Everywhere else

Some bits and pieces from all the other places I went this Summer.

Glasgow

I went to Glasgow for three days of the British Combinatorial Conference directly after I returned to the U.K. from Iceland. I’ve heard great things about Glasgow’s art museums and working class history, but I’ll have to wait until I go again to find out more—this time I was too tired from travelling to do much of anything.

Schedule: Wake up, café for breakfast, go to conference, talk to people about books, watch some lectures, back to drop bag at hotel, cheapish restaurant for dinner, drink a couple of pints and read book in a pub, walk back drunk across Glasgow listening to local lads Mogwai’s Kids Will Be Skeletons; getting those postrock Emotions. Sleep. Repeat x3.

Montréal

I feel bad for not having more to say about Montréal. I was vaguely obsessed with the city (or the idea of it) for a while in the late ’00s, a feeling borne of my 17 year old self’s obsession with the first Arcade Fire album1 and an ill-articulated desire to be somewhere real.

I was there for most of a week for the Mathematical Congress of the Americas. Perhaps I just didn’t see the right parts of the city, never really straying far from downtown, but it didn’t thrill me. Some colleagues from the U.S. certainly liked it: doesn’t Montréal feel so European, they asked. No, not really. It felt like pretty much every other large North American city, except everybody smokes, some people speak French, and there are red lights and strip clubs everywhere.

The few times I did venture out of the downtown were a bit better. I spent one day at the Université de Montréal on the other side of the Mont Royal from McGill. The neighbourhoods I passed as I skirted around the park had a folksy feel to them, a bit how I imagine the Pacific Northwest to look (perhaps it was just the rain though). I didn’t have time to stop to look around though. The next morning I went for a run in the park itself; enjoying its pleasant but taxing hilly trails. Another morning I ran across the bridge over the St. Lawrence River to the Île Sainte-Hélène, hoping to run around the amusement park there. The park was closed but as I stopped to get my bearings in a deserted car park I saw a flash of black and white in the bushes. A badger of some kind? I waited quietly and wild raccoon slunk out into the open. I watched a while before setting off to run back over the bridge, careful to avoiding a spraying. So not a wasted trip to the island.

I spent my last afternoon wandering around the old town, which actually does look European in a way few places in Europe do. It feels artificial, sure, but it’s still awfully pretty. A café there made me a really delicious London Fog.

Tim Horton’s was good.2

Birmingham

I really like Birmingham. Everyone knew, in the place I grew up, that Birmingham is “a hole”. The knew it, despite mostly having never been there. I knew it too.3

I started meeting a friend for the odd day here and there in Birmingham a few years ago, and guess what? Birmingham is lovely. The food is good (and cheap). The people are almost uniformly friendly. Some parts (especially around the canals) are pretty, in an unusual industrial way. I know this, but still every time I go I am pleasantly surprised because some awful part of me that’s still 10 years old and doesn’t know any better thinks it’s shit.

This time I went for three days for Groups St. Andrews (not actually held in St. Andrews all that often any more). This was shortly off the back of returning from Montréal. Like in Glasgow, I was tired and didn’t get up to an awful lot in the city. But I had a great time regardless; Groups St. A. is the most informal, friendly conference I’ve been to. I had a lot of interesting conversations over a lot of free wine (provided by a strangely absent Elsevier).

Vienna

Vienna was the first place I went on holiday without my parents. After my first year of University I came to stay with a friend from halls whose parents lived there. This was the first time I’d been back, nine years later. I amused myself thinking about what the 19 year old me would think if he could see himself staying alone in a fancy hotel, using the gym and sauna, then eating a risotto with a glass of Riesling. Even if these things are a bit performative, not what I usually do, I am undoubtedly different. So why do I feel the same?

In most of the places I’ve been for work this Summer I’ve tried to fit in a bit of tourism. I’ve ended up a lot of the time getting stressed out trying to make the most of a small amount of time, trying to squeeze in the things that need to be seen and done. It was a relief this time to go somewhere where I’ve already seen the major attractions. There was no need to rush.

