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Life in Aberdeen – The same, but different

in Featured/Home and Away/Stray Puffins/Travel by

Delia Warren was born and raised in St. John’s and graduated from Mechanical Engineering at Memorial University in 2009. A brief whirlwind tour of Europe in 2007 sparked her interest for travel, and after completing a final work term in Aberdeen she set sail for the Old World. Delia currently lives in Paris, France and is planning a trip around the world in the New Year.

A few years back I moved to a new country, a new continent in fact. I expected things to be different, and I was ready for a change. I knew the food would be different, that they would likely have different customs, different traditions, maybe a different system of government. I did my research; I tried to find out what I should expect so that I wouldn’t end up culture shocked upon arrival.

When I moved to Scotland I was ready to experience a new culture and was prepared for my new surroundings. After all we’re not that different, the Scots and us. Aberdeen is a city about the same size as St. John’s. It’s got a harbour, the primary industry is oil and gas, and they’ve got Belmont Street – their own little version of George Street! By and large, my new life wasn’t greatly changed from the one I left at home. But I quickly learned that there were things about myself and my own life that I never questioned until I was faced with a place where things were mostly the same, but just the tiniest bit different.

Fit like?

At least they speak the same language, I told myself. Not so, as it turned out. I felt like a Torontonian in Bonavista Bay when I first arrived. They were using words I’d never heard before in an accent that I was struggling to decipher – Groundskeeper Willie did not prepare me for this. A few I was ready for: a “flat” is an apartment, a “quid” is a pound, a “mate” is a pal, and a “bonnie lass” is a pretty girl. However you get funny looks when you say “I just need to run home to change my pants”, as “pants” are underwear and “trousers” are pants. Although the first person to ask me got a rather shocked look, if someone asks you if they can bum a “fag”, they are looking just for a cigarette. Your “bird” is your girlfriend, you’re “skint” when you’re low on cash, and if you’re cool enough to have one, please don’t call it a “fanny” pack, as they use this word back-to-front so to speak.

If someone asks you “furryboots are you’se?” they are asking whereabouts you are…

In addition, Aberdonians have their own special dialect. Just as you might be able to recognise someone from the Southern Shore or Bay Roberts pretty easily in Newfoundland, Scotland is full of distinct dialects and accents. In Aberdeen they tend to pronounce “w” like “f” when it comes at the front of a word. If someone asks you “furryboots are you’se?” they are asking whereabouts you are, and “fit ya for” means, “what would you like to drink?”. I’m not quite sure of the translation, but “fit like?” is basically the Aberdeen equivalent to the Newfie phrase “what are ya at?”, which means simultaneously, “what’s up?” and “how are you?” In short, they do speak English in Scotland, but it’s more than just a slightly different version.

It’s a small world after all

You don’t notice how many people drive pickups and SUVs in North America until you move to Europe. I hardly saw any the whole time I was in Scotland. The cars are small and the streets are narrow. When I walked into my first apartment in Aberdeen I was struck by the smallness of everything around me. The fridge was half the size of my fridge at home, the oven seemed like a glorified easy-bake and the clothes washer was minute (there was no dryer; clothes are dried indoors on collapsible racks). Food is even sold in smaller denominations – I frequently bought milk by the pint.

Living space just about everywhere seems to be in short supply. Almost every house is attached to the one next to it and front yards are nearly non-existent, at least inside the city. We have lots of space in Canada, so we make everything bigger and more spread out. Part of this difference is because Aberdeen is an old city, built in a time when roads needed to be only large enough to fit a horse and carriage through. But appliances and living spaces in Europe are so much smaller than ours because of one simple fact – it saves energy, and energy costs money. Although we complain about the cost of electricity, heating oil and gasoline at home, these people pay way more than us. In fact, they pay nearly double. Smaller cars, smaller appliances and smaller places to heat suddenly make sense.

Well that’s annoying…

Besides the unexpected increase in my monthly utilities, there were several small discrepancies that initially rubbed me the wrong way in my new home. Everyday tasks like boiling water or making toast are certainly among the things that I didn’t expect to change across the pond. There are a few things in your daily routine that you are more accustomed to than you realise, and when all of a sudden things are somewhat altered, it can be more than a little annoying.

For instance, all electrical outlets in the UK have switches, meaning you must flick the switch to the “on” position before the appliance plugged into that switch will work – including the oven (a.k.a. “hob”) and the shower. A simple concept, yet one that I didn’t quite grasp until about six months after the move. If I had a “quid” for every time I had to do the naked walk of shame out to the hall to flick the shower “on”, or wait an hour before realising my boiling water was in fact still ice cold… well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be “skint”!

