Sunday, July 26, 2015

Third Blog Anniversary: The State of Aberdeen

As I spent more than a year in Scotland, every day is effectively an anniversary. Today marks three years since I started this blog to document my preparation for, time in, and return from Scotland... And a few other bits and bobs along the way.

I decided to pursue an MSc in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen in 2010, but was only familiar with Aberdeen from an overnight stay in 2004, and wasn't very familiar with the University before my arrival in 2012. One source that piqued my interest in those Summer months was this article from The Guardian, from 2005. Until last week, I hadn't read it in years, so I was curious how much of the article was true to my experience.
What's the price of a pint (of lager)? About £2 on average.

And the price of a kebab? Somewhere around the £3 mark, but the local delicacy of chips and cheese is widely available for nearer £2.
Not surprisingly, prices had adjusted for inflation by the time I arrived in Aberdeen. I think a kebab was about £6, and you could probably get lousy beer at The Union Bar (see below) for £3 or £4.
The public transport system is extensive, expensive and rarely on time.
Yeah, public transport wasn't particularly cheap. It tended to run on time, though. I wish I'd spent more time riding more routes while I was there... I'll have to try that again at some point.
For the sports fan, the city has an ice rink, several pools and at least one mediocre professional football team, not to mention weather so cold it generally precludes exercise out of doors.
I don't remember an ice rink. There was a tiny pool that I never had the chance to use that was located in the basement of King's Pavilion, and the big pool at the Aberdeen Sports Village opened after I had already left Scotland. The Bon Accord Baths were closed in 2008, three years after this article was published and four years before I arrived. The mediocre professional football (soccer) team is on point, though I think that The Director and his son were supporters.
What's it like as a place to study? The university's King's College campus is a mixture of historic college buildings, modern study halls and the occasional brutalist monstrosity.
Three words: Hideous Glass Cube. (Also, King's College.)
It has all the facilities a modern campus should have; 24-hour computer labs, a well-stocked library or two, hundreds of tiny rooms to cram many sweaty, verbose arts students into, lecture theatres big enough to house an Ice Age and, most importantly, a quiet little pub for the lecturers.
I miss The Machar.
What are the teaching staff like, in general?
By and large, the teaching staff are affable and welcoming. There's a wide range of ages, from late-20s to late-hundreds, and most specialities within a given subject are covered.
I remain quite fond of The Director, E, and Critical Mass, the latter two of whom are my friends via Facebook, and the former of whom I still E-mail regularly.
What's the social life like?
Despite the sad demise of the union last year, Aberdeen still has a plethora of social options; from uberclubs like Liquid and Espionage, to local surprises such as Estaminet and Kef. We're also well served on the pub front. We've got trendy style bars selling flavoured vodka and a sheen of sophistication on Belmont Street, and a number of traditional, authentic pubs serving Real Ale for Real Men - possibly prototypes for Scottish theme pubs.
I never went into Espionage. Apparently it only has two stars on Yelp, and found itself in difficulty after I left. Liquid was replaced by Institute which was where GBU-16 defeated The Finn. I never heard of Estaminet or Kef, but Siberia and Revolution still peddle vodka to the local populace. I could look up the names of other pubs, particularly those on Belmont Street, all day.
In all cases, you can find a kebab shop or takeaway of some description within spitting distance of almost any bar or club you care to name. Chief among them are favoured post-union chippie, the Tastie Tattie, and, for baked goods goodness at stupid o'clock, Thain's 24-hour bakery on George Street.
There are plenty of Kebab shops, but why go anywhere other than Lionel's? (Or the Gurkha Kitchen, although it's not in the City Center.) I never went to Thain's, nor did I visit the Tastie Tattie, the latter of which appears to have awful reviews.
For those of us who enjoy spending our free time in a darkened room with strangers, Aberdeen has a couple of large multiplexes, but is also home to the charming Belmont Cinema, where'll you find US indie hits, foreign classics and the best in repertory cinema. That's not even mentioning the weekly, rock-hard film quiz.
I saw a lot of movies in Aberdeen's various cinemas, such as Skyfall at the Union Square cinemas, the Dark Night Trilogy and Predator at The Belmont, and Sunshine on Leith at the Vue Cinemas, among others. (I never participated in the film quiz, though.)
What are the student societies like?
Given it only takes eight people to affiliate a society to the Aberdeen University Students' Association (AUSA), there are societies for anything you can think of, from the obvious (Cinema, Centrestage - the student's theatre group, Debater) to the slightly more obscure (Balinese Gamelan, Anime and Manga, Law Mooting). On top of that, there are over 50 sports clubs, including some of the best student teams in Britain. You can play anything from archery to volleyball, while the sports union's facilities and minibuses make it possible to compete at events almost anywhere in the UK.
