October 21, 2012 – Our last day in Scotland was a lazy Sunday that started pretty late after staying up the night before. After a 1 PM checkout, we left our bags at the hotel and headed out to find a place to eat.
Our hotel was in the vicinity of the main thoroughfare Union Street, so we headed in that direction. Unlike the other day when we were picking up the car, this time we were able to walk slowly and take in the sights. We were in a very old part of a very old city; the street we were walking on was at least 700 years old.
Before actually going to many of the places we went to in 2012, I had some preconceived notions of them that had formed in my mind over the years from watching film, reading books, and also from the “common knowledge” reputation of a place. Although I was not expecting people in Scotland to be walking around in kilts and playing bagpipes, I also did not expect an environment so much similar to where I am from. So yes, the centuries-old granite buildings on Union Street were present, but so were these modern constructs with familiar names: Clear Channel ads on bus stops, posters for PS3 games, a T-Mobile store, Starbucks coffee, McDonald’s. These are all things one can see on Mission Street in San Francisco or, as I now know, any other modern city in today’s world.
The juxtaposition of old and new in Aberdeen is pretty amazing, though. As we walked along Union Street, we decided to head towards a shopping centre complex called Bon Accord & St Nicholas, two physically separate shopping malls on opposite sides of the same street and now managed as a single entity. We walked past a Gap store, and around the corner was the Kirk of St. Nicholas. One was founded in 1969, the other was earliest mentioned in a Papal document in 1157. Talk about juxtaposition!
We walked through the St. Nicholas part and reached the street (called Schoolhill) that divides the two malls. While waiting for the light to change, we encountered a homeless woman. I don’t think anyone consciously or intentionally thinks of encountering homeless people while traveling; it just happens if it does. For me, the realization that Aberdeen, too, has homeless people was similar to seeing all those familiar things earlier. I had just never actually thought about it, but if I had it would not be too farfetched to think that other places in the world have homeless people. We chatted for a little bit and she was pretty critical of the local government, of how it “places the interests of outsiders over those of locals”. A familiar refrain, to be sure.
We said goodbye to the homeless lady and crossed the street into Bon Accord. There was a YO! Sushi there and having seen a few instances of this place in London, we decided to give it a try. Not bad! I couldn’t help but comment that we came all the way to Scotland only to eat Japanese food at a chain restaurant inside of a shopping mall. Well, when you have the craving, you have the craving, and actually the food was pretty good. As an example, I have eaten tonkatsu in Japan and the one I had here was pretty much the same. My only complaint was that the steamed rice I ordered to go with some sashimi was vinegared sushi rice; I guess the young lady didn’t know the difference.
After the meal we walked around the mall a little bit and I got a chance to check out a couple of stores. One of them was a model store called Hawkin’s Bazaar. It was a pretty neat store with model trains, planes, helicopters and the like (was surprised to learn that it is a chain). Nearby was a GAME store, very similar to GameStop in the United States. There was a game in the closeout section that caught my eye, Cities in Motion. It was £5 and I wanted to get it, but I didn’t know how long I would have to hold on to it (my laptop has no optical drive) so I had to pass. I did take a photo of it for future reference. Fortuitously, I was later able to redeem a download copy of it using the points we accumulated from our trip. Awesome!
Speaking of model trains, I have noticed that the scene seems to be more visible in the UK than it is in the US. For example, in addition to Hawkin’s Bazaar and the fact that it is a chain selling model trains all over the UK, I saw plenty of model (and real) railroad magazines at various WH Smith stands. In America, other than at a few niche stores, I don’t really see model trains for sale anymore. I grew up playing with them and it was a lot more common to see them in stores back then. One of the biggest reasons is probably the decline of rail travel in the United States, a decline which I don’t believe has happened in the UK and Europe.
With our real train not set to depart until later in the evening, we had plenty of time to explore Aberdeen. I knew that we were near Aberdeen Beach so we headed in that general direction, walking along the edge of the city center, then through a residential neighborhood. It was a beautiful autumn day and we walked leisurely in whichever appeared to be the more interesting direction, chatting about our trip thus far and the history present in the neighborhoods in which we were walking through, and stopping occasionally to snap photos.
Soon, we arrived at Aberdeen Beach. The first thing that I was reminded of was Ocean Beach back in San Francisco. We had actually gone to Ocean Beach just a few months ago, so the image was fresh in our minds. Both beaches stretch for miles and have a road alongside (the Great Highway in San Francisco and the Beach Esplanade in Aberdeen). One major difference would be the presence of groynes (the wooden structures designed to slow erosion) on Aberdeen Beach.
