When I set off from Glasgow, Scotland to travel around the world aged 23, I thought I would end up living in Australia. Or Canada. Or New Zealand. A place with permanent sunshine. A place where people worked to live, not lived to work. A place with barbecues and al fresco drinking. A place that offered that elusive “better quality of life.”
Aged 33 I’m back living in Glasgow. I work full time in an office. It rains a lot. You can drink al fresco and have barbecues maybe three days a year. But I’m content. Because what all my travelling and living overseas affirmed to me was this: I really like the city where I am from.
In the middle of my trip around the world in 2008 I spent six months living and working in Sydney, Australia. It was an incredible experience and one I am very glad I had. But let me let you in on a secret: if you don’t love the outdoors and the beach and dining in expensive restaurants, Sydney is a wee bit boring. The harbour is spectacular but I wasn’t going to spend six months standing looking at it. I was looking for pubs, vibrant nightlife, culture. And in all those things I found Sydney lacking and Glasgow miles better. Yes, Glasgow, a meagre city of 600,000 people had better nightlife and culture than one of the most iconic cities in the world.
This pattern emerged throughout my trips to other countries and experiences living overseas. Being away from a familiar place gives you context and enables you to look at it objectively. Rather than haranguing over what Glasgow didn’t have, it highlighted what it did.
Throughout my travels I have encountered many “hipster” neighbourhoods of cities, Isola in Milan, Exarchia in Athens, and Praga in Warsaw being examples. The common feature I found in all “cool” “next big thing” area of cities is that they were dodgy and run down before the artists and creatives moved in and started spray painting the walls with street art and propping up pop ups. Using that logic, Glasgow is like one big hipster neighbourhood. Associated with images of industry, poverty, grit and crime, a stereotype it still hasn’t managed to shake off, as often happens in post industrial predominantly working class cities, an undercurrent of creativity thrives.
In Glasgow you could walk past a grimy door in ramshackle Jamaica Street without realising it leads to what is widely considered to be one of the best clubs in the world (Sub Club). You could walk past Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian or Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai without realising they front bands that sell out venues around the world. There’s tons of art galleries and one of the best live music scenes I’ve encountered anywhere. It’s a city of contrasts – a city of greasy chip shops and terrible heart disease rates that was recently voted the best for vegans in the UK. A city that hosts both the one of the fiercest football rivalries in the world and a literature festival.
While travelling, it was a constant source of frustration to me that most people I’d met who had been to Scotland had visited Edinburgh and ignored Glasgow. This is understandable as Edinburgh is spectacularly beautiful with lots of tourist sights. Glasgow is used to being overshadowed by its neighbour 45 minutes east on the train. But while Edinburgh is the Beyonce, Glasgow is the Solange. Not quite as in your face beautiful or impressive but when you look beyond the surface, definitely more interesting. Edinburgh may have a castle but Glasgow has an irreverence and authenticity I believe is lacking in the capital.
Glasgow is beautiful too but you just have to look a bit more carefully to notice it. There’s a theory Glaswegians don’t look up and therefore miss the abundance of incredible architectural detail in their city; the rows of bay windowed tenements, the geometric patterns of Alexander Greek Thomson, the inimitable Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In my opinion Glasgow University is still the most beautiful university I’ve ever seen, and I’ve visited many university campuses around the world, including Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge.
Enough of the waxing lyrical. I’m not saying Glasgow is the best city in the world. Of course it can’t compete with the Londons, New Yorks and Berlins, only 600,000 people live here. But for a fairly small city, it punches well above its weight. I might live somewhere else in my lifetime. I hope I do. But for now, I’m in Glasgow. For many people who travel and live abroad, ending up back where you came from can feel like a failure, like settling back into your comfort zone. I don’t feel that way. But then again, maybe those other people came from somewhere not that great. I didn’t.