I am firmly of the belief that all university cities should be razed to the ground and rebuilt in Glasgow’s image. With three universities, the entire city is geared towards students, and, as an English and politics student at the University of Glasgow around the turn of the millennium, I felt like I’d stepped into a sort of student Utopia.
Shots of cheap alcohol were a pound, chicken fajitas at Driftwood were £4.95 and Glaswegians are perhaps the most jovial and indulgent of youthful high jinks and general hedonism of any other city on the planet.
The other important thing to understand is that Glaswegians mainly disapprove of things in order to give themselves someone to take the piss out of, or something to tell a funny story about when they get home. Glaswegian grumpiness is the funniest grumpiness on earth, and their disapproval is all in hot pursuit of banter, which makes it OK by me.
On top of the Glaswegian temperament, the tenement flats of Glasgow’s West End, a legacy of the city’s heritage as a 19th century industrial powerhouse, permitted impoverished students to live it up in grand, high-ceilinged and be-corniced bedrooms a couple of streets away from the soaring, almost comically melodramatic neo-Gothic spires of the university. A decade later, cooped up in a shared shoebox in Hackney, I’d realise that life had played a cruel joke on me by making my student flat the poshest flat I would ever live in. Even though my mum and I had to scrub congealed vomit from the radiator of my first student bedroom on Sauchiehall Street the day I moved in, this was the high point in my residential life. It was all downhill from there.
In Glasgow I worked at a series of s**t pubs and temped as a barmaid at big, boozy events like the World Pipe Band Championships and the Scottish Open. And then I got the perfect job for a skint, perennially hungover student: working at a posh new delicatessen, Heart Buchanan, on Byres Road.
I knocked on the door while they were still putting the shelving in, and when the owner, Fi, asked me if I had experience working with food, I said, ‘yes’. And then I shut the f*** up.
I didn’t mention that my food experience began and ended with Abrakebabra. So I got the job, a job I credit with giving me tastes in food and booze that I have never really been able to afford. Essentially, this job – and the one I got after it, at Delizique, Glasgow’s other swanky deli – made me posher, yanked me up a few notches on the class scale. Suddenly I was able to talk about Rioja, cook salmon and say ‘croissant’ without cringing. Apart from one awkward moment when a customer came in asking about ‘allspice’ and I told them that Superdrug down the road sold all sorts of aftershave, I managed to pass as a posh girl with sophisticated tastes in food and wine. Today, it’s pretty much part of my job, passing as a posh girl with sophisticated tastes in food and wine. So I’m forever grateful to Fiona and Mhairi, who took a punt on a chip-shop girl and taught her to like cheese and artichokes and sundried tomatoes and smoky Islay whiskies.
Passing myself off as a posh epicure was all the more remarkable given that I was up late most nights, dancing at illegal techno parties in dodgy, damp railway arches or forcing everyone to do rounds of tequila. This happens to everyone who comes to Glasgow. Years later, interviewing the actor Gerard Butler for Red magazine, I abandoned my questions about the aftershave he was promoting and instead we bonded over just how hard it is to be at university in Glasgow without getting s**tfaced every night. The city’s hedonistic side is impossible to resist. Glasgow’s club scene is the stuff of legend, but also gloriously low-key. The after-parties – thanks partly to all those massive, party-primed student flats – were even better.
There was the time we all carried Katie’s bed to Kelvingrove Park, so we could join a friend’s barbecue without having to get out of bed. The time I got a black taxi out to a rave in a forest in the countryside, and the taxi driver wound up dancing with us until 6am. The time I accidentally went on a date with a gangster, only realising my mistake when every single barman in town gazed at him in abject terror before serving us IMMEDIATELY, grimacing, shaking and refusing to accept any cash. Not that different from being a hotel critic, really.
The problem with Glasgow being such a barnstormingly brilliant university city was that we never had any reason to leave the city limits. My knowledge of Scotland extended from Hillhead underground station to St Enoch, an intrepid 3.3 miles.
Overcoming Glasgow’s powerful spell – to the pub! right now! you might be missing something! we have fajitas! – in pursuit of a new adventure took more travel muscle than I then had.
Which was, of course, a terrible shame, because Scotland is one of the most rewarding and varied destinations on the planet. It contains some of the largest remaining expanses of pristine wilderness in Western Europe, a magical place where wild deer roam and golden eagles soar, and midges do their usual bastard flying-into-your-eyeballs thing.
But I’d explored none of this. Until an Australian moved into my West End flat, that is. Her name was Tess, she was from Adelaide, and she was disgusted by the fact that I’d never seen Loch Lomond, Inverary Castle, Tobermory or Skye. Antipodeans, of course, are some of the most dedicated travellers in the world. It was only years later, when I spent a year and a half living in New Zealand, that I finally understood why.
It’s because they’re so bloody far from everything. I made one trip from Auckland while I was there, a pricey, six-hour flight to Melbourne. Which, let’s face it, wasn’t really much of a change of scene from Auckland.
One Friday afternoon Tess casually mentioned that she might rent a car for the weekend and head off to see ‘some lochs and castles’ tomorrow. Did I want to come? I must have looked at her as if she’d just suggested we go and get pedicures on Venus.
She was a brazen castle groupie. Tess knew all about Scotland’s hundreds of castles, from the simple, foreboding towers of Hermitage to the moated fortresses of Caerlaverock and hulking clifftop palaces like Stirling Castle.
With my new Australian eyes, Tess and I hurled ourselves into the romance of rural Scotland with all the glee and grade-A gusto that only two giddy 20-year-old girls can lay claim to. We wandered tipsily around the ruins of Invergarry Castle. And we were home by 5pm on Sunday night. In less than 36 hours, I’d had an adventure. I’d learned to see Scotland like an Australian. I’d had a picnic! And my first road trip. I’d also fallen hook, line and sinker for castles.
This was an important lesson, because in recent years the word adventure has come to mean going very far, in as inconvenient manner as possible, and punctuating the whole ordeal with photo opps like eating insects, shooting guns and clinking beer bottles with the long-suffering local sherpas. Today there’s a sense that unless you have three months off work, long-haul flights and a motorbike, you aren’t having a real adventure. Not all of us have the funds or the time to cross the Arctic Circle with nothing but our own big-chinned selfies for company.
Adventures can be swift, they can be small and they are most definitely subjective. They can be the tiniest step outside your everyday routine. If it’s an adventure to you, it’s an adventure.
Departures – A Guide to Letting Go, One Adventure at a Time is published by Sphere, at £13.99, out now