Tag Archives: Scotland

The Olympics have started but I missed the only interesting bit because I was drunk.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to start this post with a sweeping statement that’s completely uncalled for: the Olympics (and all sport in general, pretty much) is a total waste of time. Fact.

(Well, technically that’s not a fact at all, obviously, but this is my blog and I can say what I want. Fact.)

To honour this Couldn’t-Care-Less approach of mine, I have been making a point of not watching, reading about or discussing anything remotely connected with London 2012. But that’s difficult. You see, over here in Britain everyone has gone loopy for the ‘lympics – there are precisely twelve zillion TV channels showing nothing but sweaty humans in lycra; every newspaper and magazine has some sort of athlete on the front page, and every single branded item in the country’s supermarkets has been repackaged with the slogan ‘The Official Washing-Up Liquid of The London Olympics’ (or the equivalent, for whatever product).

I can’t help thinking, ‘What, for the love of god, is the point of all this nonsense?’

It’s not just this year’s Olympics that I’m avoiding, I must add. At the start of the last ones, in Beijing, I was renting a house in Croatia with three American blokes called Alan, Nick and Dave. I’d met them on a bus in Bosnia (of all places), and because I’d not been organised enough to book a hostel in advance, I had no idea where I was going to sleep once the bus reached its destination. It turned out that these three Americans had been equally disorganised, and so when we stepped off the bus we agreed that the quickest and easiest way to find a bed for the night would be to talk to an old Croatian woman at the bus station, negotiate a reasonable renting price for the spare rooms in her house, and go there immediately in the back of her ancient Volkswagen beetle.

It was a good decision – the house was quaint and crumbly, five minutes walk from the beach and two minutes walk from a bakery (we lived off burek for four days), and in the living room there was a gigantic flatscreen television.

Yep. We were five minutes walk from this.

That night the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony was on, and the Americans insisted on watching it. To be fair, this was the only part of the famous sports event that I was vaguely interested in. Mainly because there isn’t usually much actual sport involved. And it was impressive, I remember, but after about twenty minutes the novelty wore off and, bored, I finally managed to convince Alan to go out exploring with me.

And we were so glad we did, because it turned out that that night was not only the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony but also, and much more importantly, it was the Annual Croatian Fish Barbecue Crazy Musical Street Party (not its official name, unfortunately). Alan and I stayed up half the night drinking local beer, eating grilled fish off paper plates and dancing to accordion music with old ladies in traditional costumes. I was drunk and I was happy, and there was nothing Olympian involved.

Four years later and another Olympics opening ceremony was about to start, and this time on home turf. The hype built up about this was nothing short of ridiculous, and, as usual, I had decided in advance that I wasn’t going to give two hoots. So on Friday night I went to the pub with my students.

(Students?! Oh yeah, I haven’t really mentioned this yet. I’ve been teaching English in Edinburgh for a few weeks and it’s been amazingly good fun, and since some of my favourite students were leaving last weekend, we decided to go out together for a farewell pint. Or two.)

Or, erm, six. Before I knew it we’d left the pub and arrived in El Barrio – Edinburgh’s exceedingly un-classy, faux-Latin ‘club’ – and there was a TV screen on one of the walls which was showing something Olympic-y (I couldn’t be too specific due to the volume of Stella Artois in my bloodstream), and the time of half past one in the morning.

‘Hurrah!’ I thought, as I knocked back a bottle of Sol. ‘Yet another Olympics opening ceremony I’ve managed to avoid!’ And then I continued to dance, carefree, to some music which may or may not have been by Shakira. Again, it was a fantastic, happiness-filled, alcohol-fuelled night of hilarity that had nothing whatsoever to do with an overrated sporting event.

Of course I fully intend on being drunk and ignorant four more years from now as well.

The pic is a bit blurry. I think I know why.

Just so you know…

In precisely five weeks and one day I will be going to Inner Mongolia. I’m just reminding you in case, like me, you’d forgotten.

It does seem like a while since I was rambling on about yurts and the Gobi desert and learning Mandarin, and that’s probably because I’ve been quite busy for the last month-and-a-half with all this Glasgow door-knocking nonsense (I mean ‘fieldwork’). And I’m actually even busier now because I’ve also started doing a bit of English teaching in Edinburgh, mainly so that I can remind myself how to teach.

So when I started getting comments and messages saying things along the lines of ‘so, um, I thought you were supposed to be going to “Inner Mongolia.” What happened about all that?’ I thought maybe I should let you know that I still fully intend to go when the time comes.

