Dundee

I went out to Dundee during the week. I’d heard it was a really cool place that had a lots going on from an arts perspective. My sister posted an article that gushed about the future V&A, the arts scene and the good food. I wanted to check it out in person.

After a short train ride I arrived at the main station. It’s in the middle of the waterfront redevelopment. Sadly it currently looks a lot more like a construction site than a museum. I will have to come back in ten years and see how it turns out. It was early in the morning so I decided to wander the pathway along the River Tay right near the train station. I followed it around the bend beyond the railway bridge and found myself a half an hour walk from the city centre.

The Tay is wide and beautiful. I was annoyed to be unable to wander the shore but enjoyed the view. After hitting the end of the path and a point that was as far as it seemed reasonable to wander from where I thought the city centre would be I crossed a quiet park and started walking up hill. I passed through residential streets then followed some people who looked like students (artsy students like Dundee is known for) into the area where the University of Dundee is located.

I stopped following them — and by stopped I mean they passed me because I walk slowly — and headed down a main street that would prove to become the main street running through town. I was starting to get hungry so I tucked into a take away place that had a long line up. Take away places in Scotland often have greasy or disappointing food and I try to avoid them but this one was busy. They also had breakfast bagels. It was 11:00 am and I was just in time for elevensies. For some reason I got the bacon, cheese and egg even though I don’t really like breakfast meat. As I was eating it I regretted getting the bacon and picked it out. When people ask me why I often don’t eat meat this is the answer: when I do my body often responds with revulsion and tells me I shouldn’t be. Otherwise the take away was good. Much better than a lot of takeaway in these parts.

I was near Dundee Contemporary Arts, an arts centre with community spaces, a restaurant, movie theatres, print studio, shop and gallery that is a big part of Dundee’s artsy reputation. The centre is small with a cool and understated design. It is modern but not in your face modern. It was much smaller in size than I had expected, which likely contributes to its success. I browsed the shop where I indulged in my postcard habit.

The main gallery space had an interesting exhibition by Hideyuki Katsumata, a Japanese artist specializing in blending traditional Japanese imagery with creatures and UFOs. His art is colourful and right up my alley. I loved the drawings and murals. The video section of the exhibition was a bit intense and left me fleeing the room as gyrating colours popped out at me.

My Scotland guidebook recommended grabbing a coffee in the restaurant afterwards so I went downstairs. Expecting to find a very chill cafe atmosphere instead I arrived at a restaurant that seemed to take itself very seriously. When I asked for just a latte they were confused and seemed like they wanted me to eat something if I was going to take up all this space. The coffee was good and came with a nice oat bar. Otherwise the restaurant was a lot fancier than the cafe the guidebook described. It was also a strange place to be around the lunch hour.

They seemed to be expecting a large lunch rush and were bracing for impact. As each party or lone individual arrived they would find a way to seat them off to the side or at the benches near me. The main seating area remained empty. It reminded me of how my mother sets aside all of our mugs on shelves or puts pens and coins in them to protect them from being scratched or dinged and my sister wears worn out socks while saving a stash of nice new ones for a special occasion. As far as I could tell they didn’t actually plan to use the main seating area but liked knowing it was available just in case. I finished my latte in an effort to free up my table for people eating food and headed out.

From there I could easily stroll past the downtown shopping centre to the main square. My hostel was somewhere near here. I turned down the street I thought it would be on to look for it. It was not the right street. It was lined with shops and an appealing looking pancake place but my hostel was not on it.

I turned back to the main square. It was a beautiful and large square. This section of streets was pedestrianized. The square was built around city hall and a shopping centre. I sat on a bench and read for a while. I’d brought a book I was reading for fun rather than for a class. Partially because I wanted a break and partially because I didn’t want to have to pay for a library book if something happened to it on my trip.

The lure of the shopping centre pulled me in. I went into Prymark a store I have mixed feelings about. Some of the stuff is cheap cheap. All of the cardigans I’ve seen are cheap wool that would make my skin itch. Other times they sell stuff that is nice for the price. Inevitably I went to the pajama section. I wanted to buy most of the shirts and try to pass them off as normal everyday clothes. I also overheard three separate conversations in which one person was trying to convince someone they were with to buy a onesie.

