St Andrews is famed for its student traditions. If you’re in the town this month, it will be hard not to notice the widespread exam-time festivities called soakings. Volunteer blogger, Olga Loza gives us an account of her own experiences of surviving a soaking!
The month of May arrives in a whirl of blossoms, carrying with it two of the most cherished traditions that St Andrews continues to uphold; both involve water. On the morning of 1st May there is May Dip, the washing away of academic ‘sins’, the ritualistic submergence in the ice cold water of the North Sea—to wash away winter’s troubles and griefs; to emerge revitalised.
Later in the month takes place a more intimate tradition, one shared not with scores of strangers in various degrees of intoxication and nudity, but with a group of close friends: soakings. After the last exam, or handing in the very last piece of coursework in our undergraduate degrees our friends greet us with bucketfuls of water, mixed sometimes with glitter and sometimes with flower petals. (Occasionally, much less pleasant liquids and substances make their way into the mix, too; but let’s bracket this off for the time being.)
The symbolism of water in this ritual is potent and undeniable. In mythologies, religions, and cultures of many peoples, water is considered a symbol of change, of transformation. It forces renewal and is a medium of spiritual rebirth, a source of regeneration. Water is mutable, its state always uncertain as it metamorphoses from liquid to solid to gas. During soakings, water is used to mark a metamorphosis, too: from being an undergraduate student held firmly in place by so many structures (family, school, university) that were already in place for you, to having to invent or to forge new relations, connections, arrangements that will sustain you. As such, a threshold is crossed, a rubicon: adulthood and independence suddenly seem more real, more tangible.
My soaking was two years ago: I did it with a friend, our exams were in different venues and we agreed to meet afterwards. I arrived a little earlier than she did, stood nervously, confused, as the realisation that I just sat my last exam dawned on me. (As it turned out, it wasn’t even my last one as I sat through two gruelling exam diets in my Masters in the following year). The morning was grey, but mild, almost warm. Time seemed to move slowly, cautiously, and then, suddenly, very quickly: my friend arrived, a crowd of friends gathered around us and—I still remember the shock of the first gushes of water, and then the complete, utter disorientation as buckets, bottles, pans, jugs were emptied on us. Water was coming from all directions; it seemed to last an eternity. Someone brought warm water and I distinctly remember the feeling of warmth spreading from the crown of my head and down my spine—and with it, a new, unfamiliar, dizzying sensation that to this day I find difficult to define: liberty? relief? fear of the unknown that comes next? Perhaps, a mixture of all these, and more. Someone brought towels; then I remember embracing many people, and being given more flowers than I could hold, and a barrage of questions: How does it feel?
It feels, more than anything, confusing; you go home to change into dry clothes and the thought starts to sink in: a threshold is crossed. There is no turning back, and these streets, these people who brought water and flowers, the mild air, the warm concrete against your bare feet, the glitter in your hair, they will never cohere quite in the same way ever again. The soaking is an intense moment of elation, but afterward there is a sense of loss, of feeling lost. It’s fleeting: you soon settle into a familiar daily routine again; maybe you have a drink, go for a walk; maybe the sun comes out; maybe you go to your friends’ soakings. Eventually, you feel your shoulders lifting, breathing fuller: the metamorphosis sets in.
Photographs by Ilinca Vanau.
About Olga Loza
Olga is in the first year of her PhD in the School of Management. She studies markets: not the economists’ abstract, universal, omnipotent structures, but the lived—material and embodied—experiences of markets. She also researches, and occasionally writes about, gender, feminism, socio-economic mobility, and early-career academic life.