New Book Available for Purchase | Trail of Worth

It’s been a busy couple of months balancing my full-time job with finishing up my book – Trail of Worth. After 18+ months of effort, I’m very excited to announce that this book has now been published!

In writing Trail of Worth, I’ve tried to:

  • Give an honest portrayal of moving overseas and the various challenges it entails
  • Take a candid look at relationships and their fascinating complexities
  • Capture the way people (especially women) can perceive themselves during their twenties
  • Provide a commentary of travel experiences
  • Demonstrate the importance and influence of family and friendships

In writing this piece of creative non-fiction, the most important thing for me was to be authentic – to show the main protagonist’s flaws and strengths, the mistakes and moments of vulnerability as well as the little wins. There is genuine dialogue and I have not catered to a “mainstream” narrative. I’ve tried to create something that is both realistic and relatable.

Trail of Worth covers many themes and topics – travel, immigration, careers, running, friendship, relationships, mental health, and self-worth. Some of the content will make you smile, some will make you think, some may trigger sad or painful memories, and some I hope will inspire. If you’re a member of a book club, this story would be a great choice for initiating meaningful conversations.

Trail of Worth is written from the perspective of a female, millenial expat. It’s based on actual events recorded from the time, but identities have been changed. Interpretations of events and behaviours in the story will be influenced by the readers’ own attitudes and life experiences. I would simply encourage anyone reading the book to try to read it with an open and reflective mind.

Here’s a summary of what my editor had to say when she read the manuscript.

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Something my editor mentioned when reviewing Trail of Worth was how relatable the story would be for women in their 20s-30s. However, she also said that as an older woman, she really enjoyed the story – it made her reflect on her younger years and the experiences she had. That said, like with any book, this story won’t be to everyone’s taste, and that’s okay. Older generations or people with fixed outlooks may find some of the narrative and covered topics to be too unconventional or unrelatable. If that’s the case for some readers, I hope they will try to practise compassion, empathy and open-mindedness instead of jumping to vocalize judgment.

I think you would enjoy this book if you:

  • Have experienced or would like to experience moving overseas
  • Like to travel or have travelled solo as a female
  • Have experienced what has felt like a quarter-life crisis or a loss of self-worth
  • Have been in a long-distance relationship
  • Have struggled with emotionally difficult relationships, including those impacted by mental health issues
  • Are a competitive runner or simply find fulfillment in this activity
  • Have worked in recruitment and HR
  • Have struggled with age bias and Imposter Syndrome in your career
  • Can’t relate to any of the above but are curious 🙂

Links for Purchase:

Trail of Worth is available to buy online in Kindle or paperback format from Amazon, Indigo/Chapters, and Barnes & Noble. If you are based in Canada, I do encourage you to support the smaller company and purchase from Indigo/Chapters if possible. Buying from that company won’t affect how much money I earn per sale; it’s more a general preference for supporting smaller businesses – something the pandemic has highlighted the importance of. But the decision is yours! (Note: the online listing may take a bit longer to appear on the Indigo/Chapters site).

If your country doesn’t have an Amazon site, you can get worldwide shipping from amazon.com

Amazon UK

Amazon Canada

Amazon US/EU/Worldwide

Amazon Australia

Barnes & Noble (US customers)

Book Depository

If you’d like to receive more commentary on the book and further insights into the topics discussed, you can follow my main Instagram page @shannelizabethco

And if you’re interested in completing and publishing a book review, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

Thank you in advance for reading Trail of Worth. I hope you enjoy this story that is very special to me 🙂

Publishing a Book | Cover Design

Thanks for following along on my book publishing journey. In my last post I talked about the editing process. That’s probably the most important part in the whole complex process of releasing a book, but perhaps the most exciting part of the process is the cover design. That’s when it starts to feel real!

To get started, the publishing company asked me to fill out a questionnaire that outlined my vision for the cover. In my mind I very clearly pictured a path winding through tall trees with a small figure walking under their gaze. I really liked the idea of a blue-grey colour that captured the moodiness of a British Columbia forest.

I tried to give as much detail as possible for the designer. Doing this virtually through a questionnaire rather than in person was quite challenging. What seems clear to you might not seem clear and comprehensible to another person.

It took a week for the first draft to come back. I had been told that the first draft was unlikely to match what I was looking for, and sure enough that was the case. While the designer had included the elements I’d mentioned, they weren’t presented in a way that matched my vision. I knew I wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing this book cover on the shelves.

I immediately started to leave notes on the cover to help the designer make changes. A little less blue, a smaller figure, taller trees. In doing so, I had doubts about how effective how my feedback would be, and whether the proposed changes would be enough.

Then I recognized the main flaw. The cover image was more suited to a fantasy or horror genre, not to a memoir. While I still liked the idea of the setting, the colours were very mysterious and quite haunting. Even the font seemed more like the style you’d see on a sci-fi book. The cover didn’t match the theme of the book at all, and it was because my vision hadn’t matched the theme.

I reluctantly accepted that my initial vision for the colours would need to change slightly, in order to avoid confusing readers about the kind of book they would be reading. I began to consider the different colours I could use, but none left me inspired.

In my moment of contemplation, I suddenly remembered that a photo had been taken on my camera a few years ago that matched the vision I had. A small figure on a trail under tall trees. The crazy thing is that this photo was taken in the period featured in the story. Maybe it was all meant to be..!

Feeling inspired again, I decided to send this photo to the designer so they could use it for the cover. I also requested changes to the text font, size and positioning. At first I felt bad for potentially seeming picky and demanding. Then I reminded myself that I am paying for this service, and that the book cover is extremely important.

This isn’t the book’s cover image, but it’s definitely got some similarities!

The revised cover came back just under a week later, and it looked so much better! The designer had done a fantastic job of adapting the photo to the front and back cover. And because it was a photo owned by me, the book suddenly felt even more authentic and special. I began to feel really excited at the thought of people holding the book in their hands.

At this stage I edited the blurb slightly and requested a few minor revisions to the text styling. There were just a few small things that I felt could be tweaked before I felt 100% comfortable. The updated version was returned to me in less than a week, and it looked spot on.

Now I’m just waiting for my editor to finish the copy edit. It’s been three weeks since I sent my updated manuscript for the edit, and I’m feeling restless! The end is in sight and I just want to be reviewing those edits. However, I’m also very aware that high-quality editing takes time, and my book is around 120,000 words. I’d of course prefer the editor to put a lot of care into the process, than to rush through and compromise quality. But it will definitely be an exciting day when that email comes in…

I look forward to sharing Trail of Worth with you, once complete!

Publishing a Book | The Editing Process

In my last blog post I shared that I am in the process of publishing a book. Since December, I’ve been working on editing my manuscript. Today I’m going to talk a little more about that part of the process.

The most challenging things I’ve found about the editing process are 1) being selective and 2) not being too much of a perfectionist.

I used journals to frame a lot of my manuscript’s content. Having these references was super helpful for dialogue and structure. The downside was that I sometimes struggled to decide whether something should or shouldn’t be included. I almost seemed to feel a need to do justice to something that had happened in real life. I might feel compelled to write about an interesting side-event, even though I knew it didn’t necessarily fit in with the course of the narrative.