[By the way, can I just say how much I like it when you, my dear readers, write Inner Mongolia in inverted commas, as if it’s some kind of magical fantasy land that only exists in my imagination. I assure you that it’s a real place. You can read about it on Wikipedia.]

Anyway, if you still don’t believe me, just take a look at what came in the post the other day:

No, it’s not just a picture of a very athletic Chinese man jumping over the globe – it’s the envelope containing my work permit and invitation letter. From “Inner Mongolia”! See:

It’s starting to feel more real now, the fact that in five weeks I’ll be setting off to one of the most obscure parts of the world, and living and working there for a year. I really should start practising my Chinese.

Knock-knock-knocking on Glasgow’s door(s)

Or, perhaps more accurately, buzzing Glasgow’s buzzers. Yes, dear readers, for the last few weeks around ninety percent of my working days have been spent standing in front of these things:

I’ve seen so many of them that I’ve become a kind of intercom-system connoisseur. Before I even press the buttons I know exactly what type of sound they’re going to make, whether it’s the traditional, reverberating bzzz, or the vaguely melodic (yet really quite irritating) bleeping sound: doo-da-loo, doo-da-loo, or the high-pitched, droning eeeeeeeee. And then, of course, there are the buzzers that don’t make any sound at all (at which point I panic: what if it’s broken?!).

There are the fancy new buzzers, mainly for the fancy new flats, with their shiny silvery surfaces and digital displays. And there are the even fancier ones with security cameras and buttons you don’t even need to press; just a light touch of a fingertip sets it bleeping away. There are buzzers with names and flat numbers on them, or name stickers that have long since peeled off or disintegrated. And of course there are the non-fancy buzzers – the kind that require a squirt of antibacterial hand gel after touching.

I’ve become so used to locating, pressing and speaking through door buzzers that I can no longer walk past a block of flats without glancing over for a quick inspection. And even if I’m on my day off, and in Edinburgh, I still have to stifle the inexplicable urge to press the buzzer buttons of every apartment block and tenement I happen to pass.

If you’ve just tuned in to this blog and are wondering what the hell I’m going on about, please allow me to offer an explanation. I’m working on a survey project in Glasgow’s East End, which involves going door-to-door, trying to set up interviews with the residents to get their opinions on the urban regeneration that’s going on because of the upcoming Commonwealth Games. And it seems, unfortunately, that to get one of these interviews, you first have to knock on a lot of doors. Or buzz a lot of buzzers.

But, I think it’s worth it. Because behind those buzzers are stairwells (or ‘closes’ in Scotland). And off those stairwells are people’s front doors. And behind those front doors live all kinds of weird and wonderful examples of humanity.

There was the student who offered to make me a peanut butter sandwich. And the racist grandmother. And the man with no teeth who’d just got engaged at forty-five. There was the young mother, the young working couple, the eighty-year-old couple, the bachelor nurse. The bar manager with the overly familiar ginger cat. The woman who said I looked tired and made me some coffee. The old lady who gave me a pair of hand-knitted gloves.

So yeah. Maybe I do spend most of my time standing in front of intercoms, listening to them buzz and bleep and waiting for somebody to answer. And maybe it is a little monotonous sometimes. But this is certainly one of the weirdest, and most fascinating, jobs I’ve had – with the best opportunities for meeting interesting people – so I’m not complaining.

How do you like your froyo in the morning? I like mine with granola.

Frozen yoghurt is basically ice cream for healthy people, isn’t it? Ice cream without the ‘guilt’. Not that I’m the kind of person who feels guilty about eating ice cream. Please don’t start imagining me as one of those women who sit in their pyjamas watching Love Actually, shovelling Haagen Dazs down their throats and snivelling about being dumped, or whatever.

(I mean, I’ve shovelled down entire tubs of Haagen Dazs in one sitting before, and I may have been wearing pyjamas at the time, but it certainly wasn’t because I’d been dumped, and I absolutely, definitely wasn’t watching anything with Hugh Grant in it – he makes me feel sick, and I can’t eat ice cream when I feel sick.)

Anyway. What I’m trying to get round to saying is that there’s a snazzy new frozen yoghurt joint in town, and I went there the other day and it was good.