It’s fall so thick fuzzy socks were everywhere. As I felt all the beautiful socks I could barely resist the temptation to buy them. Lacking the strength to resist temptation I left.

The main area of Dundee has character of the kind that urban designers drool over. Benches, poles and lamps of the same design. While the buildings all feel like those in most parts of Scotland the centre of Dundee had a unique and charming feel to it.

After wandering I decided to head down to the waterfront to explore the bit on the other side of the Victoria and Albert construction site. As I walked closer towards the river I encountered a large roadway. It took me ages to find a place to cross and then I couldn’t find a way to get past the large stretch of industrial buildings so I turned around. Like far too many waterfronts this one had been cut off from the public.

Besides I had some sunset plans and it was starting to get late. I was planning on going to the Dundee Law. Unfortunately it happened to be much farther away than I’d planned. I also had to make a detour to get around a large roadway that led me way off track. Then there was a large steep hill. That slowed me down a bunch.

As I started to get worried about the time and not being able to get there on time I started speed walking or as many people would call it walking at a normal speed. By the time I got close I was panting and sweating but there was no time to mess around. I had to get there before the sun had set or this was all a waste of time.

I was keeping vigilant watch on the map app on my phone to prevent myself from taking a wrong turn. After crossing one last street I knew I was close and put it into my pocket. A sign told me that the Dundee Law was to my left. I turned. I walked ever upwards sure I was close at last. The sun was dipping lower and lower. Pulling out my phone for once last safety glance it told me I was in the wrong place. I thought about going back to the junction below. Instead I made my way up a trail that I hoped would get me there.

It did. I snapped some pretty pictures of the view from the path and a stairwell and then got to enjoy the sunset. Other photographers, visitors and some locals were mulling about. Like many places in Scotland the Law is a volcanic cap. It sits above Dundee and provides views of everything below. The best were of the hills and the River Tay.

I meandered my way back down as the last light was fading. It was easier on the way down than it had been going up. On the way back I popped into a shop to buy some candy and something to eat. The best eating option was a book of KD style mac and cheese £1.

The other beds in my room remained unmade so I got it to myself. There were no lockers so I was happy about this. I have trust issues when it comes to my camera and hostels. I’ve also learned to travel with both a small and large lock because you never know what style of locker you’ll get.

A group of French people who may or may not have been related to one another were hanging around. Some were in the kitchen making food. People in the kitchen were mostly keeping to themselves. Some of them seemed to be doing the long-term stay thing I always think is crazy. I eventually worked up the courage to say something to them in French.

I tried to heat up my pasta but nothing was happening. I turned on another burner and then splashed water onto it. Steam rose. I splashed it onto the other one. Nothing. I moved the pasta over and it started to cook.

Nobody else was around so I sat on a ledge by the window and read.

The kitchen was nice and had the type of layout I wish my flat could have. There were enough burners that multiple people could cook at once, a middle island and a good cupboard layout.

As I was pouring my cheese powder on the macaroni a guy came in and was confused that the stove didn’t work. I said in English that I’d tried it earlier and it hadn’t worked. He didn’t seem to understand so I switched to French. He looked more confused and said, “No in English.” After understanding what I meant he went downstairs to get somebody.

They came up and were annoyed that the stove was broken again. This was a recurring problem that had been going on ever since they’d replaced their old stove a few months ago. He suspected that they’d failed to seal it properly and water was getting in. A box was pulled out of the recycling bin and he made an out of order sign.

After finishing my nutritious dinner I slipped upstairs to read before going to bed.

I was up before my alarm went off. The left over mac and cheese made a good enough breakfast. I was gone with an hour to spare before checkout.

My camera battery had failed to charge the previous night (something something flipping a red switch) so I went to the Costa Coffee just off the high street to sit and wait. I could’ve stayed in my room but the pillow headrest set up wasn’t very comfortable. I figured that by the time it was charged it would be late enough for things to be open once I started going.

Dundee isn’t that big and I’d managed to cover most of the ground in one day so I was planning on heading to a nice suburb called Broughty Ferry. The bus was straightforward. With the help of my phone I guess where the place to stop was. It’s hard to judge as you get farther and farther away from where you know.

