Wandering in Glasgow

Years ago I was traveling through the UK with my friend Matt. We were both teaching in France at the time and in the fall decided to take advantage of the generous Toussaints holiday to explore life on the other side of the channel.  We started off in London and took an overnight bus to Edinburgh; after a few days exploring the highlands, we arrived in Glasgow on a crowded blue and yellow bus on October 30th. We had booked an early morning flight to Dublin on November 1st, so that gave us only a day and a half in the city.

Glasgow Green

I never really thought I would make it all the way to Glasgow, but we embarked on this trip with no real plans, expectations, research or reservations—so I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that we would be spending Halloween in Glasgow. The weather had been rather gray since we arrived and it had begun to drizzle as we descended from the bus and onto the damp Glasgow street. We had found a hostel (generically called the Euro Hostel) about two blocks from the train station, on the corner of Jamaica and Clyde Streets.  Compared to the hostel where we stayed in Edinburgh (which still ranks as my worst hostelling experience ever—rampant theft, filth and fleas), the Euro Hostel was a breath of fresh air with a clean, modern design and maple wood bunk beds. After settling in, we started walking. With no map in hand and no real idea about the layout of the city, we wandered. I had caught a nasty cold in Edinburgh (probably from that nasty hostel) so I quickly found a drug store and bought cold medicine and cough drops.  We were still trying to accustom ourselves to British business hours. Popping a cherry-flavored drop in my mouth and relishing the immediate effect, we continued walking, this time away from the busy shopping district.

We did a lot of walking in Glasgow, something that I really didn’t mind. I rather like walking around a city knowing that I don’t know anyone and nobody knows me, where I am from or what I am doing. I like seeing families out shopping, students hurrying to class, buses taking passengers to and from the city center. The entire city was going about its business while I felt as if my own life was on pause—and it was fantastic. When first arriving to a city, nothing makes sense. Streets lead to more streets which lead to squares, back to more streets. It’s not until after walking for a few hours that you being to construct a mental map of the area. We came across a park with the greenest grass that I had ever seen; it was only later that we found out that it was appropriately named Glasgow Green. Within the park we found an enormous, elegant greenhouse.

Winter Gardens

The cloudy early evening sky cast a cool blue light inside the greenhouse, making all the lush plants appear a brilliant deep turquoise.  We didn’t stay long. Stepping out into the cold again, we left the park. We came across a street market that was just wrapping up. Unlike the rest of the markets we had seen in Europe, this one was decidedly not geared towards tourists. There were no lovely displays of produce, enticing glass cases of handmade candies—not much of anything at all, really. I got the distinct feeling we had just walked into the remnants of a great party and all that was left was a dirty mess and a few grumpy blokes to clean up the mess. I remember Matt asking someone a question about the market, but because of his heavy accent, not being understood at all. He tried again to no avail; what’s worse is that he also didn’t understand what the grumpy Glaswegian was saying to him because of his heavy accent. So I stood there watching these two people speaking to each other in English but not understanding at all. Things got so heated at one point I had to drag Matt away before he became offensive.

Matt had just finished architecture school and wanted to go see all of the buildings designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. While traveling together, he would often express an urgent need to go visit a particular building. More often than not, this meant taking a bus to the outskirts of town to see a stadium, or venturing to the abandoned business district of a city on a weekend. Glasgow was different; it was clear that the city took great pride in being the birthplace of the famed art nouveau designer and architect. Bookstores prominently displayed books  on Mackintosh and art nouveau design in their windows. In fact, the city pleasantly surprised us with little art nouveau flourishes on buildings, windows and shops. We visited the Glasgow School of Art, the Scotland Street School and the Lighthouse, all designed by Mackintosh. Matt played tour guide for a bit, pointing out specific design features to me and making a few remarks about Mackintosh’s personal life.  Apparently he struggled as a designer most of his life and even briefly moved to the south of France to flee the high cost of living in the UK (we should all be so lucky to be forced to moved to France to save money!). To me his designs seem artful, creative yet restrained. The long clean lines in some of his furniture designs are a nice and unexpected contrast to the graceful curves of some of his stained glass patterns. Matt took hundreds of  photos for his own personal archives and as late afternoon died, we returned to the hostel to rest.

On Halloween night before going out for the evening, we stopped at a phone booth to make a quick call home.  I spoke to my dad for about five minutes but Matt was taking his time chatting with every single person that happened to be at home.  Seeing that I had time to spare, I walked into KFC and bought an ice cream cone. I didn’t really care that it was cold and wet outside or that it was about 9 o’clock at night. I walked out with my ice cream cone and watched Matt talk to his grandpa on the phone. His grandpa was an Auschwitz survivor and was hard of hearing, forcing Matt to basically yell the most mundane statements into the phone—in Spanish. He got a few stares from people passing by—but I was the one who seemed to receive the most unwanted attention from creepy old men delighting in the fact that I was eating ice cream out on the street on a cold day. After talking with his family, Matt looked bright and re-energized and decided to get an ice cream cone as well. Earlier we had seen a few families out with costumed kids, but besides that and a few pumpkin cut-outs in shop windows, there were no obvious signs of the holiday. That was a bit disappointing, but I quickly got over it as we walked out into the inky Glasgow night and headed to the pub.

St George Square

Going out drinking in the UK feels a bit as if you are participating in a drinking game with everybody else in the pub.  Since bars close at around 11pm, everyone seems to be in a big rush to order and consume as many drinks as possible before last call is announced. I suppose the early closing time is to prevent foolish drunken behavior, but I don’t think it was all that effective considering everyone probably drank the same amount of alcohol as they normally would on a night out, only in a shorter time period. However we were in no hurry, in fact, I had introduced Matt to the idea of bar-hopping and he seemed quite keen on the concept. In all practicality, it made sense for us to go from one pub to another—why drink at one pub in Glasgow when you can drink at five? By the end of the night we were exhausted and really had nowhere else to go except McDonald’s, which was of course still open to entice the crowds milling out of the pubs with Big Macs and French fries. We sat at a plastic booth, squinting at the harsh fluorescent lights and planned out trek to the airport. Our flight to Dublin was at 6am the next morning. The problem for us was that there was no public transportation that would take us to the airport in time for our flight. So that meant either taking a taxi—we couldn’t even imagine how much that would cost—or spending the night at the airport. We chose the airport. We picked up our luggage at the hostel and headed to the train station where we caught the last train. It actually was not as bad as it sounds, and we were definitely not the only people spending the night there. Happy but tired, I pulled a blanket out of my bag and curled up in a little ball on top of my suitcase.