Glasgow: It’s All Downhill From Here

Posted: March 24, 2012 in Travel

Sept. 8, 7 p.m.

It had only been two hours since I landed in Scotland, but it was already beginning to feel like I had been transported to another dimension; a parallel reality.

I looked around my strange hotel room — a cramped space with a TV and desk, separate tiny chamber for the shower, a sink, mirror, bunk beds, and a narrow room with a toilet that redefined the term “water closet” — and thought “fuck this, I’ll come back and sleep here tonight eventually.” No point in surveying this domain any longer. There was a world out there I’d never seen.

The hotel was situated right on the edge of the Glasgow city center, in the middle of a group of restaurants, shops and entertainment venues known as The Quay. There was no discernible way across the river and into the city center aside from a couple of bridges that could only be accessed on foot. Seeing that it was already 7 p.m. and I hadn’t slept in what felt like weeks, I wasn’t planning on venturing in that far.

Fortunately, this was Scotland, and I was still within drinking distance. You are, by definition, always in drinking distance when you’re in this country.

There was a street behind the hotel that led to some shady-looking neighborhood that wasn’t even a five-minute walk. Deciding the lack of obstacles and visible proximity of a “Guinness” sign in the distance looked more promising than any other options around, I wandered in that direction.

The sign turned out to be in the window of a place called “The Old Toll Bar.” From the outside it looked like a dive bar; something you’d see in Pioneer Square in Seattle. And probably in one of the shadier areas. Sensing no better thing to do than saunter into an unscrupulous bar after being launched halfway across the world in the past 24 hours, I shrugged and went inside.

Once inside, I noted the bar had the unmistakable vibe of being one of those places you’d go to if you’re a) on a budget, b) wanting to get drunk before yougo outto get drunk, c) a travel-weary foreigner who has no idea where he is, or d) both.

The wall was plastered with signs advertising a variety of drinks that were £3 or less; most of which being shots or shooters. The floor creaked with each step, and the atmosphere was somewhere between a half-empty pub and a particularly rowdy library. Taking a seat at the bar, I ordered a local lager that I can’t recall the name of and settled in. The bartender immediately noticed “my accent,” which I always find to be a hilarious observation when traveling abroad.

“An American,” she smiled. “Where are you from, darlin’?”

“Seattle,” I said. “First time in Scotland. Got off the plane earlier today.”

“Well, welcome to Glasgow,” she said as she walked by, bringing another patron their beverage of choice. “It’s a great town.”

I smiled and nodded, taking a big gulp of the intoxicant I’d been served. It reminded me a little of the over-marketed crap beers in the US — Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light — but with substantially less of the bland piss-water taste that so often characterizes them. This was real beer, not the redneck swill used for kegstands at frat parties.

The beer was gone quicker than I usually drink. I ordered another. Hot Scottish Bartender, Lisa, was more than happy to bring it my way and chat me up a little more. Then I noticed a sign on the wall for an assortment of cocktails and shooters of which I’d never heard of before.

“What’s a ‘flying Scotsman,'” I asked Lisa. “I’m intrigued.”

“Let me show you,” she said, grinning suspiciously.

Mother of god, I thought. I could see the can of worms opening right before my eyes. My gaze met hers, and I could read into what she was thinking: “Let’s play ‘Get the American fucking drunk.'”

She poured me the drink and I took it in one shot without a moment’s hesitation. The unmistakable flavor of Jager was in there, but I couldn’t make out the rest. No matter, I thought.

“Want another?” Lisa asked  on her way back to the register.

“Tuborg for now,” I said. “It’s important to pace yourself, after all.”

She shrugged and poured the beer. I looked around the bar for a moment — not many others had trickled in; it was just me and a few other wary-looking lads in a sleepy bar in the middle of a sketchy neighborhood in Glasgow at 8 p.m. on a Thursday. I felt distinctly American, but not with the expected sense of embarrassment that came with it. I felt comfortable, and not exposed or vulnerable. It was a good feeling to have on the beginning few hours of a two-week trek across several foreign countries.

I flagged Lisa down. “I’ll go for another shot,” I said.

“Ah, why not, eh?” she said as she grinned that same goddamn grin. Even though her accent was thick and the dialect a far cry from what I’m used to, sexual tension is a universal language.

She poured my shot and passed it over to me. I noticed she was also holding one of the same drink.

“Oh, joining me then?” I asked.

“Cheers,” Lisa said, holding the drink up in front of me. Our glasses touched and we gulped down the contents.

I felt the first rising vibes of intoxication creeping over me. My head began to swim a little. I laughed at nothing in particular. Maybe it was the booze, but then again, maybe it was the giant blast of pure, unfiltered freedom that I was getting high off of. It was too early to say.

Lisa came by with another drink for me. I didn’t order it, but that didn’t seem to stop her from giving it to me anyway. I don’t remember what the hell it was, but I do know I chased it with another Tuborg.

The thought occurred to me that I could somehow crazily drag Lisa back to my nearby hotel with me, but I doubted she was off anytime soon. I wasn’t going to last much longer here anyway, as I recall swaying a bit on my bar stool. Part of me said “why NOT drag the hot Scottish bartender back to your room with you?!” and the rest of me was saying “no, you stupid drunk fiend, go gorge on some bad grub somewhere and pass out!” Ah, to be a conflicted drunk traveler.

As if to interrupt my train of thought, Lisa came back my way with yet another shot. I almost didn’t accept it, but I’d have hated to refuse such unrivaled hospitality. I raised my glass, said “Hell with it” and took the shot.

I won’t say I instantly regretted it, but it was a close call.

I walked downstairs to the head, where a pack of younger-looking dudes were convening inside. They were apparently waiting for the guy in the stall to get out, and becoming impatient about it. None of them said anything about needing to take a shit, so I assumed they had nowhere else to snort whatever they had on them. Whatever it was, I didn’t care.

“Tell him to move,” said one of the pack to me abruptly.

I raised an eyebrow. “I’m just here to piss, don’t mind me…”

“Ah, that motherfucker!” he lashed out.

The pack engaged in some energetic shouting that I couldn’t quite make out. Understanding these bastards is hard enough to do sober.

I zipped and washed up and mumbled something indistinct. One of them asked me what I said, to which I responded by mumbling louder.

“HORHKFHSKHDA,” I said. “Just…just trying to fit in, you see.”

This resulted in more yelling, and one of them kicked in the stall door of the poor bastard who was sitting in there taking a shit. I didn’t want to see how this one ended.

I told Lisa what was going on once I got back upstairs and paid my tab. She shook her head. “Assholes,” she said. “I’ll go down there and see what’s goin’ down.”

Before she had a chance to go down, I asked if she’d be working tomorrow night. She said no, but that she’d be back anyway to party and meet up with a bunch of friends before hitting the clubs downtown.

My intuition from earlier about this bar had been spot-on — this was a place people went to pregame.

“I’m meeting two friends in town tomorrow night, also from Seattle,” I said. “Mind if I bring them along?”

“Oh, of course love!” she said. “Bring ’em on by.”

I tipped her heavily and thanked her as I stumbled out the front door. The bar had rapidly filled up, drawing in a rowdy crowd full of rugby fans. The music had gotten louder, and it looked like the night hadn’t even started yet for most of these people. I, meanwhile, was sauntering out of the place after hauling ass across half the planet for the past 24 hours.

Christ, I thought. It’s only been one night and this is already shaping up to be a true test of my endurance — in more ways than one.

Somewhere off in the distance, sirens pierced the silence of the night. Fucking Glasgow. It had only been one night, and I could already tell it was all downhill from here.



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