My wonderful friend Miriam – Canadian writer, Glasgow enthusiast and recent corporate convert (who blogs here, by the way) – was on a flying visit to Scotland and we realised, with much excitement, that for the first time in three years we’d actually be in the same country at the same time, and able to meet up. But it would have to be at the inhuman hour of nine in the morning because that was the only time we were both free. As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s hard work being an international social butterfly.

So we thought it would be nice to have breakfast in Edinburgh before getting the bus to Glasgow together, where I’d go to work and Miriam would rake through boxes of vintage underpants in Mr Ben.

Frisky, on Lothian Road, is Edinburgh’s (and Scotland’s) first ever frozen yoghurt cafe. Or ‘froyo’ as the kids (apparently) call it these days. I stepped out of the early morning rain and into the shop, which is bright and white with multicoloured plastic chairs and strange pink pictures on the walls. Miriam was already there, sipping a mysterious green liquid.

“It’s spinach” she said, defiantly. “With mint, almond and froyo. And it actually tastes nice.”

I was impressed by the exotic health smoothie. And even more impressed at how natural and unpretentious she sounded when she said ‘froyo’.

I went up to the counter and had a look at what else was on offer. There were four types of froyo to choose from, and lots and lots of toppings, including healthy-looking, breakfast-y things like granola and fruit, and then some ‘guilt’-inducing chocolate chip-type things, brownie pieces and (hurrah!) popping candy. There was also fresh coffee, thank goodness.

Not wanting to be outdone by Miriam I ordered some green tea flavoured froyo with fresh blueberries and strawberries, and it was very tasty indeed. I’m not sure how different it tasted to ice cream, but I did enjoy the feeling of smugness it gave me. Maybe I should be a health freak more often.

The staff were lovely – one lady had the snazziest glasses I’d ever seen, and a friendly man told me  that the green tea froyo is made of real, actual Japanese matcha tea powder, which is the same stuff that’s used in those fancy Japanese tea ceremonies. “I need to remember that for my blog post,” I told the man. So I wrote it on a post-it.

What a nice way to spend the morning. And I’ll definitely be going back to Frisky again – froyo is totally the new Haagen Dazs. Especially because you don’t need to wear pyjamas, watch Hugh Grant and feel guilty to enjoy it.

Just another day in Glasgow

“The problem wi’ Glasgow is all them bloody foreigners!” the old woman said between drags of cigarette and swigs of instant coffee. “They come over fi’ Poland an’ that an’ take all the bloody jobs! An’ –” she coughed “– that’s why everyone’s unemployed!” She slammed her coffee mug down, flicked the cigarette and adjusted her nightie. Seeing my expression, her face softened a bit. “Don’t worry, he’ll be out in a minute. He’s gettin’ dressed up an’ doin’ his hair. Thinks he’s goin’ on a date or somethin’.”

Finally, after what seemed like hours, my interviewee appeared in the doorway of the kitchen – hair gelled to perfection – and said we could go into the living room to complete the survey. I mumbled a goodbye to the grandmother, who grunted and lit up another cigarette.

It was just another day in my weird job, really.

Following Delhi’s slightly embarrassing attempt to host the Commonwealth Games back in 2010 (I’m pretty sure that big stadium by Connaught Place still isn’t finished), it’s now Glasgow’s turn to shoulder the burden. I remember watching the CWG closing ceremony in a sports bar in Mumbai (I’d purposely run away from the capital for the duration of the games), and being very amused by the abundance of tartan, kilts and bagpipes (not to mention a makeshift Loch Ness monster) being flung around the stadium in an attempt to ‘celebrate’ the passing of the [whatever the CWG equivalent of the Olympic torch is] onto another (un)fortunate city. Lucky Glasgow!

So in preparation for this ‘fabulous’ event, about half the city is being demolished and rebuilt, with lots of fancy new buldings, fancy new roads and, perhaps most usefully – a fancy new velodrome. (I’m sure there isn’t a Scot alive who wouldn’t want to roll out of bed, hop on his bike and cycle round and round some smooth, vertical walls at a trillion miles and hour!) Anyway, the point is, the good people at Glasgow University, and a few other organisations, want to find out how (or if) all this urban renewal stuff is actually going to benefit the health and wellbeing of the people who live in the city’s East End – where the Games are going to be.

Now, in the same way that Azadpur isn’t quite up to Vasant Vihar standards, the East End isn’t the swankiest part of Glasgow, and so there’s loads of regeneration going on there anyway. But the arrival of the Commonwealth Games will just give the whole process a little kick up the proverbial rear end.