In the photo above, the groynes aren’t actually that close together; I just zoomed in all the way and the perspective changed. For comparison, here’s a photo of me standing in the North Sea showing how much space there is between groynes:
Both JC and I have always been around the Pacific Ocean, being born in Hong Kong and then growing up and living in the Bay Area, and now Hong Kong again. I never thought that we would one day splash around in the North Sea. I told JC that we were standing at the northernmost point on the Earth that we had ever been. It was a moment to remember.
We made our way down the Esplanade and to the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream at one of the many stands. There were families, couples, children all happily enjoying a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the beach. Before, my life was a full-time job during the week and trying to relax on the weekends. Was it the same for the people here in Aberdeen? What is it like to live here? What would it be like to spend your whole life, to be one of the many generations who have done so, here? As a first-generation immigrant living in a place full of immigrants, it is difficult for me to imagine life as an entrenched native of a place. Of course, Aberdeen has its share of immigrants as well, especially with its energy (i.e. oil) industry, but I think I can safely say that its level of diversity does not compare to the melting pot that is the Bay Area.
Soon, we had made it all the way down to the end of the beach, to Footdee, an old fishing village. This incarnation of the village has been around since the 1800s, but the site itself has been around since medieval times. Even so, it is still fascinating to walk through such an ancient place. It is still populated, as we saw with the cottages with little gardens and clotheslines, not to mention the still-used mission in the middle of town. Today, these old stone buildings have power lines and antennas attached. I imagined being inside one of these dwellings on a cold winter night, the sound of the waves crashing, the wind howling, and the fireplace crackling. That would be pretty cozy, wouldn’t it?
We went through the entire village and reached Aberdeen Harbour. This was probably where the PSVs (platform supply vessels) we had seen from the beach (pictured above) pass through to dock. We had seen a few of these ships up close the day before as the harbour extends all the way to our hotel. While I was working at my computer I saw a couple of them coming and going.
After walking a couple of miles and being on our feet for over two hours, we were pretty tired, so we found the nearest bus stop to take the 15 bus back to Union Street. The thing I remember the most about the bus ride was that it passed through a shopping complex, and I saw the locals going about their Sunday shopping. I was reminded of going shopping with my grandmother in Vancouver, Canada, just another example of what I had realized about people everywhere being the same at the most basic level.
Back at Union Street, the sun was setting and it was getting colder. We took advantage of the remaining daylight to walk through the Kirkyard of St. Nicholas, the graveyard that’s outside the kirk. Walking through graveyards always fires up my imagination. I see names, dates, couples buried together, and I wonder how these people lived and what their world was like. Many of the graves at the kirk were from the 1800s, and a few were from the 1700s. I wondered if their descendants were still living in Aberdeen. Conversely, I imagined that it must be comforting for Aberdonians to know that this is where they came from, that they could trace their lineage back hundreds of years.
It had been a few hours since lunch, and along with all the walking we were now pretty hungry, so we tried to find a place to eat. We crossed the street to the Trinity Centre (where we picked up our car a couple of days ago), but they were closing. There was a walkway inside leading to the train station, so we gave that a try. Luckily for us, adjacent to the train station is another shopping centre, Union Square, and inside is a place serving Scottish cuisine. I finally got to try haggis, while JC’s Highland stew was just as delicious. Similarly to lunch, I had but one complaint, which was that although the menu listed Highland Park 12-yo Scotch, it was not available for order. It would have been perfect to eat that haggis with some whisky.
The sun was now gone and it was getting really cold outside. While still warm from our hearty meal, we quickly headed back to the hotel to pick up our bags so that we could wait out the last few hours at the station. Instead, we spent the next couple of hours at the mall because although the station was covered, it was open to the outside air and was too cold. The mall was pretty standard fare, save for the information kiosk which resembled a holodeck interface from Star Trek. I got a few laughs out of that with my Captain Picard impression. Later, we spent some time at yet another Starbucks before spending the final quarter-of-an-hour inside a heated waiting room in the station, which we didn’t see earlier.
We boarded the train at around 21:30, and fifteen minutes later we were on our way back to London Euston. This time, we tried taking our bags with us, and lo and behold, they fit in our cabin rather comfortably. Dang. We should have done it the first time. It was the end of a wonderful day and I was very happy about having visited Scotland, so I went to the lounge car for a celebratory Glenfiddich. JC and I spent some time taking photos of ourselves in the cabin before turning in. We were a lot more relaxed this time around, maybe because we had already done it once, or maybe because we had our bags with us. Either way, that night I slept very soundly.
Next: Whisky Leaving Scotland