Thailand but they probably differ from St Andrews in equal measure. So, now that I’ve spread my wings and come back a year older, and I would claim, A LOT wiser, I feel that I’m in a unique position to offer my thoughts on our tiny town.
1) It’s really very small
Population: 18,410 (allegedly). Size: 4.9km2. Actual size: three streets plus two and a half beaches. When you come back from a European metropolis (fine, I might be exaggerating a bit), the claustrophobia becomes even more acute. There’s only so many oat flat whites you can drink and walks along West Sands you can go on before the inevitable question looms – what to do now? And whereas before I could go for an uninterrupted cycle on my beloved red bike (named Marie-Christine in case you were interested) and find myself at a museum or an art gallery, the options for entertainment in St Andrews are decidedly more limited. In fact, I’d say taking the current top spot in TripAdviser activity recommendations is observing streams of Freshers flock to Empire in search of their nightly sustenance. Exciting stuff, indeed.
There’s also zero separation between work and play. Given that the building your tutorial is in is next to the pub, it’s no wonder that Prince William said you either leave married or an alcoholic. I tried to defend us Brits against the stereotype that we’re falling on the floor at 4pm, but on my return quickly realised that the French hadn’t got it wrong. Guys, come on, mid-morning drinking? C’est pas normal!
But when 10,000 18-22 year olds are stranded together in a small town on the east coast of Scotland, there is one skill that is fostered more than any other – creativity. As a result of the cold weather and general lack of things to do, St Andrews’ students are able to create fun out of literally anything. No-one does a girls’ brunch quite like a St Andrews student – are the three types of pancakes and the lethal mimosas really necessary? And I think it’s the sheer boredom that’s made us acclimatise to the icy cold waters at Castle Sands, not to mention our bizarre obsession with going to an outrageously expensive ball.
In summary, I’ve realised that while St Andrews is great for people watching, it’s less great for trying to avoid your crush in Tesco whilst you blindly stumble towards the Berocca – it may cure your hangover, but not the shame you feel for having ventured into 601 (for the fourth time this week).
2) The drama is worthy of an Oscar
I’m an avid watcher of Made in Chelsea. Some might even call me a mega fan. Drink being thrown in a face? Two girls shouting at each other whilst at a polo match? I just bloody love it.
But this same drama playing out within the three streets that I inhabit? I’m decidedly less of a fan. In a bigger city, with a greater range of distractions and a wider choice of entertainment, people have more things to worry about than what other people are getting up to. They have exhibitions to frequent, concerts to attend and day trips to go on. In our tiny, slightly isolated town, your choices are more limited. You see the same people at every event and, once you’ve discussed the questionable DJ lineup, you’re left with one more option – people. What they were wearing, what they were doing, who they were talking to. And thus, my friends, the gossip starts. Whether the information is true or twisted doesn’t really matter – as long as there’s something to discuss. Et voila, le drame. And what makes this drama intensify is that everybody seems to know everything about everybody. Yes, this might be helpful if you’re trying to get to the bottom of who’s been messaging your boyfriend. But if you’re unfortunate enough to be the “other woman”, I can guarantee you’ll be facing the music before the boy’s had time to do his shoelaces. Good job the majority of them now wear loafers.
Though maybe this is no bad thing. Moral accountability is perhaps something we lack in our modern society – a place where our partying ex-Prime Minister gets off scot-free for his many many misdemeanours. In our little town, you’ll be called out for your mistakes – but you’ll also be given the chance to say sorry, to have a think and to make amends. We all know that you can’t make the best decisions one hundred percent of the time. At least here, you can’t run away from them. You’re forced to reflect and to deal with the consequences of your actions. Maybe this is a stretch but, in my mind, this might even help us to become, slowly, year by year, slightly better people capable of making slightly better decisions.
3) No one loves their uni quite like St Andrews students
The cultish obsession with St Andrews by St Andrews students is truly unmatched. They may complain about the black mould, boredom and bitchiness. But, woe betide any non-St Andrews student that dares to suggest that the Vic is incomparable to Bergheim. We all secretly love the comforting routine. We secretly love the repetitive conversations about everything and nothing. We secretly love that we can go for a swim any time of the day or night. Across the channel, you’re a student in a city. In St Andrews, you’re a St Andrews student.
So, what are the benefits of this newfound, yet profoundly unoriginal, fresh perspective? I’ve come to value the camaraderie and the “all in this together” mentality. Your friends will look after you, no matter what. If you’ve ever got an issue, a pint and some advice, whether it’s helpful or not, is never more than a five-minute walk away. A big city might sound great in theory but when it's 3:28am and you’ve decided you’ve had enough of being at a party with a group of strangers you can barely communicate with, getting on 3 metros is the last thing you want to do. Being able to walk three minutes home and have a cup of tea with the mates which have basically become your family is much more desirable.
And what’s really changed in St Andrews during my year in absentia? Well there’s less scaffolding and (somehow?) more coffee shops - side note: why has Madras Rugby Club become the hot new venue? But what hasn’t changed? The feeling. The feeling that comes from living in a town where it seems that you know everyone and that everyone knows you. It creates a type of community where anonymity just doesn’t exist. Frankly, I didn’t realise how much I valued this until I had the feeling of being a little bit lost and a little bit misunderstood in a foreign city. Now that I’m back and I get a fresh look at our tiny town, I think I am slightly more forgiving of the things it lacks and much more appreciative of the things it has. Our customs might seem strange, but the meaning behind them is actually quite sweet. When you’re all stranded in a small Scottish town together, the bonds that are formed are water-tight.
Image: Wikimedia Commons