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Perfect Places: Spaces of Learning (Part One)

What the heck are perfect places, anyway?


I love learning. It's one of those truths about myself that I know with absolute certainty.

My love for learning is rooted in this realisation: learning moves us past the darkness of unknowing, and it allows us to foster more light with every question you ask. If it is done right, you become an active participant in the fight against fear (which often stems from ignorance). Every answer makes a space more familiar and creates a sense of home. As I live and study in a foreign country, this notion of home-making has become very important to me.

Fortunately, studying in Scotland has offered me several places of learning -- places beyond the classrooms at George Square. These are six places I have learned in during my first six weeks of the semester.


1. McEwan Hall at the University of Edinburgh

McEwan Hall

Back in the Middle Ages, magnificent cathedrals were built to reveal the majesty of God to those who could not read Scripture. These cathedrals were built with immensely high ceilings so your eyes would constantly be drawn upwards towards heaven. McEwan Hall, the graduation hall at the University of Edinburgh, has a similar effect.

By a stroke of luck, I was able to behold the sight of McEwan Hall while attending the Principal's Welcome. My lovely roommate saved me a seat, which was a blessing since the venue had reached maximum occupancy. I entered this buildings and immediately felt humbled by the splendour.

I could not help but study all of the intricate details -- feasting my sight on the gold mouldings and rose-colored columns. Unlike the rest of Edinburgh (or any university building I have ever been to), McEwan Hall is built in an Italian Renaissance style. There is a large semi-circular dome with a ceiling fresco honouring different academic disciplines. Goddess-like personifications of academic disciplines (mathematics, astronomy, poetry, divinity, etc) drape the roof with their varicoloured gowns, enticing your eyes to drift upwards. This is like being in a cathedral of learning. You become humbled by the weight of what you do not understand and leave with goals as high as the skylight above you.

In this space with its echoing chambers, the University's Principal, Tim O'Shea, welcomed the new class with words of encouragement and inspiration. He lacked the twinkling eyes, moon-shaped glasses and bore no great white beard -- but still, it was the closest thing to Dumbledore's yearly welcome of Hogwarts that I have ever experienced. During the talk, O’Shea described the incredible accomplishments of Edinburgh students. From 1538 onwards, students have left Edinburgh to change the world of chemistry and geology, statistics and genetics; not mention a myriad of incredible writers who have studied here. There are so many that the principal said, "If you don't know what to do after graduation, you could always become a writer." (To which I internally shrieked to myself, in the great words of Cher from Clueless, as if)

I left feeling small but wanting to conquer the world anyway. It is a good note to start the academic year off. The first words of instruction for my third year of university was, "Welcome the tensions that make you accomplish the impossible." It is corny and expected at the beginning of a new term, but I let it resonate with me anyway. I think when you place someone in a beautiful large space like that and challenge them to do crazy things (hopefully good crazy things), they feel compelled to do so.


2. Scottish National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery

One thing that has always bothered me about accessibility to art is that there is hardly any if you are without means. Location, money, transportation, and time can hinder someone from experiencing artwork directly. Even with my fortunate upbringing in Southern California, it is not easily available. My brother and I would have to set aside an entire day to drive to LA to go to any worthwhile museum -- journeys that would be rewarding but also frustrating due to the nightmarish LA traffic. (Especially when going to the Getty on the 101. The best museum in LA comes with a price)

Maybe I am a humanities snob or idealist (oftentimes the same thing), but I sincerely believe you learn more when you stand in front of a painting. This will always be better than looking at the glossy pages of a textbook while your intense art history teacher screams to you about the feminist undertones of blooming flowers.

Living in Edinburgh is different. The National Galleries in Scotland are a love letter to the citizens of Edinburgh, welcoming them (for free, might I add) into this exciting and colourful classroom. On the day of my first art history lecture, I learned about paintings from the Scottish Enlightenment and Jacobean Uprisings. A few hours later, I was able to see the paintings in the flesh, to stand a few feet away from the artefacts of a history that only existed by the word of mouth from my stuffy professors (just kidding, I typically enjoy my lecturers). Not only is the real life application exhilarating, but the more you look at a painting you love the more you observe, the more it can become a part of you.

Being at the museum has allowed me to learn not only from the paintings themselves, but also I from the people I encounter at the museum. I have seen kids sit down in front of Rueben's bloody, dynamic The Feast of Herod -- sitting down cross-legged in front of it and wondering about the severed head on the silver platter. "What kind of party is this?" an inquisitive young boy once asked.

I really loved seeing this -- seeing children having access to a splendid museum and think about the canvases on the wall. It is so irritating only seeing a certain class of people or a certain race of people have the luxury of experiencing art. More than anyone, young students (students of colour especially) should be able to go to these places and see things grander than they could imagine. When museum are open to all and in the centre of a bustling city, everyone has a chance to learn.

(I also had a stirring conversation with an old man in front of a Rembrandt's Self-Portrait, Aged 51. More on that later)


3. Scottish Poetry Library

Blueprint of the Scottish Poetry Library designed by Malcolm Fraser

After a rough morning of almost losing my mini notebook and running to the Scottish Parliament to avoid missing a tour, I began walking from the Canongate back to my university. A few minutes later, I noticed a sign leading passer-byes to the Scottish Poetry Library, pointing towards a stone alleyway right before the Starbucks on Crichton's Close. In the heart of medieval-style Old Town was this small, modern building. I followed the cobbled-stones to the entrance.There is is a small inscription on the door, " are about to enter a building that is more than a building."

Sarah Kay once described poetry as, "a house big enough for everyone." When I stepped into the Scottish Poetry Library, it felt like I was stepping into that house. It is ordinary and quite small, and tucked away in the close a busy city. But it feels like a sanctuary.

The library is devoted entirely to poetry, both from Scotland and all over the world. The shelves are extremely well-stocked with books from poets you've never heard of (and poets you have). It possessed anthologies for practically every subject--from gardening to sex to cats (not in the same collection). There are little postcards that are free to any visitor--displaying words of greetings, free poetry to take away, and advice on how to read and write. The workers there are immensely kind, and I was offered to make like Arthur and sign up for a library card (I excitedly took up the offer).

Maybe I am a giant nerd for this, but being in this space makes allows me to directly engage with my dreams of writing and love for words. It has given me access to poetry that I could not find elsewhere (more on that later), it has given me a haven to retreat to -- making me remember why I am working so hard and struggling so often. It is a place that is so dear to my heart, and will miss greatly when Californian becomes my home again.

The motto of the Scottish Poetry Library is "By leaves we live." I asked the receptionist what this meant. The words are from Patrick Geddes. He was a Scottish botanist, and the quote seems to be, quite literally, about biology.

It goes: "This is a green world, with animals comparative few and small, and dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live."

The receptionist told me that the entire quotation is about needing to live on more than just money and materials. "...And we live not by the jingling of our coins, but by the fullness of our harvests."

By leaves I live -- by the cobblestones that lead to the library, the quiet of the galleries, the majesty of learning cathedrals. By the love of my hometown and my family, the love of my home university and those friendships. By the diminishing light of sunsets and and coolness of dawn. I have had the blessing of living by these things for the past two and a half months and am made better with each continuing moment.


Thank you for reading along! Initially, I wanted to make one blog post for this subject but I have too much to say. So this blog post focused on architecture (more or less), art, and poetry. The next one? I have music and photography on my mind. Hoping to write that one very soon! Stay tuned.

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