It was this challenge that particularly influenced me to request an editorial evaluation from the book publishing company. This is where a professional editor reads your manuscript without making any changes on the document, and then writes a summary of its strengths and weaknesses.

It took two weeks for my editorial evaluation to come back, and I really appreciated the editor’s input. I’m fairly confident in my writing ability and had been pretty satisfied with my content, but hearing an external person’s perspective was really valuable. I really came to realize that some of the content I had didn’t add much to the story and its purpose. It might have been an interesting detail, but oftentimes it was actually disrupting the flow and pace of the story. Having the impartial eyes of someone I didn’t know really helped me cut out the needless content I felt committed to!

A highlight of my editorial evaluation was seeing that the editor felt the central theme of the book was clear and believed in the importance of its message. I’m sure a lot of writers go through moments of doubt during the process where they wonder if their story is “even any good” and worth sharing. After getting the editor’s feedback, I felt encouraged. I also felt like her feedback wasn’t given for the sake of being critical, but was given with my best interests and those of my book in mind.

One of the great things about an editorial evaluation when self-publishing is that you have the power to do what you want with the feedback. You might elect to request a substantive edit where the editor studies your content in-depth to suggest changes to the flow, voice and characterization etc., or you might just make a few minor changes and then request a copy edit, or you might not make any changes and just go straight to publish.

In my case, the editor recommended a copy edit (which is standard). She also recommended some changes to the content, and said that if I didn’t feel confident making these changes on my own, she’d be happy to help with a substantive edit.

I chose to work on the changes myself. I loved the challenge of it. I almost felt like I was back in school, improving a draft of a story an English teacher had read. It was a really fun project for me because it allowed me to test my skills as a writer while maintaining creative control.

I spent two weeks working on the edits while continuing to work full-time. Some of the edits were pretty quick and simple changes, while others took more thinking and a few tries of different approaches. Overall, it was a really rewarding process. I had a goal of finishing the edits in two weeks, but I also felt it important to be flexible. As mentioned in my last blog post, the editing process shouldn’t be rushed.

On the day I went to re-submit the manuscript to the publisher, I found myself having last-minute thoughts of “Maybe I’d better read that section one more time”. I would then find little things to change – adjective or adverb replacements, rephrasing of a sentence, removal of a word. That’s where the perfectionist in me comes out. Even after re-submitting, I’ve made notes of little things I want to change once I get the copy edit back. I don’t think this is a bad thing; I just hope I won’t be doing it once the final copy has been sent for interior layout design ;). There’s definitely a fine balance between putting effort into ensuring something’s quality and obsessing unnecessarily over tiny things!

Tips for Other First-Time Writers (from a Non-Expert!)

·  Be selective. Journals can be a great source of inspiration for creating content and dialogue, but it’s important to keep the content relevant to the narrative and purpose of the story.

·  Take your time. Having a deadline to work towards can be motivating, but be mindful that life happens and things can get delayed. Once you are finished writing, don’t rush to send the manuscript off to an editor. Take time to re-read and make revisions until you are completely satisfied.

·  Get an editorial evaluation. Even if you consider yourself a skilled writer, getting a summary of the manuscript’s strengths and some recommendations for improvement is really helpful. It gives you a base off which to make more edits that will only make your book better!

·  Before submitting your manuscript for an editorial evaluation, prepare notes for the editor. Explain the story’s purpose and your goals for the book, provide context behind the style and methods you’ve used, and summarize the key areas you’re looking for feedback on. This helps ensure you get as much value as possible from the evaluation.

·  Be open to feedback. Hearing the opinion of a stranger about something so personal to you, even if it’s constructive criticism, can be daunting. But the feedback is ultimately coming from someone who cares about quality writing and good stories. It could be extremely valuable to you, not just for a current project, but for future projects as well.

·  Get a copy edit. If you don’t want to pay much for editing services, it’s still recommended to get a copy edit at minimum. This helps ensure a polished and professional finish to your book. I consider myself a pretty strong writer, but I knew there would be grammatical or structural errors I’d made.

*

Thanks for following my book publishing journey! I’m now waiting to get the copy edit back, after which the editing process will be complete. My next blog post will be about the cover design process!

If you’re a published author or are in the process of publishing a book, feel free to leave your thoughts and tips on the editing process below 🙂

I’m Publishing a Book!

Many people seemed to spend their free time in 2020 making a baby. I spent it writing a book, and I’m excited (and nervous!) to share that I will be publishing it in the coming months 😊

I’ve been writing since I was a kid – pony stories, poems, journals, articles in the local paper. There was a time when I wanted to be an author, but it quickly got to the point where it didn’t seem like a realistic way of making a living. However, the dream of one day writing a book lived on. The issue was that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I had ideas for novels, but never one that really inspired a devoted effort. So, I just carried on writing my blog and journaling. Through journaling, I’ve always enjoyed the process of identifying interesting trends and themes from daily life.

Scribbling next to my childhood best friend, Tom

Then I moved to Canada at the end of 2016 and experienced a big life change that led to some interesting experiences and challenges. Some experiences were unique to my situation, while others exemplified life events and scenarios common to women in their mid-twenties.

In December 2019, I was home alone for Christmas. During a state of restless boredom, I felt a sudden motivation to write. I thought back to my first year in Canada, and the experiences in my first year overseas ended up giving me the inspiration I was looking for. So, I decided to write a piece of creative non-fiction. I opened up my laptop one evening and set myself a goal of finishing writing a draft manuscript by the end of 2020.

About the Book

An honest portrayal of moving overseas, this book creatively explores the various themes and challenges that accompany both an expat life and the general life of a woman navigating her mid-twenties. From adjusting to a new environment, seeking a fulfilling job, establishing oneself in an occupation, and handling complex relationships, the book’s theme centers around self-worth during a quarter-life crisis. It’s a story that will make readers reflect on their own experiences, with the purpose of inspiring and uplifting them.

The Writing Process

A year may sound like a long time in which to write a manuscript, but when you have a full-time office job and don’t want to spend all of your free time staring at a computer screen, it starts to feel more reasonable.

Before starting, I had a good idea of how I wanted to structure the book, the key content I wanted to include, and the main theme I wanted to be conveyed. Some people know what they want their book’s title to be right from the beginning. I personally didn’t have a title in mind when I started, but it came to me a few months into writing.

The social distancing regulations that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic became a strange convenience, because they gave more reason for me to focus on writing in my free time.

For some reason, I’ve always been secretive with my writing. Even as a kid scribbling pony stories, I would hide them away when my family came to look. I think it was because I was shy about others reading what I wrote. During this writing process, it was only my partner that knew I was writing a book. Our suite doesn’t have a separate office for work or writing, so I quickly came to appreciate how great he was at leaving me to it! The reason I decided not to tell anyone else was because I wanted avoid any requests for updates, and just focus on the book without feeling any intrusion or pressure.

One thing I noticed was how easy it was to get fatigued while writing, especially if covering a topic that was complex or emotional in nature. Sometimes my creativity seemed to be lacking. The longest break I took from writing was around 3 weeks. However, there were other times when the words just seemed to flow freely and before I knew it, it was almost midnight!