There was a small pub in what looked like a former inn. I walked towards where I thought the river would be. The road crossed with what looked like the main street. It was cute and I made a note to try and find my way back here.

At the end I reached a search and rescue station next to a rocky beach. The water was masked by a thick fog, the kind that a photographer out for one day does not want to stumble upon. It was cold and my hands were getting chilly. I popped out some mitten with flip off tops that I’d bought at Prymark the day before. I hadn’t cut the tags off and struggled with the plastic but eventually won. I’m usually too wimpy to tug at the plastic until it gives but there were no scissors around. I made a mental note to start carrying a pocket knife when I traveled.

My hands were warmer but the rest of me was disappointed. The thought of turning back and spending the day in Dundee crossed my mind. Taking a few steps out on to the beach with no view I encountered some swans. At first they were wading in the shallow water in front of me. Then they got out and came up to me. Curiosity I suppose. They checked me out with one leading the way. I snapped some shots and then stood talking to them. Nothing useful just comments on the weather and questions about swan life. None received a response. Eventually they got bored with me and turned around. Fair enough I thought. I’d been thinking of moving on as well.

Instead of going back and giving up I decided to continue on along the beach. I had nothing to do in Dundee and I’d come all the way out here. Maybe the sky would clear. Otherwise I’d have to do what I could with the weather I had. If you decide to move to Scotland you have to be able to take pictures on overcast days or you may as well pack it in.

The pebbles were awkward and uneven to walk on. It reminded me of beaches I’d wandered in Vancouver. With my boots I have no fear of stepping in mud or puddles. They are sturdy and help me feel fearless. In fact when I’m taking pictures I’m much more brave than I am in normal life. Sometimes I feel like I’m afraid of my own shadow. I’ve always been sensitive and cautious. I don’t like fast things or heights. With a camera in my hand I feel invincible. I do things that I normally wouldn’t. I’ll climb down to places and lean out to get shots. It’s a different role to play. As a photographer you exist in a different way than you do as a normal person. You are an observer and someone documenting something. If you fall you care as much about your gear as you do yourself. Probably more.

I go wandering around by myself late at night to take pictures and it feels perfectly sensible. People interact with you differently too when you take pictures. Sometimes they get mad and ask you not to take pictures of them. Otherwise they’re curious and ask you questions. Or they try to stay out of the way giving you sympathetic glances as they pass. I usually check other photographers out. See what gear they have and what they’re doing. It’s distracting at concerts and weddings.

I was enjoying being near the water again. In Edinburgh it’s not far. You just have to go down to Leith. There’s no water in Calgary, which always feels weird — the river doesn’t count in the same way as an estuary or beach. I’d spent so much time in Vancouver wandering beaches and chasing sunsets. It was nice to be back out again.

As I neared the end of this particular beach section the sun started to come out as if to reward me for staying around and not packing it in. It knew I only had this one chance to be here and wanted me to get the most out of it. I was grateful.

After turning around I walked back the way I’d come. This time I was up on the pavement above the beach looking down at it. I was starting to get hungry and wanted to find a bathroom. There are no public bathrooms in these places so you have to constantly be calculating where you can find the next one. A cafe or some public building. I didn’t want to go too far.

From the search and rescue station I spied the castle my guidebook had talked about. It seemed like the type of place that would have a bathroom. Instead of turning around and getting lunch it seemed easier to keep on going. The castle was similar to the one in St. Andrews but in better shape. There was a museum and gift shop where I quickly located the bathroom. Museums are not my cup of tea. Despite my best efforts I never manage to care about them. I’d rather be hiking or on a beach or wandering around or reading a book in a cafe. I have yet to visit any in Edinburgh despite telling myself I’d hit them up. Maybe when it starts to rain it’ll be more appealing to spend time inside.

After buying a postcard I skipped the exhibit and wandered the old castle walls. I did read an information plaque about the history of the castle and town. There had been a ferry line that ran across the river, which is how it got the name. The castle had been refortified during the world wars because of its strategic location.

As I was leaving I saw a beach further along. I was getting hungry but couldn’t turn my back on a beach. This one had glorious yellow sand and looked the way beaches are supposed to. It was much busier than the other one. The waves lapped up along the shore and I clicked away happily. I started thinking about a turning point. The beach went on for as far as I could see. There was some tall grass that reminded me of a spot on the coast of Denmark. When it ended I made a u-turn and cut through it.

