Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

It’s been ten months since I left England for Vancouver Island, Canada. Summer with its droughts and wildfires has now passed, and I still have no desire to return back to London. Not only do I have a permanent job doing something I love, but my time in Victoria has opened my eyes to a lifestyle I was missing before when I lived in London.

In the first house I lived in upon moving to Victoria, I’d wake up for work in the morning and open the blinds to see a deer just hanging out in my front yard. He became known as ‘Stanley’. On the walk to the bus stop I would pass runners and dog-walkers who would smile and let me pet their pooch. I would recognize people on the bus who were open to the concept of smiling and engaging in brief conversation. I admired and participated in the culture of saying “thank you” to the driver upon exiting the bus. I established that my favourite driver was a former pilot called Dan who provided weather updates, scenic commentary and probably even birthday shout-outs if requested.

I learned through my interviewing of various people at work that a lot of Canadians can’t decipher between an English and Australian/Kiwi accent. I made friends with a Persian family who started a new restaurant a few steps away from my office, to the extent that they wave at me whenever I pass by and look in.

I learned (and soon forgot) the rules of softball and that “good hustle” and “you got this” are a quintessential feature of Canadian vocabulary.  I experienced how wonderful it is to spend evenings after work on the beach, in a park or doing exercise, and not in a setting that requires consumption of alcohol. I learned of various locally owned bakeries and cafes that made such a refreshing change from the large corporate chains such as Starbucks, Pret and Costa Coffee that can be seen on every street in London. I realized just how fame-obsessed and media-mobbed life in London was in comparison to the easy-going, outdoor-loving West Coast lifestyle.  I also learned that I’m addicted to thrift stores.

With regards to self-esteem, I stopped wearing mascara in late April after suddenly feeling more comfortable in my skin and realizing I no longer cared about looking younger or less attractive with my naturally fair features. And at the end of the summer, I went to an open mic night at a small pub up island attended by a handful of locals, and ended up singing Neil Young ‘Harvest Moon’ with a bunch of old boys playing guitars.

The kindness of Vancouver Islanders in comparison to Londoners really came to light during a bus journey on a Saturday in June, when I happened to be suffering from severe cramps. Shortly after boarding a bus crowded with passengers on a sweltering hot day, my head started spinning and everything suddenly started to go black. I closed my eyes in defeat as if to say, “Take me angels, I’m ready.” Next thing I knew, there was the sound of a man’s voice and someone’s hands supporting my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see a few strangers peering down at me uncertainly, with one of them casually holding my raised legs by the ankles. A lady placed a damp flannel on my forehead and asked me a series of questions, one of them being: “Are you on your period?” Once she had kindly confirmed to everyone on board that I was indeed enjoying the shedding of my womb, she decided that my apparently ghostly white face warranted calling an ambulance, even though I had had vasovagal episodes like this before and was pretty confident all was fine.

The lady continued to ask me a series of questions, including: “Where are your parents?” I told her they were in England. “They’re not here with you?” – “No, they’re in England. I’m from England.” – “Oh…what are you doing out here without them?” – “I’m living here, I work here. I’m 25.” – “Oh! Well what’s their number?” – “They’re in England, there’s no point. They’re asleep right now.” Suddenly I had one of those stirring moments of realization I’ll occasionally get where I remember where I am and how far away I am from home.

Once it was established that I was not a minor and had other emergency contacts in the area that could be contacted, things seemed to relax a little. While the bus waited on the side of the highway, those passengers that had opted to stay near me naturally got talking, asking where everyone was heading to. The poor man tasked with holding my slightly prickly legs mentioned that he was heading to the airport. Like a lady in labour feeling an unexpected surge of willpower, I shot bolt upright and gasped in horror, “You’re heading to the airport?!” The man laughed and said, “Oh I’m not catching a flight; there’s an old bomber on display I want to see.” Heart rate slowly restoring to normal, I allowed my weary self to rest back down on the seat. The paramedics arrived and as they escorted me off the bus for a quick chat-and-release, I smiled a sheepish apology at the few passengers on the back looking rather miffed that their journey had been disrupted by the menstrual cycle. The lady who had taken charge later texted to ask how I was feeling. To my grateful response she replied, “Don’t thank me, just pay it forwards.”

So I did.

A few weeks later I was reading at the beach minutes from my house when a little girl ran over to her mum to inform her that reckless Sally had taken a tumble at the playground and cut her toe open. “Oh God oh God,” gabbled the mum like an alarmed chicken, “Is she okay? Is it broken? Is there blood? You know I can’t handle blood, Lucy!”