As yet, there hasn’t been much research into how all this will affect the residents. And so that’s where I come in! Well, me and quite a lot of other people. We’re working all summer on a survey about the impact of urban regeneration and the Commonwealth Games on the people who live in the east of Glasgow, which means we go out onto the streets, meet the locals, sit in their kitchens and, through an interview/questionnaire-type-thing, collect information (or ‘data’ to use the fancy term) about their lives, their homes, their feelings… and it’s proving to be really interesting.

It’s fascinating to catch glimpses of all the different lives being lived in this city, in my country. To be invited into friendly homes to drink tea and laugh and listen to people I’d never otherwise meet. To give them a chance to voice their opinions and to feel like, maybe, from writing down these opinions I could help change the city for the better (although, perhaps not including rants about “bloody foreigners”…).

In the past couple of weeks I’ve met young people and old people; people just engaged at forty-five and people married for sixty years; sporty people, lazy people; workers, mothers, unemployed, retired, Scottish, foreign, happy, sad… And I think, by the time this job is over, I’ll have learned a lot from all of them.

To end on a slightly ridiculous note, here’s an article about one of the more inventive ways the city of Glasgow is preparing itself for the Commonwealth Games in 2014.  I can only imagine the results if the same thing had been in done in Delhi…

Lochs, Irn Bru and The Best of the Proclaimers: the great Highland road trip of 2012

Last week my brother and I went to Loch Ness, Scotland’s most famous, mysterious and overrated body of water.

[Note: Before we begin, why not watch this thrilling cartoon? It’s the first episode of The Family Ness, a 1990s kids’ show from Scotland about the Loch and the monster(s) and, appropriately, also features another brother-sister duo, Angus and Elspeth.]

 

There were several reasons why I wanted to go this place; partly to celebrate the end of my almost-two-month period of (albeit blissful) unemployment, and also because I’d never visited Loch Ness before. In fact, apart from a couple of short trips to Aberdeen and Inverness, I’d never even been to the Scottish Highlands before, and considering that this country is about twelve hundred times smaller than India, and you can drive from one end to the other in less than a day, that’s actually kind of embarrassing.

So, at the ages of practically-twenty-three and practically-twenty-five respectively, my brother and I decided it really was high time we saw a bit more of our country.

We plotted a route on Google Maps that went north to Perth, swung north-west up to Fort William and then followed the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Ness to Inverness, Scotland’s northernmost city. Then we packed a few road trip essentials – a flask of tea, haggis-flavoured crisps and The Best of the Proclaimers – and hit the road.

Believe it or not, the ‘heatwave’ was still going on, and we watched the car’s thermometer soaring up to twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-SIX degrees. The sky was blue, the Proclaimers’ voices were blasting out of the speakers, and everything was summery and fabulous.

First tea stop, Pitlochry, which is a bit like a Scottish-themed Disneyland for the elderly. The main street is basically a line of overpriced cafes and shops selling kilts, golf-related knick-knacks and postcards of bagpipers and highland cows. Everyone in the town is a tourist, and there are no tourists under the age of about ninety. We moved swiftly on, and cracked open the haggis-flavoured crisps at the slightly more peaceful Loch Laggan.

YUM.

Our next plan was to drive to Fort William on the west coast, and catch a glimpse of Ben Nevis, which, at 4,406 feet, is the tallest mountain in the UK.

(Yeah, I know, that’s not particularly tall. I’m sure I would have found the Scottish Highlands far more towering and spectacular if I hadn’t just been to the Himalayas in March, but never mind.)

As someone who much prefers looking at mountains to actually walking up them, I was overjoyed to learn that there’s a cable car that allows you to get right to the top of one of Ben Nevis’ sky-touching neighbours without any effort whatsoever. And, since this is Scotland, there’s also a cafe at the top. Which means you can sit in the sun, knock back a cup of tea and bask in the glory of reaching one of the highest altitudes in Britain without breaking a sweat. Now that’s my kind of mountaineering.

What better place for a cuppa?!

Between Fort William and Loch Ness is another loch, with perhaps the most unimaginative name I’ve ever come across: Loch Lochie. We obviously had to see this, so we pulled over, bought a can of Irn Bru from a conveniently-located burger van, and dipped our toes into the chilly, but nice and blue, water.

