Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. I’ve promised myself that I would write as often as possible, but when it comes down to it, I find it incredibly intimidating to put pen to paper, or in this case, fingers to keyboard.
For those of you who might not know, I have decided to flee impending unemployment by escaping to the land of haggis and bagpipes. Mention Scotland to most Americans, and the image that immediately comes up is that of the ginger-bearded Scot, complete with kilt and bagpipes. Scotland is also famous for its breathtaking vistas and dreary weather. Surprisingly though, I’ve managed to avoid most of the cliches so far. The Scots are a very proud people, but much of the time, they are very self-deprecating, and most attempts to ham up their heritage are usually done with a very tongue-in-cheek attitude. Yes, this means the kilts and bagpipes do occasionally come out.
However, some stereotypes do hold true, but they are by no means bad. The people here are incredibly friendly, and it isn’t completely out of the norm for them to stop on the street and make conversation with complete strangers. I have already been stopped countless number of times by locals who are eager to offer advice on where to go. They also have a very dry sense of humor, and are ready to poke fun of anything, including themselves. I suppose they’d have to be good-natured to deal with the weather. The stereotypes about that are all true as well. I’ve been to many places that claim to experience four seasons in a day, but I’ve never actually experienced it until I got here. Mornings can often start off quite pleasant and sunny, but a freak stormcloud can roll in without warning by midday, dump a shower over your head, and then break, leaving behind muggy and oppressive sunshine. Even when it’s completely sunny out, the wind can be gusting past 20 miles an hour.
I’ve settled in Glasgow, which although is located only an hour south of the beginning of the Highlands and an hour west of Edinburgh, is about as far from what you would imagine Scotland to be like if your image of Scotland was derived from Braveheart. Glasgow is situated on the west coast of Scotland near the southern border, and it’s Scotland’s largest city, with a metropolitan population of about 1.2 million people. It’s also the third largest city in the UK, so it’s definitely no sleepy village. Glasgow enjoyed prosperity during the height of the British Empire, with the Clyde river becoming a major hub of trade and shipbuilding, and at one point was known as the Second City of the Empire. However, the city was hit hard by deindustrialization, and it gained a reputation as a tough and gritty place. For a long time, Glasgow was perceived as the ugly stepsister of Edinburgh, but ever since the 90s, the city has reinvented itself at a dizzying pace.
Today, Glasgow as a culture capital is probably second in most things only to London. Over the years, it’s won countless awards and distinctions as being a capital of style, architecture, and culture. It’s overmarketed to the point where the city’s official trademarked tagline is “Scotland with Style”, and you can see the slogan on banners throughout the city. Apparently, this was an improvement over the previous tag line, “Glasgow: Miles Better”, which begged the question, miles better than what, exactly? Of course, one of my main reasons for coming to Glasgow is that it has been a mecca for music. The streets in the city center are lined with venues, and notable Glaswegians include Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, and Travis. Many parts of the city are almost achingly hip, with trendy bars and shops on nearly every block that could put even San Francisco’s Mission District or the Lower East Side of Manhattan to shame. Like other rapidly gentrifying cities (DC and Oakland come to mind), there are still many neighborhoods you don’t want to be caught alone in at night, but for the most part, there’s not that much to worry about.
My flat is in the West End, which is actually one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city. Life in the West End revolves around the University, and as you can imagine, like most college towns, the neighborhood caters to students and the under-25 crowd. Byres Road, the main artery of the West End, runs adjacent to the university, and is constantly buzzing, rain or shine. Along the way, you will find coffeeshops and takeaway sandwich shops, and more vintage boutiques and uber-hip bars than you can shake a stick at. Its easy to be overwhelmed by the number of storefronts, but my favorite part of any stroll through Glasgow is looking up past the shops and at all the gorgeous Georgian architecture. Along the southern border on Argyle and Sauciehall (pronounced SAKEE-hall) Street, you’ll find much of the same, and it’s about a 30 minute walk into downtown, which is another adventure all in its own. I haven’t even really gotten a chance to explore downtown yet, but Buchanan Street deserves a post to itself. I really couldn’t ask for a better place to live.
Getting used to life in a different country is probably always a challenge, but so far, it has been relatively painless. American popular culture and British culture share many common similarities, and life in Glasgow isn’t all that different than life in any other big US city. Even so, there have been some difficulties. It’s debatable that we share a common language, as the Glaswegian accent can sometimes be frustratingly difficult to understand. This definitely is not something that is common to all Scots, as the Edinburgh accent is perfectly intelligible. There have been times when I have just been forced to smile and nod during conversations with excited Glaswegians because I have no clue what they’re on about.
Also, everything you’ve heard about Scottish food is true… to an extent. It isn’t difficult to find a quality meal if you’re willing to pay out the nose for it. So far, I’ve had a wonderful three-course meal at a trendy restaurant in the West End, and also some of the best Indian food that have ever graced my tastebuds. Unfortunately, these probably won’t be regular occurrences, as a nice meal with quality ingredients will probably start at around 6 pounds, and go up past 10. With the exchange rate hovering around 1.6, a couple meals out can start making your wallet ache pretty quickly. If you’re looking for a cheap meal around $5 that will fill you up and won’t kill you, forget it. The street diet here is downright scary, with no natural ingredients in sight. My first day here, I paid 4 pounds for a toastie, which was a grilled panini made from two slices of Wonderbread, the shredded cheese found in nachos in the States, and ham. I opted not to try the one with a ham and pickle filling. The ever present chipper also can be found on nearly every block, serving up all sorts of deep-fried, heart-stopping goodies. I haven’t seen the infamous fried Mars bar yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time. For the sake of my wallet and my arteries, I suspect that I’ll be cooking quite a bit. Perhaps the only thing that scares me more than the chippers are the ever-present late night shops that advertise on their windows that they serve kebabs, curries, pizzas, and fish and chips. My friend ordered a kebab from one of these places, and I’m convinced that the owner pulled the meat out of formaldehyde. I guess this is something I’m going to have to get used to, though, as I’ve heard that no good night out is complete without a visit to one of these fine temples of globalization. Speaking of which, I do believe Scottish drink culture deserves a whole post to itself as well.
Another thing I’ve had to get used to is simply crossing the street. After having lived in big pedestrian cities for most of the past four years, I’ve gotten pretty used to jaywalking whenever I please. The first night I tried to do this in Glasgow, I almost died multiple times. Drivers here have no mercy, and they seem to speed up if they see you in the intersection. I’ve had to resort to patiently waiting at intersections, and I’ll only dare to jaywalk if I can dart into the shadow of some intrepid local on his or her way across. This is further compounded by the whole issue of the Brits driving on the left. There’s been plenty of times when I’ve caught myself still looking at the wrong side of the road. It’s not always easy to tell, either, because here, you’re allowed to park on either side of the street, rendering checking the parked cars for the correct direction absolutely useless. The whole left side of the road thing even extends to pedestrians, and there’s been many a time when I’ve been the menace barreling through bewildered Scots going up the wrong side of a staircase.
Alright, this post is getting excessively long, and I need to make an effort to start my days before noon. Take care, everyone, and for the love of god, someone please mail me a burrito. I’ll leave you all with a pretty cool video of my new home.