I met my goal of finishing drafting the content in December 2020, but then my own revisions and edits started. This is such an important part of the process. I found that there were many things I’d written almost a year earlier that I wanted to change, particularly with regards to content and structure. Some of the content no longer seemed to be relevant or add value. In some areas, there was a lack of flow, or I felt things could be written more creatively. I ended up re-writing several sections of the manuscript.

The revisions process took around two months until I was satisfied with the manuscript. In addition to content editing, I also did copy editing to the best of my non-professional ability. Sometimes during my work day, I would suddenly think of something that I felt could be edited or added, and I’d make a note in my phone for later. The revision process is something that really can’t be rushed. It’s amazing what a rested pair of eyes can see! Even if you plan on getting the book professionally edited (which I have), it’s important to ensure you have a relatively polished manuscript in advance.

Choosing a Publishing Path

The next step in the process was deciding how I wanted to publish the book – the traditional route or self-publishing. I’m lucky in that I had knowledge of two experiences. My brother’s book, The Rule (Jack Colman) was published by Harper Voyager in 2015, while my dad self-published his memoir, The Right Thing? (Dr. Richard Colman) in 2014.

Both routes have their pros and cons, depending on the writer’s goals. Getting published the traditional route still carries more prestige, while self-publishing is sometimes termed “vanity publishing”. I get why this term is used for some self-publishers, however, I think it’s also quite offensive to the talented writers who simply feel tired of waiting to hear back from agents, or worry that their book will lose its integrity if managed by someone with a different priority. Does “vanity publishing” mean that artists who sell their paintings at local street markets are “vanity artists”? Are people who turn their passion into a business “vanity business owners”? Frankly, it’s the “stars” of trashy reality TV shows who seemingly have no problem securing a deal to publish a book about their life that are the vain ones.

Here are the reasons I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route (in case anyone is debating the options for their own manuscript):

  • I like the idea of having ownership over something I’ve created (this book is literally my baby!) instead of having it be owned and managed by someone else.
  • Because the book is based on real-life personal events, it’s important to me that I maintain a large amount of control over the content. With self-publishing, I can maintain full creative control. I have the final say on any edits suggested, whereas traditional publishing can take away a lot of the writer’s control. I would hate for someone to try to change the content of my book to make it fit what they might see as a more mainstream (aka $$) narrative.
  • Self-publishing does not mean you’ll have a terribly written book that’s filled with typos. You can have your manuscript professionally edited with a polished design. You have to pay for this service, but if you believe the story is worth sharing, why wouldn’t you invest in its success?
  • It is extremely competitive and can take a long time to get a literary agent and/or be offered a deal by a publishing company. This isn’t a reason not to try, however I’m personally at the point where I don’t want to wait months to hear back from an agent (or not hear back at all!), only to then wait even longer for the work to be published.
  • I’m not writing this book to launch a new career as a full-time author. I’m writing it to share a story that I believe (and have been told my editor!) has an important message. I’m also writing it to tick off something from wish list. Perhaps that’s the vain part 😉
  • You get higher royalties when you self-publish. Who doesn’t like being rewarded more for their writing skills and hard work?!
  • One thing the pandemic has highlighted is the importance of supporting local.

If I write another book in future, I would definitely be open to trying the traditional publishing route. But for this particular story, self-publishing seems to work well for me. Plus, if I did want to write more books in the future, having an already published book could be helpful in securing an agent.

Side note: I recently learned that The Martian was initially self-published in 2011, before a traditional publishing company bought the rights a few years later. Then it was turned into a film! That’s pretty cool.

To get things going, I researched two local publishing companies in Victoria. I contacted both for more information. Ultimately, I opted for the one whose website content spoke more to my interests and goals, whose publishing consultants seemed less sales-driven, and whose publishing package offered better value for what I was looking for.

Journalling

I’m currently working on content edits, and am excited for the next stage! I’ll be posting updates on my Instagram page if you’d like to follow along 🙂

Have you written and self-published a book? What tips would you share?

15 Great Hikes to try on Southern Vancouver Island

Happy 2021! Although we are in a new year and vaccinations are underway, the coronavirus isn’t showing signs of going away anytime soon. With this in mind, it’s time to continue exploring local. For me this means enjoying the various hiking options around Victoria on southern Vancouver Island. If you’re planning a visit in the future, I recommend incorporating a few of these hikes into your itinerary!

Matheson Lake Regional Park
Located in the quiet region of Metchosin, Matheson Lake is circled by an undulating scenic loop trail, from which you can connect to other parks and trails, including the Galloping Goose bike trail. It’s a nice option for a peaceful after-work hike in the summer months, and a good swim spot too. On the way home, you can enjoy either a hearty meal or a tasty treat at the locally owned My Chosen Café. 

A lake surrounded by trees

Pickles’ Bluff Loop
Located in John Dean Provincial Park in North Saanich, this hike leads to great views of the Saanich Peninsula and surrounding ocean. It’s not uncommon to see eagles flying overhead as you sit on the ledge admiring the view in front of you.

Joceyln Hill via Caleb Pike
On a sunny summer morning, get up early for this hike in the Highlands. Fairly challenging at points, the trail offers some awesome view points overlooking Finlayson Arm and the Saanich Inlet. If you feel like a really long hike, you can follow the trail all the way over to the north side of Gowlland Todd Provincial Park. Doing this will take you to our next spot.

McKenzie Bight
Accessed either via the Timerbman Trail coming from Jocelyn Hill loop or from a wider trail starting at the north end of Gowlland Todd Provincial Park, McKenzie Bight is a surprise gem at the bottom of the forest. This picturesque ocean inlet is a great option for a swim and if you’re lucky, you may even spot some sea otters. In the winter months, a fog hangs over the distant evergreens, evoking classic Vancouver Island vibes. There are two trails you can take on your way back up; the Cascade Trail to the right of the bridge is a real thigh-burner, but in the winter season you will pass the pretty Cascade Falls.

Ocean with snowy hills in the background

Mt. Tzouhalem
A short drive east of the town of Duncan, this hike offers some great views of the sprawling Cowichan Valley. The hike involves an uphill climb before winding through forest to the famous white cross lookout point. This area also has several dirt bike trails, so don’t be surprised if you see a bike whizzing through the trees!

Mt. Wells Regional Park
Located past Langford, the fairly challenging hike up Mt. Wells takes you to a mossy rock outcrop that overlooks the Sooke Hills, Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Strait, and snow-capped mountains of Washington State. A good workout with great views as a reward. This park is also a popular bouldering spot. 

Snow-capped mountains behind fir trees

East Sooke Regional Park
Located just before the town of Sooke, this park is home to several trails of varying difficulty and length. The coastal trail is a popular option for dog-owners and endurance-walkers. If you’re looking for a more accessible trail or don’t feel like walking far, the easy walk to Iron Mine Bay takes you to a scenic beach with clear ocean water.

Elk/Beaver Lake Regional Park
The 10k flat loop around Elk Lake is a lovely outing for walkers or runners, especially during the autumn months when the fall colours are in full bloom. Accessible via public transit, this lake is home to Victoria City Rowing Club, and is also popular with windsurfers and water-skiers. Horseback riders tend to enjoy the trails around Beaver Lake.