I assume all of this is still vaguely true. CN Ness ran for AUSA office. We sort of had our own little group that didn't really require the affiliation of a society to AUSA, so I didn't really run into any of this, save for one jam-packed reception hosted by the International Relations Society.
What's the accommodation like?
There are two uni-run, on-campus halls of residence; Crombie and Johnston. Both are well fitted, with decent catering and facilities, even if the en-suite toilets in Crombie are a little more luxurious than freshers deserve. However, the main student hall is Hillhead, some 10-15 minutes walk from King's campus. Its design, as legend would have it, is based on a Swedish women's prison and it isn't the most inviting of places. That said, the environment certainly brings people together. You half expect to hear them whistling the theme from The Bridge on the River Kwai when you walk into the Moon, the bar in the central building. It's actually called the Watering Hole, but (apparently) has no atmosphere. In addition to the Moon, Hillhead has its own computing labs and its own AUSA shop, with a small video rental section.
I never actually witnessed Crombie or Johnston, or the King's Hall (which is omitted from the article, but which was, if I remember correctly, the residence of CN Templar). I lived at Hillhead, in one of the buildings which had yet to be renovated and had, as such, been relegated to foreign postgraduate residents (and a few first years, also know as "freshers"); I've occasionally joked that, contrary to being designed after a Swedish women's prison, my section of Hillhead (North Court) had been designed by an underling of Joseph Stalin. "The Watering Hole" had been resurrected as "The Union Bar" by the time I arrived, and was allegedly on the verge of being shut down. I tended to go elsewhere to enjoy myself because The Unioon Bar wasn't a particularly good place to meet people or hang out. So, maybe it should have been called the Moon. I don't think the AUSA shop still exists (I think it's been moved to The Hub, on the main campus). There's a Keystore (convenience store) and, at the time, there was a Chinese takeaway, as well as laundry facilities. Hillhead offered everything you needed, and nothing more.
What do the locals make of students?
It's hard to say whether the locals actively dislike the students, or merely tolerate them. With King's and Foresterhill (which houses the medical school) being out of the city centre, it's hard not to see Aberdeen and Aberdeen University as pretty separate entities. The major interactions between the two communities usually ends with a barman shaking his head and muttering "bloody students".
I may sound like an arrogant American here, but I had expected a bit more of the "Wow Factor" from being American. There was certainly some of it, but the universities, the energy industry, and the United Kingdom's membership in the European Union have made Aberdeen so cosmopolitan that most people didn't seem to notice. I suppose I wasn't an orthodox student, being a thirty-year-old postgraduate.
What's your favourite place in the university?
It's hard to beat lounging on Elphinstone lawn with a good book on a sunny day. Failing that, the Gaudie office is a dark den of filth, flaky paint and student journalists but, crucially, has central heating and broadband.
I spent most of my time on campus at The SOC. There's very little air conditioning on campus, so when the Spring and Summer months made it too hot to work in the SOC, I ended up finding a particular Starbucks location and doing most of my work there.
What's the worst place?
On balance, the Gaudie office.
I just want to reiterate what I've openly stated before: The Gaudie makes the student newspaper at my hometown's community college look like the Washington Post. (Apparently it's the United Kingdom's oldest student newspaper, and apparently it almost died; who knew?)
What makes you proud of your university?
The feeling of history. The University of Aberdeen has a long and distinguished history...
I agree.
And what makes you cringe about it?
...but it doesn't half go on about it.
I'm not really even sure what this means. I guess I'll just caveat by saying that the 2013/'14 university prospectus featured the Hideous Glass Cube, rather than King's College. I thought that was a colossal mistake.
How would you recommend it to your little brother/sister?
Probably; Aberdeen has all the best bits of the other Scottish cities and unis; culture to rival Edinburgh, nightlife to rival Glasgow, history to rival St Andrew's or Stirling, roundabouts to rival Dundee; and then adds a little something extra. I think it's called wind chill.
Yeah, something like that.
And can you sum up the place in three words?
Like grey? Good.
I love grey. As such, it was the perfect fit for me.

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Slow though the rate of posting may be, there's more yet to come here at Operation Highlander.

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