From the Tiber to the Clyde: A Roman’s Life in Glasgow – Glasgow Before Glasgow

On 3 March 2017 at around 7.10 a.m., a very sleepy me opened her inbox to discover she had received an answer from Glasgow University.  After months of compulsive email-checking and countless late nights spent reading WikiHow articles on how to handle rejection, the long-awaited response was finally there: a second of terror as Arial bold turned to Arial regular and then, a burst of joy. 

It’s an offer it’s an offer it’s an offer.

Misty-eyed and incredulous, I started going through the email again and again to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreting any of the words. I had been making plans for – and fantasising about – studying abroad for years, and seeing the prospect of leaving Italy suddenly turn into a concrete possibility was filling me with terror and excitement at the same time.  Yes, I had done a lot of research, but I was still getting myself into something essentially new and unknown, my only direct experience of the UK being limited to a few holidays in southern England. In the days following my offer, I tried to make an ultimate decision about whether Glasgow would be a good choice for me or not. As an international applicant with a worried mother and no acquaintances living in Scotland, the only way for me to do so was to look for further information on the internet.

Glasgow has a mixed online reputation. Although contested by a majority, some people on blogs and forums do not hesitate in describing it as nothing more than a gloomy, dangerous place in which rough accents meet rough Raymond Depardon visuals; a playground for ruthless street criminals where knife violence is the game of choice and everyone a target; in short, somewhere one would never ever want to be.

Very soon into my research, I realised that the internet can help one realise what Glasgow is commonly thought to be like and understand the misleading nature of such preconceptions, but that it cannot really tell one much about the city’s actual character. At the end of my exploration on many blogs, forums, YouTube channels, and websites, I was familiar with some historical facts about the city and the university and I could name most museums and buildings of relevance. I also knew that People make Glasgow and Mackintosh and the strong musical scene, and was aware of the fact Glaswegian accents are impenetrable to internationals and non-Glaswegians alike. Just as importantly, I learned about delightful things such as the deep-fried Mars bar and the general population’s habit of crowning the Duke of Wellington and his horse with traffic cones. All of this was certainly something, but it was not enough for a complete outline, let alone a full picture.

Even if I only had access to fragmented information, Glasgow drew me in somehow. I was not necessarily looking for a beautiful city: having lived most of my life in the outskirts of Rome, I was used to being a 30-minute subway ride away from incomparable sights. What I really wanted from my new surroundings was for them to have a character distinctive enough to stimulate my senses and intellect in new ways, giving me the possibility to experience something different than my hometown.

The fifth European city for extension, Rome is an enormous living, breathing creature. Home to a multiplicity of contrasting realities, it only tends to be associated with a specific kind of lifestyle and urban landscape. Those cinematic and somewhat stereotypical images of a dolce vita among squares, churches, fountains, and ancient ruins don’t really account for the city’s vast suburbs, where most Romans, me included, actually live.

Picture busy, bumpy roads constellated with potholes and surrounded by untamed fields full of litter, wildflowers, and spontaneous plants as big as small trees; shopping centres at every corner and a lack of all other kinds of meeting places; ideological wars, football rivalries, love declarations and general obscenities covering every available outdoor surface in the form of graffiti; the yearly neighbourhood summer fair organised by the community parish where locals can have a dance to folk songs and be entertained by the heavily misogynistic jokes of middle aged female comedians in sparkling attire; a starlit night sky over deserted parking lots, the occasional bus stop, and perennially overflowing dustbins; an inescapable feeling of slight and constant suffocation.

Strongly connected to its rich history without nevertheless sacrificing vitality and a sense of the present moment, Rome has a lot to offer, but it doesn’t really reach to any area just outside its city centre. It is not an organic unit.  

Unsure if what I wanted was to escape from the urbs aeterna or from its suburbs, or even if what I was feeling was a desire to escape at all, I booked a flight to attend Glasgow University’s April Visitor Day. Determined to make sense of all the contradictory information about the city, I decided it was time to go and see for myself.


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