Tree hanging over a lake on a sunny day

Mt. Douglas
Mt. Doug (as it’s more commonly known) is appreciated by many for its easy access from downtown Victoria. Various trails will take you to a viewpoint with stunning 360 views over the city, ocean, and surrounding Gulf Islands. Accessibility-wise, there is also the option to drive up to the top. A great place to watch a sunset, go for a run, or catch up with friends.

Mt. Finlayson
One of the most challenging hikes in the area, Mt. Fin as it’s known by locals has 360 views of hills swathed in evergreens. The steep trail starts in Goldstream Provincial Park, a short drive from downtown Victoria. If visiting in October, you can loosen your stiff legs after the hike with a leisurely stroll to the riverside to watch the yearly salmon run.

A rocky outcrop overlooking green hills

Mt. Work Regional Park
Adjacent to Gowland Todd Provincial Park, the steep hike from this park leads you to views over the Saanich Inlet. On a summer’s day, you can finish your hike by driving back down the road for a refreshing dip in Durrance Lake, and then follow it with a sandwich made fresh in front of your eyes at the Red Barn Market. 

Mystic Beach
Located along the Juan de Fuca Trail, this long beach awaits you after a 2k hike through tranquil forest. The trail is well-signed, however it is not wheelchair-accessible like some of the paths that lead to other beaches across this section of the coast. Mystic Beach is popular for its waterfall and rope swing, but it’s the vast collection of mussels covering the rocks that catches my eye whenever I go. 

Sandcut Beach
For a shorter and more accessible beach hike, consider Sandcut Beach which is located just on from French Beach Provincial Park. Depending on recent weather, a waterfall may flow onto the pebble beach. On the way home, consider stopping at the locally owned Shirley Delicious for a warm brew and tasty snack, or stop in Sooke town for a hearty meal and delicious slice of pie at Mom’s Café.

Sooke Potholes Regional Park
Enjoy exploring the rustic trail that leads up the river with its clear water and inviting pools. Expect to see varied wildlife (maybe even bears!) and people jumping off the cliffs. The turn off for this park is just before you reach the town of Sooke.

potholes

Gonzales Hill Regional Park
I include this one last because it really is the ideal option if you want to stretch your legs and see a nice view, but don’t feel like venturing far. Located off Fairfield Road and just up from Gonzales Bay, a short steep walk (or drive) up a side road will take you to the distinctive observatory, from where there are wonderful views of the neighbourhood, distant hills, and Juan de Fuca Strait. Although another great sunset spot, it’s equally enjoyable to watch moody skies brew over the ocean.

From beach scenes to mountain views, southern Vancouver Island offers so many great hiking options, and there are still many more I have yet to experience. Making a wishlist of places or trails to explore in your region can be a handy way to keep motivated and upbeat during this strange time. Which other hikes would you recommend in this area?

 

10 Tips for Future Au Pairs

In November 2014 I made a spontaneous decision to work in another European country as an au pair. The decision was made partly because I wanted to put off the shoulder-drooping reality of needing to find a full-time “grown-up” job after university. I signed up with a free website (I believe it was aupair.com) and created a profile. I was open to any country that I hadn’t been to before, but I did like the idea of being able to speak German, having taken it as an elective during my degree.

Just over a week later, I boarded a flight to Geneva and from the airport I was collected by my host. Along with her came her two kids that I would be looking after and teaching English to. I worked for the family for about two months. The initial plan was to work for three months, but I was unexpectedly offered a job that would start in mid-January.

My experience as an au pair was a mixed bag. There were definitely some great things about it. From the family’s house there were amazing views of the Swiss Alps over Lake Geneva. I got to practise German (the host father was more confident in this than English) and French. On two occasions I met up with two friends I hadn’t seen in a few years – one in Basel and one in Bern. The job taught me a little more about parenting and raising kids. It taught me that I don’t love cooking, and that that’s okay. And it honed my ability to persevere.

The negatives of the position included issues that couldn’t have been predicted, but also included issues that could have been avoided had I approached things differently. Here are my tips for anyone that is thinking of becoming an au pair.

A highlight of my au pair job – exploring parks with views like this!

1. Decide which ages you are comfortable looking after 

Before working as an au pair I had quite a bit of experience volunteering with kids. However, the age range I had worked with had been 8-16. And I think I should have kept it that way. Everyone is different; some people are better with toddlers than they are with pre-teens. It’s about identifying your own strengths and preferences and sticking to them.

2. Make it clear in your profile what you are and aren’t willing to do

Doing this risks reducing the number of messages you’ll get from hiring families, but it also reduces your chances of being unpleasantly surprised by your responsibilities when you start the job.

Example: I started my job assuming that the children I would be taking care of would be potty-trained. As it turned out, I discovered (in German) that I would be required to help with toilet stuff. Had I known this sooner, I honestly don’t think I would have taken the job. It’s not that I am too proud to…get my hands dirty (ugh) but a heads-up would have been courteous. I quickly concluded that this requirement had been kept from me on purpose.

3. Take your time in choosing a family

It wasn’t long after I created my profile that I received a message from the Swiss family. The mother liked my education and the fact I spoke British English. I think the interest went to my head and got me excited too quickly. I was eager to get on a plane again, but really I should have waited to find and speak with a few more families before confirming anything. It’s a bit like looking for a new roommate or house – the first viewing might seem to go well, but it hasn’t been compared to anything. Don’t feel obligated to say yes to the first family that makes an offer.

4. Money isn’t everything 

I fell for the rookie mistake, and it’s one that I warn friends and clients of to this day. Each family’s profile would include their monthly wage. The family that hired me appeared to be offering a lot more money than other families (and the mother didn’t hesitate to point this out when we spoke!). The mother was high up in a bank, and I figured this explained the reason for the seemingly generous amount. However, it wasn’t long after starting the job that I realized there was probably more to the high wage than that. In fact, it wasn’t long before the wage didn’t feel that generous anymore!

Had I taken a lower-paying job, I might have had more free time and a less stressful experience. Since then, I’ve been a firm believer that work-life balance is the most important component to consider when looking for any job.

5. Ask for a employment contract

It’s thanks to my work in HR that I’ve come to appreciate the importance of this. By accepting a paid job, the hours of which were determined by someone I would be reporting to, I was entering into an employment relationship. Some families already send NDA’s to au pairs, but I should have asked for a contract that outlined my job duties, confirmed my hours of work and confirmed my wage/payment schedule. I should have made sure this contract was signed and dated by both parties. This would have helped with #2 by giving me more leverage in refusing to do tasks that I hadn’t expected and wasn’t comfortable doing.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the kids

There have been many times during my recruitment career that I’ve thought a candidate seemed perfect on paper or made a great first impression, only for red flags to be raised during an interview.

After replying to the Swiss family’s message, we set up a Skype video call. The camera came on to show the mother sat between two quiet kids, who of course looked really cute with their big shy eyes and toys in their hands. I asked about their age and whether there was anything they needed special assistance with (hmmph), but I didn’t probe about their temperament or ask what previous au pairs (if they’d had any) had had challenges with. Perhaps I was wary of causing offence. Either way, I should have been more thorough because it was a two-way relationship.