Loch Lochie: nice loch, shame about the name

I think maybe this is an appropriate time to give you a short lesson on Scottish vocabulary and pronunciation. ‘Loch’ is our word for ‘lake’ (if you hadn’t already worked that out), and the ending ‘ch’ sound is something that most non-Scots seem to struggle with. Fortunately, there is a strange bearded man on Youtube who can demonstrate this, and, with a bit of practice, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. (Even you, Brandi Dawn Henderson.)

By the time we finally reached the western end of Loch Ness the blue sky had turned dark grey and the temperature had dropped by about twenty degrees. You could barely see through the mist. We had a look round the ruins of Urquhart Castle and went on a boat trip that blasted out songs like this at ear-splitting volume, which, weirdly, turned out to be a hit with the Chinese tourists onboard. I looked very hard for the Loch Ness Monster (and family), but I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d packed up and gone somewhere warmer and dryer.

I made this one black and white so it looked more atmospheric and less rainy

We had another cup of tea at Drumnadrochit, possibly the most bleak and depressing town in Scotland, and then drove to Inverness where we checked into our cheap hostel and headed straight to the pub for some haggis, neeps and tatties. And cider.

It just proves my point that here in Scotland you really can get all four seasons in one day. And the next morning it was grey, damp and freezing and rained continuously as we drove back to Edinburgh. I suppose we were after an ‘authentic’ Scottish experience, and in the end that’s exactly what we got, so I can’t complain.

Besides, remember how I said I’m not unemployed anymore? My new job is in Glasgow, the biggest city in Scotland, and I’m doing fieldwork for a survey about urban renewal there. So for every day I go to work I learn something new about my country and culture. And I don’t even have to listen to the Proclaimers or eat haggis-flavoured crisps.

The End.

PS: There are more photos here, and I have a photo essay on Loch Ness in this month’s Outside In magazine here!

Chai O’clock in Edinburgh

Although it’s not difficult to find Indian food in here in Edinburgh, getting something that’s both authentic and affordable is a completely different story. Last month I went out for a tasty meal at a local Indian restaurant but was horrified at the prices: £2.15 for ONE tandoori roti? A fiver for a side portion of dal? It was absolute madness. But to be fair, the restaurant was one of the city’s posher ones; the kind with that velvety wallpaper and fancy lampshades, and waiters in waistcoats.

There are cheaper places, though, like 10 to 10 in Delhi, with its embroidered floor cushions, Rajasthani wall hangings and pictures of Aishwarya Rai (before she got too fat, obviously). It’s a nice, cozy place, and the food, chai and lassis are great, but with menus stapled into empty Bollywood DVD cases and ‘Teach Yourself Hindi’ books on the shelves, it’s just a bit too wannabe-desi for its own good. Plus it’s always filled with the kind of people who start every sentence with, ‘When I was backpacking in India…’ Groan.

A tad OTT, maybe

Even the Mosque Kitchen, which used to be one of my absolute favourite places in Edinburgh, has gone downhill in taste and uphill in price. They have an indoor space now, with an espresso machine, and it’s just not the same as when you used to sit outside in the freezing cold at long, folding tables, trying to stop the hungry pigeons flapping off with your naan.

But just when I was starting to lose hope of ever finding a decent place to soothe my India woes, I discovered Bollywood: The Coffee Box, in the vaguely trendy suburb of Bruntsfield. Jai Hind!

Best box in town

It’s probably the closest you’ll get to Indian street eating without forking out for a plane ticket and visa, and right now, in the middle of the Scottish heatwave, there’s nothing better than enjoying your samosas in the sunshine. Nutan (who’s the friendliest woman ever, and is from Delhi!) has turned one of Edinburgh’s defunct blue Police boxes into a tiny kitchen, where she prepares fresh veg and non-veg dishes, snacks like pakoda, and all kinds of coffee. She makes chai too, of course, and we chat in a mixture of Hindi and English as she adds millions of spices to a pot of milk and stirs a pan of sizzling tomatoes with the other hand. The Coffee Box has been going for six months, she says, and has become really popular, even being featured on the local BBC news.

I stay and drink my spicy chai with Nutan, and we talk about Delhi summers, Indian families and learning Hindi. And it reminds me of the culture of street food in India. Over there people don’t grab their takeaway cups and paper-wrapped snacks and eat them as they tear down the street, the way they do here. Food and chai, even water, should be respected, given time, savoured slowly. I learned in Delhi that even the busiest people in the biggest rush still manage to find five minutes to stop and eat or drink a cup of tea. I like that. “Come back soon!” says Nutan, and bursts out laughing.

She makes a mean cup of chai