It’s almost as annoying as being woken up by bagpipes on a Saturday morning, something that happened to me pretty regularly…

Another thing that hasn’t really caught on with our kilt-clad-kinsmen is the concept of the mixing valve. I had never enjoyed the pleasure of lukewarm water so much as after spending a few years in Aberdeen doing the cupped-hand, hot-tap-cold-tap method of obtaining water of a reasonable face-washing temperature. There are always two taps: one is freezing cold, and the other is scalding hot. This is true for nearly every house, bar, restaurant and hotel that I visited – even the most modern facilities have refused to embrace the mixing valve. The singular kitchen tap looks like it will achieve your warm water aspirations, yet look more closely and the tap is subdivided and one half of the stream is hot, while the other is cold. It’s almost as annoying as being woken up by bagpipes on a Saturday morning, something that happened to me pretty regularly, in fact.

And finally, the paradox that is late night shopping. You get used to this after a while, but shops close early in most of the UK. After 6:00pm you’re hard up to find anything open save a grocery store or pub. Late night shopping is Thursdays, and shops are open until a whopping 8:00pm! Not that these extended hours help when you have no cash – after having my purse stolen I underestimated the frustration involved in replacing my bank card. While at home it’s a quick trip to RBC for a temporary card, I instead had to wait a full week for my new card to arrive in the mail, then another 3-4 days for the pin code. Par for the course in Britain, apparently.

Pleasantly surprised

I admit, there were things about my new life that caused some frustration, but on the whole these little quirks were mostly pleasant. My first night out in Aberdeen presented many such surprises. Besides the ridiculously cheap cost of alcohol in bars and the fact that people don’t tip, I noticed that the majority of the people on the dance floor were indeed men. No, it was not a gay bar; it’s just that the men of Aberdeen find absolutely nothing wrong with “throwing some shapes” together on a night out. This could be a result of the fact that men tend to outnumber women, at least in the youthful demographic, but I like to think these guys just lack the self-conscious, “too cool” attitude that North American men seem to portray. Whereas at home you usually see mostly girls dancing with friends while the men sip their beers on the sidelines, in Aberdeen it seemed to be almost the other way around. The Scottish men have replaced the baseball caps with elaborate hair styles, and the t-shirts with bare chests under low cut v-neck sweaters, and even if there are no girls in sight, they just want to dance!

…I like to think these guys just lack the self-conscious, “too cool” attitude that North American men seem to portray.

Another nice custom that I quickly caught on to was the “round”. At first I thought I was just really special with everyone buying me drinks, but I soon noticed that you would be expected to buy one in return. Sure this happens occasionally at home, usually when celebrating something, but in Aberdeen it’s just the way things are every night of the week. This means that on a night out with 10 people, you will have to drink and buy at least 10 drinks. Keep in mind that smaller apartments means most drinking happens in bars, and it always starts early, so the rounds often end up being repeated a few times at least. Makes no wonder they serve beer with a Scottish breakfast – clearly the patrons are looking for the hair of the dog to ease their Scottish hangover; or maybe just an early start to the next day’s session.

There’s no place like home

My first move post-university was a fairly easy transition. I like to think of Aberdeen as the Scottish version of St. John’s, so in many ways it was a natural progression. Aberdeen is a great city to be young in: there are loads of students, great parties and it’s easy to hop on a plane to visit the rest of Europe if you do get bored. Sure people say it’s grey and dreary with all that granite, but I say it just makes you appreciate the sparkle of the granite in the sunshine even more (on that one day a year when it doesn’t rain).

I highly recommend getting out and seeing the world. We tend to live a bit of a sheltered existence in Newfoundland, and maybe even in North America as a whole, and even going to a place as similar to our own as Scotland allowed me to gain a lot of perspective on where I come from. When you live in a new place you find yourself talking about home a lot, and you’re always pointing out the little, quirky, everyday differences between there and here. Even though Aberdeen isn’t a far stretch from St. John’s, even the small things make you reflect and think back to things you take for granted as being the “norm” at home, things you normally wouldn’t even question. Now when I go home, for example, my house feels so much bigger! Traveling and living abroad allows you to appreciate how different things can be elsewhere, but nothing makes you appreciate where you come from like going away for a while.

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