7. Look for reviews from fellow au pairs

Following on from the above, reference checks play an important part of deciding whether or not to hire someone. The function of leaving reviews is available on various work-and-travel exchange websites like Workaway. They allow hosts and host-seekers a chance to see some feedback on the other party. I don’t recall if the au pair website I used had this function (possibly not because of confidentiality and non-disclosure issues), but it would have been very useful. If you’re looking for a family that’s hiring and former au pairs have left a brief line of feedback on their personal experience, see if there’s a way you can contact them to get more detail. Some people hide their real full opinions when posting reviews they know will be seen by their former employer.

8. Clarify what “free time” means and make plans for those times

Example: I was initially told I’d have weekends completely off, in addition to any remaining time in the evenings after the kids had gone to bed. On some weekends I didn’t have plans and would instead find myself staying around the house with plans to read or Skype friends. However, I found that being in the house on weekends always led to me being asked for help with the kids. I found this puzzling, as I assumed the parents would want to have some quality time alone with their children. Requests might also include helping with housework that fell outside of the standard courteous offering to do dishes, etc. Was this time spent working included in my monthly wage?? Regardless of my confusion, I felt obligated to help when asked since I was in their house. I would then find myself sneaking downstairs to my bedroom, hoping I wouldn’t be requested again. (Sometimes I was.) It seemed there was a lack of mutual agreement on the definition of “free time”.

There were a few times when the family kindly took me on a nice trip to a park or town. I appreciated this inclusion, but I also felt there was a lack of respect for my need to have time away from the family. Au pairing can be intense and it’s important to have boundaries! The dynamics were such that I sometimes felt guilty for going off somewhere without them.

There was also one unfortunate occasion when the mother suggested we go to Montreux on an approaching weekend to see the Christmas lights. A couple days later, she and her husband had an argument (in French) and she didn’t return home from work on the Friday evening. Although I’d had no idea what they were arguing about, I could tell from the father’s body language that he was shocked and worried by her departure. She didn’t return until the Sunday evening. Having not been informed about any changes to our plan and unsure when the mother was returning, I found myself spending the weekend at the house doing barely anything. It seemed like such a waste of free time.

On reflection, I should have made plans for each weekend in advance and clarified my weekend plans with the family before starting the job. I should have booked trains and accommodation to guarantee I would get away from the house and do the travelling I wanted to.

9. Choose your season

A lot of people see their mood dim a little over winter in the northern hemisphere when the days are darker and the weather colder, and I am one of them. I’ve also never been skiing in my life (fun fact), which might lead one to ask why Switzerland was my choice of destination. The answer? I wanted to see snow. (I saw hardly any.) I feel like my outlook on my au pair experience would be slightly more positive if it had taken place in the spring or summer time. I would have had more options for entertaining the kids outside (and wearing them out). I would have been able to get out of the house more on the evenings for a walk and some fresh air. I would have probably felt more motivated to make plans for the weekends. My overall mood would have probably been more optimistic.

10. Speak up if you’re having ongoing challenges with the kids

One day I’d love to read a book by someone with twenty years of au pair experience. I bet it would be filled with terrific and terrifying stories. My persistent challenges included having the daughter obsessively try to pull my trousers down/lift my sweater, and having the son bite and kick at me. This was on top of the standard refusals to follow orders, followed by screaming tantrums and shouts of “You leave this house!” when I took away their toys or turned off the TV.

The problem was, these kids were smart and cunning little devils. They had worked out when to play sweet and innocent, and when they could afford to be cheeky and rude. This would show itself in the way the daughter would say “Oww!” as I was gently brushing her hair while her mum stood by the door getting ready to leave for work. It would show in the way the son would give me death glares only to start beaming lovingly when the door opened and his dad walked in.

Why didn’t I inform the parents about the issues? I felt awkward and embarrassed. I didn’t want them to interpret it as me criticizing their parenting. Also, something told me they would think it was an issue on my end – especially when the little darlings were so good at putting on the waterworks.

I think it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to quit. Specifically, when is the job no longer enjoyable and worth your time and effort? When does the toll outweigh the reward? I can be quite stubborn and don’t like to feel like I’m “giving up” on something. In looking back I’ve realized that others in my position would have quit within the first week. Check in with yourself and remember to put yourself first.

*

I’ve heard a lot of great accounts from people that have worked as an au pair. Maybe they got lucky, but maybe they also didn’t make the same mistakes I did!

Have you worked as an au pair? What other tips would you recommend?

Seeing out Summer on Saturna Island

When my flights to England were cancelled this summer due to COVID-19, I had to make new plans for how I would spend my annual leave. I changed my dates and booked a staycation week for September, with little planned other than day trips and hikes. After a friend mentioned the Gulf Islands surrounding Vancouver Island, BC, my mopey self felt a spark of inspiration. I had only been to the famous Salt Spring Island, so decided to explore a different island. After doing some research, I booked myself two nights in a B&B on Saturna Island. Just 12 square miles in size, Saturna is one of the most scenic and untouched of the Southern Gulf Islands, and this was part of its appeal to me. An enthusiastic hiker, I was also really interested in experiencing one of its best natural features – Mt. Warburton Pike.

The day before my trip, I woke to smoky skies in Victoria. The smoke had blown over from wildfires in the United States, and I feared it would cloud my views on Saturna. However, when I set off to the Swartz Bay BC Ferries terminal early on September 9th, the skies were clear and blue. The two-way ferry ticket for a car and one passenger cost around $46. I felt a sudden sense of childhood excitement as I drove onto the 9:10 ferry in my 1989 Toyota (it’s older than me but it still received compliments from one of the BC Ferries traffic handlers). The direct journey lasted just over an hour, and there were only around 12 other masked people on the ferry.

I don’t use GPS in my car, and instead will study maps before a trip to get a rough idea of where I need to go. Saturna is so small that a sat-nav system really isn’t necessary anyway, as it’s impossible to get lost. After leaving Lyall Harbour, I followed East Point Rd towards the top of the island, winding along roads lined by large swathes of forest. Since my check-in time wasn’t until 3 pm, I drove all the way to East Point Community Park on the eastern tip. It’s so convenient when nobody is around and you can just take off your trousers and change into shorts outside of your car instead of writhing around hopelessly in the backseat to avoid being seen by people.

Now better dressed for the heat, I followed a short path down to a bluff where I was greeted by a wide view of sparkling blue ocean. This area is known as the Whale Trail because of the potential for sightings of Orcas and humpbacks. Unfortunately I wasn’t blessed with any appearances, but the view of the vast ocean and distant islands was still delightful. The snowy head of Mt. Baker even rose up in the distance. I sat for a while taking in the view while snacking on an apple and some cheesy bread. A local woman walking her dog stopped to comment on the weather, and shortly after that, an elderly man from the ferry whose car had been even older than mine took a seat on a bench with a large sketchbook.

A sail boat on the ocean with a mountain in the background

On the other side of the hill was a grassy area perfect for picnics, and below that was a sandstone shoreline with tidal pools. I decided to lie down on a smooth face of rock, and before I knew it I had dozed off under the sun. It was that quiet and peaceful. As I made my way back to the car, the water at Shell Beach contained patches of turquoise that looked like a scene from the Mediterranean.

