amw (amw) wrote,

when i was a bairn

I arrived at the Glasgow bus station early Sunday morning. The city was dead, but i found a crossroads with a trio of fast food restaurants that were still serving drunks and other stranded travelers. I picked up a bagel and coffee and pondered my next steps.

Glasgow is the last place i lived in Europe during the Cold War. We had just left the army so for the first time i was attending a civvie school and hanging out with kids who had grown up in the same place their whole lives. I remember living in fear of the headmaster's belt. I remember football and The Beano and crisps and Jet Set Willy. I remember my parents expressing concern i might be gay because i was too close to one of my friends. It hardly mattered since any friendships i made were lost when we were whisked off to New Zealand, via nan's in Essex and grandpa's in Hong Kong.

Another thing i remember from Glasgow is Pollok Park, and specifically hating it. I hated it because my dad scared me there once.

Mom and dad both loved going out in nature. One trick my dad pulled to try entertain us kids while hiking was to spin fairytales. Dad spent his boarding school years reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons & Dragons, and he saw being a father as an opportunity to become the ultimate DM/storyteller. He still does it today - makes up fantastic stories to explain away everyday things he doesn't know the answer to. He totally deadpans it, and sometimes i think he even ends up believing his own myths. It's kind of charming.

Except when it scars you. Pollok Park is a weird fucking place anyway. It's got a terrifying old mansion and thick beds of dead leaves and ominous mounds of earth and hollowed out trunks. It also has highland cattle and Clydesdale horses and other freakishly oversized animals. Dad took great delight in telling us about the goblins in the woods and trolls under the bridges. At one point on a typically gray day he suggested i take a walk down a lonely path, then he looped around and jumped out from a tunnel to scare the living daylights out of me.

I think i found that tunnel on Sunday, under a bridge opposite a golf course. It was tiny and not scary in the slightest.

The park is still ultra fucking weird, though. The trees in the old growth woods are as oppressive as they ever were, although there is a mountain bike trail there now. There are still odd little corners of the place decorated with tiny doors and houses for pixies and gnomes. A hedge festooned with bright colored flowers and punctuated by paths that lead nowhere. This is a place of my nightmares, but also a place of my childhood, a place instantly conjured up in my mind every time i hear a Cure song.

I made it out of the park unscarred and walked through suburban Glasgow till i came across a coffee shop that was open. I will spill the name here because it was by far the best fancy meal i ate in my whole time in the UK - Cafe Strange Brew. I got their take on beans on toast, which was a vegan option. The sourdough toast was chewy and crunchy and just right. The beans were a mix of British-style baked beans and American-style chili sin carne. The vegan cheese was melted just like real cheese. It was topped with cilantro, cress and chimichurri. I went all-out with avocado smash and vegan sausage on the side. The staff were amazing. Top joint.

After breakfast i walked back down to the river, via a few more parks and tenements. At one point i smelled that rusty bitter aroma i have always associated with train tracks, even though most train tracks don't smell like that at all. Perhaps it was always just the smell of an old pedestrian bridge in Glasgow. I felt at home.

After checking into a hotel, i did some clothes shopping. I wanted to buy some large sized clothes and very quickly found a much-needed replacement bra and a couple of tank tops. I hope that will last me till next time i am visiting a country with big people. I broke my vegan thing by enjoying fish and chips at an "upscale" chippy. By "upscale" i mean that people could make bookings and order wine, although the food was not elevated in the slightest. Why mess with perfection? Dinner was served in soggy cardboard. I finished the night at a student pub where pints of Tennent's were just over 3 pound.


Monday morning i was due in Edinburgh for work. I had set my alarms, but somehow still slept through and groggily got on the 8:30am train. I remember as a kid we drove through Edinburgh at some point, but i am not sure we ever really visited the town. I was surprised to find it has steep hills and cobbled streets and tons of ye olde buildings. Every shop is a tourist trap. It's utterly hideous.

Work was work. Monday night we went out for rooftop drinks at some brew pub for IPA-drinking hipsters and tourists. Did you know Edinburgh has a castle? It does. People go to rooftop bars to take photos of it. I lamented the lack of 3 pound Tennent's.

The next morning i walked as far away from the tourists as possible to try find something that didn't suck. I finally found the kind of cafe i remember from my youf. The operative letter here is "e" (as opposed to "é"). The menu is sausage on a roll. Lorne on a roll. Black pudding on a roll. Haggis on a roll. Bacon on a roll. You get the idea. You can also buy crisps or various sweets and fudges that sit behind the counter alongside pickled onions and egg sandwiches cut in triangles. I got a vegan lorne on a roll - with brown sauce - and cheerfully chomped it out of a paper bag on the way to work. (Things have progressed somewhat since the 80s. They also had a real espresso machine to make my mandatory morning Americano.)

After work i climbed a nearby mountain. Edinburgh also has a naked mountain in the city, one without a castle on the top. It looks very tall and imposing from the bottom, but because the weather is so fucking cold it only takes about 20 minutes to climb and you don't really break a sweat like you do climbing equivalently steep trails here in southern China. It's a good mountain, despite the crowds. I found a quiet corner amidst the heather and thistles and breathed the fresh air and took selfies.

Descending the mountain i resolved to get a curry, but the first couple of restaurants i found were closed. Then i found a pub. Not a London pub full of wankers in suits standing up and drinking 6 pound pints. A proper pub with people in high-vis vests and tracksuits sitting down and watching football. I got my 3 pound Tennent's and played some tunes on the jukebox. My greatest hit was Alison Moyet - All Cried Out, which got an approving singalong from the chaps at the bar who probably hadn't heard it in 30 years. I went next door to the chippy and took my second vegan holiday by getting sausage and chips. The sausages were battered and deep fried because of course they were. The chips were thick and soft. Everything was doused in brown sauce and vinegar and wrapped up in paper. It was divine.


The next morning as i traveled with my hangover to the airport and got a ploughman's sandwich and Irn Bru out of a vending machine, i got a flash of what my life would have been like if we had stayed in Scotland. I would still wear sneakers and a hoodie all the time, but i'd wear tracksuit pants instead of jeans. I'd probably have a shaved head and listen to drum'n'bass or hardcore. I would definitely be fatter and whiter and speak with an accent completely impenetrable to foreigners. I would go to the pub and drink Tennent's and eat chips and finally make a choice between Celtic and Rangers. I think i would still climb mountains, but i'd wear a bobble hat instead of a bandana. Bizarro me.

Coming back to China was a shock. While i was away the government cracked the fuck down on the internet and now almost all foreign newspapers are blocked, most notably The Guardian, which i (used to) read daily. Hong Kong is erupting in protests and the censors are aggressively wiping away any mention of it here. But people still know about it via word of mouth and they are worried. They are also angry at America for warmongering and annoyed that Shenzhen specifically is being targeted with the attack on Huawei and threatened moves against other major local employers. The mood is tense, but what are you going to do? I can leave if things get hot, but a billion other people can't.

I don't plan on leaving any time soon, but one thing this trip has done is reopen the UK as a place i wouldn't mind returning to. Brexit remains a fucking debacle, but i didn't meet any (open) Brexiteers on my trip there, and that makes me feel less embarrassed to be British-on-paper. Maybe i am still a little British-at-heart too. Life there did feel vaguely familiar and comfortable. Especially Scotland. Good food. Cheap beer. Mountains. Not bad.

Tags: food, looking back, travel

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