The high street was easy to find and had a number of options. Cafe Nero makes an apricot croissant that is to die for so I’d been thinking about stopping in there but it seemed lame to go to a chain. There was a cute bakery that was buzzing so I stopped in there instead. The food was good but they didn’t ask me if I wanted to pay to sit in so I felt that I had to find somewhere outside to eat. It’s nice that they automatically get tipped through that system but it’s a little confusing sometimes. It took me a while to find a bench and I was frustrated with my decision. A strawberry tart helped make me feel better.

After all the walking I did feel tired and had some time to kill. There was a Costa Coffee with some comfy chairs free. They did not sell apricot croissants but coffee was available so that was good enough. I read more Will Ferguson happy to venture off to Japan and not have to take notes. I did write down a few quotes along the way.

• I kept waiting for social activists and placard-waving protesters to picket the construction site, but no one ever did, and the heart of my sad tumble-down little city had another large bite taken from it. The word seiki means ‘century’ in Japanese, and in some ways I suppose the towering, sleek, soulless buildings are the harbingers of the new millenium.”

• Nothing historical is ever completely discarded in Japan, it is just added onto, like another layer of papier mache.

• That night, I dreamt I was hitching rides with Buddha. We were standing on a highway flooded with flowers. When we held out our hands, pebbles fell from our palms.

Time went by and I basked in the wonderful book I’d brought along with me. Eventually I got restless and decided to head back to the city. I had a train to catch.

Sadly it wouldn’t be leaving for a good long while. My train was late enough that I could go off to the far reaches of the region and still make it. It also departed after all the coffee shops in town had closed. After wandering around the shopping centre looking for postcards — none were found but I did buy sorbet at Tiger — I decided to sit at the coffee shop where I’d started my day. The waterfront near the station was still incomplete and there was no where to wait there. People started leaving and I found myself with nothing to do but wander to the station. Halfway there I decided to stroll the University of Dundee campus. As a non-student they wouldn’t be letting me into any buildings but it was something to do. The buildings seemed nice and I wished I’d come before the student centre had closed.

The other side of campus spit me out back by the road that had caused me so much trouble the day before. This time I knew how to deal with it and made my way back to the shopping centre. There was still over an hour to kill before I could reasonably wait at the station. Again I wondered what to do and came up with head to the river.

Lights from the bridge and houses on the other side reflected off the water. I didn’t have a tripod with me but there was a wall to set my camera on. Long exposures take time. I usually do them at between five and thirty seconds. It’s a good way to make twenty or thirty minutes fly by. I spent the next forty-five minutes with my camera ticking away on the wall as it grew darker and darker. Blue parts of the river faded to full black and were only visible to my camera’s sensor.

Enough time had passed so I went to wait at the station. It wasn’t much. Some stations are grandiose and make you want to go on an adventure. This one was a reminder of how long I still had to wait before going home. I found the lounge and was instantly disappointed. The coffee shop was closed. There were some chairs that looked uncomfortable and a bank of vending machines.

Unable to resist junk food I walked over to the vending machines. Some of the rings had failed to complete their rotations and had obviously left previous customers disappointed. I pondered whether or not to take the chance. The screen read £0.90. No one else was around. It was enough to buy some crisps so I hit the button. They landed nicely in the slot below.

I ate them while strolling to the other end of the station at a waiting room near the platform my train would eventually depart from. The bag didn’t last long. After sitting for a while I got bored and wandered back down. Candy again tempted me and I put in a £1 coin. This time the coils turned hopelessly as another bag became the victim of it’s deficient mashing. Nothing fell below and it would not give me my change. If someone had been around I would have complained but then I thought about the bag I’d gotten earlier. I hadn’t paid for it and now the machine had taken my money. I should’ve known better than to try my luck and go back to a machine that I’d initially known not to trust.

Scorned I walked back up the tracks. A girl was boarding my train so I got on. We pulled out twenty minutes later. The countryside was black so I read most of the way. It wasn’t until we got close to the lights of Edinburgh that there was something to see.

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