An ocean bay surrounded by forest

I left the park around noon, just before a group of older lycra-clad cyclists from the ferry were about to take up half the road. Families of deer grazed along the grassy side of the winding road as I made my way back to Winter Cove, on the north-west side of the island. A picnic area looked out over a quiet bay dotted with sailboats. The Xwiwxwyus Trail is a simple loop through the forest that leads to a look out point over the Strait of Georgia. As I lay under the sun on a rock in yet another spontaneous doze, I could hear sea lions grunting to each other in the distance.

After spending a quiet half an hour reading under the shade of a tree, I set off back towards Four Winds B&B on East Point Rd. A short but fairly steep gravel track led down to a wooden cabin that overlooked the ocean. I typically choose budget accommodation options when doing solo trips, so to have a place as nice and well-kept as this suite was a real treat. Cooking wise it had all the simple amenities I needed – a fridge/freezer, hot plate, microwave, utensils and cutlery. The host didn’t offer breakfast at this time of year. This was fine with me as I had brought my own food anyway, but after reading comments from previous visitors in the little guest journal, I have a feeling the breakfast would have been delicious.

After admiring the view of the water and outline of Washington State’s mountains through the large living room window, I put on my swimsuit and walked across the field to a small beach that I had all to myself. The water was cold but refreshing. I left the water to see a man walking down to the beach. I said hello and he said “Sorry to disrupt your privacy.” He was a friend of the hosts and had come down to collect his crab traps. As I sat against a piece of driftwood in yet another doze, another voice came and I turned to see the host approaching to say a quick hello and check everything was okay in the suite. I commented on how lovely and quiet the island was, and she said it was pretty much always like this, aside from when it hosts the famous Canada Day Lamb BBQ. She left me with a “Sorry to disturb you. Enjoy!”

Saturna Island had put me in such a relaxed state that I almost felt like lounging in the suite for the rest of the day with a book. Something told me I would regret doing this, so just before 7 pm I got in my car and drove back in the direction of Winter Cove. After passing the turn-off I’d gone down earlier, a sign on the right led me down a short gravel road to a small parking place. From here I walked down to Veruna Bay, which the map in my B&B had recommended for sunset-watching. Although there were a couple of private property signs around this area, it still had a welcoming feel to it. I didn’t get the sense that someone was going to come storming out of their house telling me to keep away from their fence.

The sun was slowly lowering as I crossed the empty sand beach and took a seat on a log. A heron posed quietly fifty metres away. A moment later, a cheerful dog bounded down the path, splashed in the water, and then raised a leg against a tree. His owner came down the path calling him. Upon seeing me, he said “Sorry to disturb your peaceful evening.”

Sunset over the ocean

I returned to my B&B where through my bedroom window I could see the pink sky in the distance morphing into an orange colour. As my pasta slowly cooked on the hot plate, I looked further into the hike up to Mt. Warburton Pike. Standing at 1340 feet, this is one of the most popular hikes among the Gulf Islands. None of the B&B’s pamphlets explained how to access the hike, so my main source of information was TripAdvisor reviews online. It appeared that everyone leaving a review had driven up to the summit via Staples Rd, and then walked along Brown Ridge from there. Staples Rd was described as a bumpy, steep, single-lane track that took about 15 minutes to drive. Reading this concerned me slightly when I considered my old car’s suspension and cracked windshield (it was like this when I bought it for cheap, I’d like to add). I didn’t want to cause any further damage, so looked for other ways to access the summit. One blogger had written about an unmarked path further down the road, but the process of finding it sounded a little confusing.

I got into my comfortable bed and set my alarm early with the intention that this would give me time to find the right starting point and get me to Mt. Warburton Pike’s summit before it got too hot and/or busy. Before setting off the next morning, I took a few minutes to admire the pink sun that was starting to rise up behind some trees on a distant island. On the drive along East Point Rd, I had to pull over to get another look because the view was so beautiful!

Sunrise over the ocean

After turning onto Harris Rd, the surface soon became gravel and wound upwards to the left. ‘Is this already Staples Rd?’ I thought in surprise as I steered past bumps and potholes. Then I saw a sign pop up on the left for said road. There was a flat grassy space on the right before the track started to climb, so I impulsively decided to park there and walk up the track. It was 7:15 as I set off along the trail enclosed by the quiet forest. The track grew progressively steeper, but aside from two squawking crows that looked a little suspicious, it didn’t pose any particular challenges. This route certainly doesn’t compare to some exciting trails out there, but the anticipation of reaching the summit kept me motivated. As I neared the top (continuously guessing out loud how much further it would be), some feral goats bleated and ran further into the trees. I reached the summit just before 8 am and was quickly reminded to not base decisions on Trip Advisor reviews.

As expected, the views from Mt. Warburton Pike were breathtaking. One of those views that reminds you how beautiful this planet is and how lucky you are. After a few minutes of looking around in awe and trying to identify which island was which, I started to follow the narrow path along Brown Ridge. Unused to the human company at this time of day, several goats were on the path, and I stopped to give them time and space to wander away calmly.

Feral goats on a mountainside overlooking ocean

Islands in the ocean

As I continued along the ridge, the views gradually changed to show the San Juan Islands of the United States. I spent a good hour on the summit just admiring the views and appreciating the fact that I had them all to myself. Sunlight over mountains and ocean

As I walked back down the track, I saw just one car heading up to the summit. I wonder how many people arrive at the top and wish they had just walked. If you don’t have any mobility problems, I recommend doing this. Good exercise, good for the environment, and good for your car!

It was 10:15 when I spotted my beloved Ronnie waiting for me at the bottom of the track. I approached only to discover that I’d forgotten to lock the doors, but when I looked inside, my debit card was still in the storage box next to my seat. There aren’t many places where you could leave your car unlocked for three hours and return to find it untouched!

Further down Harris Rd is Thomson Park, described as the locals’ favourite community park, beach, and sunset spot. Because I was keen to avoid more bumpy gravel roads where possible, and I prefer the more secluded spots anyway, I decided not to bother visiting it. Instead I turned east onto Narvaez Bay Rd which, ironically, soon turned into gravel road for a few kilometres. Poor Ronnie. From the parking area, I followed the easy trail to the viewpoint at Monarch Head for more glistening ocean views. Sadly, the whales still refused to wave at me. Narvaez Bay has a quiet campsite and was a lovely tranquil spot for a picnic.

A quiet bay surrounded by forest

By the early afternoon, I began to feel tiredness creep in from my early morning start and large amount of walking. I drove slowly back along the gravel road and on to my B&B, reminding myself that I had paid $150 per night for the suite, and I should enjoy spending time in it if that was what I wanted to do. (A very different outlook from the hostel days!) The host had thoughtfully provided binoculars for guests, so I sat by the window for a few minutes observing a small pod of seals playing with each other in the water.

After another quick dip in the ocean, I ran a bath. The bathtub was probably my favourite thing about the suite; it had a sloping back, a head rest, and a skylight above. I lowered my tired legs down in the warm water and it was heavenly. The bathroom also had great acoustics for singing, and I updated my karaoke/open mic list so that it now included ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ by Billy Paul, ‘The Look of Love’ by Dusty Springfield, ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ by Tom Jones, ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green, and a few songs by Neil Young. (The list is regularly reviewed and updated.)