I was in Vienna for the European Combinatorics Meeting, my last conference of the year. I went a couple of days early to stay the weekend with Martin, a friend from my PhD days. When I arrived Central Europe was enduring the tail end of its Summer heatwave. It was too hot to think. On the Sunday we took the tram to the Donauinsel and swam in the Danube, which was beautifully refreshing. I tried my best to keep covered, but I still managed to get sunburned. I’m so pale that not getting sunburned requires obsessive re-application of sunscreen. Sometimes it doesn’t seem worth the anxiety.

One evening I met Tom from Masto, and they didn’t murder me, so I guess my mum was wrong about meeting strangers from the internet.

On my last afternoon in town I went to the Hello, Robot exhibition at the MAK (Museum for Applied Arts). It was a very good exhibition, both for actual interesting content and for just revelling in that cyberpunk aesthetic. I don’t think I’ve ever consciously thought about applied arts before, but now it seems like an obvious thing to be interested in. My mind has been expanded.

I like travelling alone. I like doing things alone more than most people do in general. I like eating alone, especially in places where I can sit and eat at the bar and read my book. I like going to the cinema alone more than I like going with other people now. I don’t think I could go on a rollercoaster alone though. Walking through the funfair at the end of the Prater, I realised that for first time in a while I felt lonely. It was a long summer of travelling alone, too much for me perhaps. I’m not going to complain, I went to a lot of places I wouldn’t have gone if I didn’t have the job I do. But I am glad to have stopped now, for a while.

1. I’ve moved on from Guardian rock to Guardian postrock now. ↩︎

2. I can’t believe I’m going to write a mini-essay on coffee:

It seems to me that the U.K. has chosen the worst possible coffee culture. Being, until recently, a nation of tea-drinkers, we have no coffee culture of our own and had to import somebody else’s. To my consternation we seem to have settled for the U.S.’s premium mediocre Starbucks model, whole pints of milk and sugar. It’s not even America’s best coffee culture: Dunkin’ Donuts/Tim Horton’s unpretentious “regular cup of Joe and a donut/Timbit” aesthetic is far superior, grounded at least in the memory of a real culture, something like Americana. Starbucks by contrast isn’t really even authentically American in this sense. It’s more Global.

The recent proliferation of independent Antipodean-owned cafés in London and slowly further afield, is at least drawing parts of the U.K. market away from the sugary-pint model, but it’s coming in as a luxury consumer thing, highly-priced and lifestyle-focused, meeting places for the affluent. The coffee and food in these places is usually excellent, but I can’t afford to stay and spend the whole afternoon reading, which is my primary use for cafés.

I’ve always enjoyed cafés in the Netherlands, and the few I went to in Stockholm this Summer were also pleasant, if unremarkable. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as “Northern European coffee culture” that the U.K. should try to emulate; more likely getting coffee in those places just isn’t overtly American. I read the other day that Starbucks will soon open its first location in Italy: apparently the young people of Italy find its traditional coffee culture—romanticised the world over—staid and uncool. They too want volume.

Understand that it’s not that I think how and where we drink our coffee is important in any real sense. It’s just one more step in the slow homogenisation of everything. The dream of globalisation is that everybody has access to the best bits of all cultures. The reality is a grande skinny vanilla latte for everyone. Bill Bryson once said that the main difference in England from when he moved here in the 70s is that we are a lot more American now. Since America is the dominant culture worldwide, theirs is the culture we all drift towards as globalisation takes hold. Now that the U.K. is untethering itself from the rest of Europe I predict this process will only accelerate. It makes me sad in a way I find difficult to articulate. ↩︎

3. I’m not really sure why Birmingham was singled out, except: I grew up in a rural area in South West England, whose population was (and is) almost entirely white. The percentage of people in Birmingham identifying as ‘White British’ in the 2011 census was 57.9%; outside Greater London only Leicester is less white. ↩︎

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