And so Lucy ran back to assess the extent of damage further before returning with a report. “Oh God oh God,” began the chicken-momma again. “Why would she do this to me? Does she need an ambulance?”

At this point the lady spotted me observing the situation with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, and decided to reiterate to me that she was bad with blood. “I can go help her if you’d like?” I offered. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “Oh would you? That’d be great.” She handed me a band aid sized for a large gash on the leg which I swiftly replaced with a smaller sized one coincidentally found in my bag. Little Sally sat calmly on a bench and rolled her eyes at me as if acknowledging her mother’s batty ways. I cleaned up and covered the 1-inch cut on the top of her toe and then her mum approached, only to shrink back at the sight of a slightly-bloodied wet wipe. “Thank you so much! I just can’t deal with blood when it’s on my kids; with anything else it’s fine, but not my kids.”

I decided not to ask what she would do if her child was in a life or death situation, but did insist she shouldn’t need to take her daughter to the doctor.

All in all it was a great summer, and the best thing was that I got to show my life here (and some humpbacks!) to my mum when she came out to visit for a week.

The worst thing about the summer was the part where my boyfriend and I decided to call time on our 3-year relationship at the end of it.

No relationship is perfect – there will always be struggles, and for a while you will rightfully try to work through them. Then comes the time when you have that highly needed yet highly unsettling moment of realization that someone you have loved and cared about for a long time just isn’t right for you anymore and vice versa.  Your personalities, interests and goals no longer align. No matter how much you try to compromise and persevere, you cannot find the sense of content you are looking for, and it’s time to concede defeat.  But it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of something that has always seemed so simple, natural and ideal in so many ways. As an expat far from home, questions of, “Why am I really here? Do I actually want to be here?” arose in my mind. The future seemed unclear and scary.

Then I thought long and hard about all the big things I had experienced in Canada since December, like new friendships and a fulfilling job. I then thought about all the little things I had experienced just this summer – the friendly interactions, pleasant sights and snippets of conversation – that made being here so much more appealing than returning to London and England. Why would I give up all these things I’m lucky to have in my life? Why would I return to a place and a lifestyle that doesn’t make me feel as happy? More than ever, I knew that I wanted to remain in Canada.

I started making a list of goals for when I would become single. One of them, of course, involved going back to running – that old faithful ally of mine through which I’d met many of my closest friends at university, and experienced so many memorable feelings of elation that outweighed any frustration. I missed what it felt like to run fast alongside others and feel that pre-race surge of adrenaline fueled by a competitive spirit. I tried two running groups. The first didn’t do much for me running-wise, but it gave me a hilarious new friend I held onto even if I no longer attended the group. The second meet I tried gave me exactly what I had been looking for; it got me enjoying running again. I signed up for my first race in over two years for late September, and regardless of the fact that I ended up being the first lady home in my race, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

Another goal included making more use of my free time to travel. It had been over a year since I’d completed a solo trip. After passing my work probation I booked a few days off for the beginning of September. It was time to leave the Island and return to the place where I first fell in love with Canada: the Rockies.

After the gross mixed-dorm experience my sister and I had in Whistler in October 2015, I vowed to avoid hostels for future trips. Unfortunately on this occasion I’d left my flight-booking a little late to organize an affordable airbnb. Instead I had a terrible sleep in a hostel in Calgary, that city of skyscrapers plonked smack bang in the middle of flat nothingness; a place, nevertheless, that was more aesthetically pleasing than I expected. I woke myself up during my Greyhound bus journey to Banff by banging my head on the window, only to recognize the prestigious mountains rising up in the distance, albeit this time with a faint cloak of smoke hovering over that had drifted up from the forest fires in Washington State.

Banff was flooded with tourists out for Labour Day long weekend. At one point during my battle through the crowds, I realized I’d passed a girl I went to school with ten years ago. There was now a McDonalds on the main tourist strip which made me cry a little inside. Banff was even more commercialized and tacky than six years earlier. I hiked Tunnel Mountain and lamented the fact that few people reciprocated my “hi” or even had the common sense to make space on the trail for my approach, too busy they were in their Lulelemon leggings taking selfies and choosing their Instagram filter. But the main thing for me was that I was somewhere different, alone, and enjoying being alone.

The next morning I sat at the same spot on the Bow River where I’d perched six years ago as a less confident and more naive 19 year old. I thought about all that has happened in the past six years – travelling, moving to London, completing my degree, commencing a long-term (and mostly long-distance) relationship, starting a job that developed into a career field, moving to Canada, and returning to single-hood again. I felt a sense of pride remembering all that I’ve experienced, learned and accomplished in that time, and suddenly the world felt like a map in my pocket, with me in control of my life route and excited for what lay ahead in my chosen path.

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