In the evening, I walked back along the field towards the beach. Although I couldn’t see the setting sun from this area, I could still watch the changing palette of colours in the sky and the silhouettes of islands and mountains. It was all very relaxing.

Sunset over an ocean

After an early night, I woke naturally at 6:30 and opened my blinds to see the sun just starting to pop up. I quickly threw on some clothes and went to sit outside to watch. The sky was more hazy pink today; smoke was starting to blow over again. I was extremely lucky that I escaped its presence and had amazing sunny weather for the two days of my trip.

Sunrise

I loaded up the car with some reluctance. Although I had seen most of what I could on Saturna Island in the two days, it was such a relaxing and rejuvenating time away following a busy year of working mostly from home during the pandemic. When I used to visit Vancouver Island as a tourist, I always thought of it as one of the calmest, friendliest, and slowest-paced places. Since living and working there, my level of exposure has increased and my view on that has changed slightly. Saturna Island is now my new example of easy-going island life!

When I pulled up outside Lyall Harbour terminal, I loved how the BC Ferries representative that went up the cars asking COVID screening questions would say “Hey, Judy!” or “How’s it going, Bob?” to customers she recognized. There was a yellowish smoky haze in the sky as the ferry pulled away from the harbour. That was too bad, as I’d have loved to look back up to Mt. Warburton Pike and remind myself of that lovely experience. The weather was gloomy and grey in the days after I got back to Victoria. It seemed that Saturna Island had offered me my last slice of summer, and I was grateful to have finished it there.

If you’re a BC resident who is looking for a solo getaway and a peaceful place to recharge your batteries, Saturna Island is the place for you!

Age & Assumptions | Working Overseas as a Millennial Woman

A few people have asked me what the most challenging thing is about living in another country. As you’d expect, one of the hardest things is being away from family and friends for long periods. The pandemic has really added to that challenge, with my flights this summer cancelled and no real certainty of when I’ll next be going home.

As a blonde and softly spoken immigrant woman from the millennial generation, the other challenging thing about living overseas for me personally has been having to occasionally deal with underestimating assumptions about my abilities from people I’ve met, whether in a personal or professional setting.

I write the above with a firm acknowledgment that I have benefited from white privilege through my life. I haven’t had assumptions made about me regarding criminal status. Restrictions on the schools I could attend or areas I could live in were not influenced by my race. I was able to move to North America free from expectation I’d face discrimination because of my skin colour, and I recognize how fortunate I am for that.

In this post I’m addressing societal attitudes towards young women, specifically assumptions about their abilities that appear to be influenced by a mixture of general stereotypes and unconscious biases.

I’m 28 years old, and three years ago shortly after I moved to Canada, I decided to stop wearing mascara to work. Make-up was already something I didn’t wear much of, but I was sick of getting styes and realized I didn’t care how I looked without it. Given my naturally fair facial features, an understandable effect of this is that people tend to assume I’m younger than I am. When I was 25, I went through security at Victoria International Airport and the female searcher said “So, you’re probably around 18, right?” I laughed it off, but afterwards I wondered why she couldn’t have just asked me to tell her my age, instead of telling me how old she thought I was.

When corrected on age, people will often tell you to “take it as a compliment” that they mistook you for younger. There comes a point when saying this just becomes annoying. It’s okay if people guess my age incorrectly; what isn’t okay is when people associate this assumed age with my abilities.

At a recent small barbecue, I met a man with a foreign accent who appeared to be in his late 60s. After he brought up New Zealand a couple of times, I asked where in the country he was from, and he reciprocated by asking me where I was from.  After I told him, he said, “So, do you have family here?”

When I returned home I felt irritated, and I realized it was because of the man’s question. This is a question I’ve received several times since I moved to Canada. Although part of me knew it was a reasonable question to ask, and although I knew the man meant well, I found it frustrating that his initial assumption had to be that I had moved to Canada with or to be with family. What’s wrong with simply asking “Why did you move to Canada?”? Why must there be the assumption that I couldn’t have immigrated by or for myself?

A few months after moving to Canada, I met with a recruiter to discuss the local job market for HR and recruitment roles. The woman implied my chances of being hired for a permanent job in my field were low because I was on a two-year working holiday visa. I left the meeting with my confidence dealt a blow, the woman’s skeptical expression and fake smile etched in my mind. I felt like her opinion of me had been formed at first glance, and she hadn’t really given me a chance.

That same afternoon, I attended another interview and was offered the job there and then. I work as a Staffing Consultant, connecting job-seekers with employers. My role involves interviewing people on a daily basis, and often these people are older than me. Before COVID-19 led to remote working and phone interviews, it wasn’t uncommon for me to introduce myself to a candidate and receive a blank or confused look in return. Sometimes I would even notice a brief look of disapproval. During interviews, some of these people would make faces at the way I pronounced certain words with my accent.

What’s important to note is that it wasn’t just men giving me this reception. There aren’t enough fingers on my hands to count how many times women have called me “sweetie”, “honey”, or “dear”. People from all genders have said “Oh, you’re so young!” in surprise. They have remarked with embarrassed faces that their son/daughter is “probably your age”. Others have scoffed when asked a question about a job on their resume and said “I think I worked at that company before you were even born”.

While some of these comments and terms of address are used innocently without the intention of causing offence, they are inappropriate and often come across as patronizing. For those with a sensitive ego, their implication in referencing my age is that I am not competent or experienced enough to help them, or that I do not deserve to be the person with authority in this working relationship.

What’s ironic is that we would never say the above comments to someone who appears to be over 60, because society tells us it’s rude to do so. While it’s always nice to feel I’ve changed someone’s initial opinion about me, it’s just a shame the assumption has to exist in the first place. With workers retiring later and Gen Z’s entering the workforce, different generations are working side by side more than ever, and I know I am not the only millennial woman who has been condescended or underestimated by older colleagues.

Having grown up in a society where blondes are still stereotyped as bimbos whose main skills are shopping and posing on the cover of lads’ mags, being underestimated is not new to me, but moving overseas has brought a new dimension to it. It’s not uncommon for someone to assume that I’m a student, or to look surprised when they learn I have a job that isn’t related to hospitality, tourism or retail. Of course there is nothing wrong with working these jobs; I just wish it didn’t have to be the assumption that they would be my only option as a young female immigrant.

A positive of this experience is that it’s given me a tougher skin. I’m getting better at not taking reactions or comments personally, and more confident at (politely) letting the person know they are inappropriate. I try to see such moments as an opportunity to change someone’s perspective towards younger women.

Another positive has been that it’s made me more mindful of my own stereotypes. There’s no denying the reality that everyone has their unconscious biases or believes in irrational stereotypes, whether inspired by society and the media, their upbringing, or other sources. I try to practise being open-minded in everyday life, which is only beneficial for my job. As someone who has been underestimated, it feels good to be in a position where I can endorse those young women (and others) who have been underestimated and overlooked as well.

If this post does anything, I hope it makes readers think about and perhaps reconsider a) their assumptions about the motivations of female immigrants, b) their assumptions about the capabilities of young female immigrants, and c) the way they address and speak to younger females in the workplace.

 

A Brit’s Guide to Living in British Columbia, Canada

As a former colony of the United Kingdom and a current member of the Commonwealth, you might think that Canada and the province of British Columbia specifically is very similar to the UK in its culture and bureaucratic systems. Well, think again. If you’re planning to move to Canada’s western province, below is a large compilation of some of the main differences I’ve discovered as a Brit living in British Columbia.

Stawamus Chief in Squamish, BC

Driving

You probably all know that in Canada, you drive on the right side of the road. It makes sense to have the same system as the neighbouring USA, since a lot of trade between the countries is delivered via road. In terms of speed and distance, the metric system of kilometres is used, which differs from both the UK and USA.

Getting a driver’s license as a new driver is also a different process. Upon turning 17, people in the UK are eligible to get their provisional license, which allows them to drive on the road with a supervisor with L plates attached to the vehicle. Most drivers will learn the basics from a family member, before taking driving lessons from a qualified instructor. After a learner has passed the theory test, the instructor will ultimately determine when they are ready to take the road test. This will typically be after 40 hours of lessons.

In British Columbia, it is less common for new drivers to take formal lessons from an instructor. Before doing any driving, they must acquire their learner’s license by passing a knowledge test and vision test. This can be done on or after their 16th birthday. After a year of practice with an eligible supervisor (someone 25 or older with a Class 5 license), they can then take their first road test. Passing this gives them their Class 7 or “N” license. Certain restrictions come with this. N plates (which stand for “novice”) must be displayed on the vehicle, and they can only carry one passenger at a time (with the exception of immediate family members), unless one of the passengers is 25+ and has a full license.  After two years of safe driving with no tickets or prohibitions, they can take another road test. Passing this would give them their full Class 5 license.

Note that if you move to BC with a clean UK licence, you can switch it over to a Class 5 for free within 90 days, without having to take a road test.

When it comes to actual driving, there are some interesting differences. The ‘turn-right-on-red’ rule means drivers can make a right turn when the walking man light is on for pedestrians, so long as no pedestrians are crossing at the time. I personally don’t like this rule because of the risks it can pose to pedestrians if a driver shoots around the corner due to not seeing the pedestrian or simply not caring.

Another difference is 4-way stops. When drivers approach this type of junction, they must all come to a halt, even if the roads appear clear. The vehicle that arrives first is entitled to proceed first, and so on. If two vehicles arrive at the same time, the driver on the right has right of way. I find that when two cars from opposite directions arrive at the same time and want to turn instead of going straight, a silent interaction between drivers takes place through gestures. It goes something like this: “Oh, after you.”…”No no, you first.”…”No, please, I insist.” …”Are you sure?”… “Oh, quite sure!” ….”Okay, thank you! And sorry.”

With regards to insurance, UK insurance companies insure the driver. In BC, the vehicle is insured. This means you are more likely to see friends lending their cars to each other in BC. BC’s government-owned insurance corporation now requests that a second driver be listed on the policy if they will be using the vehicle on a regular basis.

Drinking

Each province in Canada sets its own regulations for determining legal drinking ages. In British Columbia, it’s 19. Bear this in mind if you’re visiting from the UK aged 18; you won’t be able to buy alcohol or go to clubs. Skip over a province to Alberta however and you would be fine.

Although the province of Ontario is now allowing beer to be sold in some supermarkets, in most cases alcohol can only be purchased in provincially owned or private liquor stores, or from a brewery. Anyone who looks under 30 can expect to be asked to show ID.

While there are a few differences between the countries in terms of the laws that apply to people operating a vehicle, the rule regarding drinking is one Brits should be aware of. Last summer, I was in the backseat of a car with friends driving back from a camping weekend in Hope. I asked my boyfriend to open the cooler and get me a Radler drink. He looked at me in confusion and asked why. “Because it’s hot and I’d like a refreshing drink,” I replied with an innocent shrug. I then learned that in BC, passengers are prohibited from consuming alcohol in a vehicle. The idea is that they might distract or influence the driver. No refreshing lager for me.

Banking

I quickly noticed that Visa debit cards can be used for fewer transactions in Canada than they can in the UK. I never had a credit card in England, but for the aforementioned reason I got one when I moved to BC. My chequing account (what we in the UK would call a “current account”) has a monthly fee based on how many transactions I make. It gets waived if I maintain a certain balance. My UK account doesn’t charge such fees. Something to consider if you plan to set up a Canadian bank account.

Salt Spring Island, BC

Education

In the UK, the word “school” is typically associated with primary school (elementary) and secondary school (high school). If we do A-Levels (from age 16-18) or a vocational diploma, we say we’re going to “college” or “sixth form”. If we do a degree, we tell people that we go to “university” (or “uni”). In Canada, the term “school” is used for all levels of education. I first learned this in Toronto airport several years ago, when an elderly couple queuing for check-in behind me started chatting. “Are you heading back to school?” the man asked. “To university,” I said, to indicate my age. “So, back to school?” he replied with a cheeky smile.

Indeed, it’s very common to hear someone in their thirties say “I’m going back to school.” This is because the higher (or “post-secondary”) education system of both countries is very different. In the UK, we essentially choose our major by the time we apply to university aged 17 or 18. For example, I chose to study a Bachelor of Arts in History. Such a degree is automatically considered an honours degree, meaning students must submit a dissertation (or “thesis” as North Americans call it) in their final year. Unless they are studying Medicine or another vocational profession, students must complete their undergraduate degree in three years. They have to take a certain number of courses per semester, and will automatically graduate after those three years. Anyone who requests to suspend their studies and take a semester off due to personal reasons will likely have to re-take that year. A Master’s degree is completed in one year.

Students in Canada apply to university in or after their final year of high school. Instead of applying to major in a specific subject, they can choose a general direct entry program, such as Humanities, Engineering, or Science. In their first year, they have the option of taking a few different courses from within the program and a few electives from outside it, before then deciding the subject within that program they wish to major in. Although there are differences in universities across Canada, students in BC can typically choose the number of courses they take per semester, and have more flexibility in the years they take to graduate. Most people I know here graduated after five years. Some may take six years or longer. This is because the university system allows students to take off semesters, either to work or travel. Classes can also be taken in the summer term from May to September, unlike in the UK.

There are also more structured programs available within Canadian institutions to support students with finding paid co-ops (or “internships” as we’d call them in the UK). Students must pay to be involved in this program, but it’s a useful resource I wish I’d had at my university. Some programs, such as a business program, require students to complete a minimum number of co-ops in order to graduate. If a student wishes to graduate with honours, they must apply for the program. One would typically do this if he/she intended to apply for grad school, as writing a thesis could strengthen an application. In order to graduate with a degree, students must apply and provide proof they have met the minimum criteria. It’s common for a Master degree to be completed in two years.

Taking all the above into consideration, it means that a student in BC might not finish their undergrad degree until aged 25 or older, whereas in the UK the standard age of graduates is 21 or 22. I think there are pros and cons to both systems. People with a British education will have specialized more in one subject area, and will typically have a head start in the professional workforce. However, Canadian students are likely to have less tuition debt, have had more chances to gain paid experience and try out different roles while studying, and also have more time to actually enjoy their studies. In comparison, strict timelines for completing courses and graduating sometimes made me feel I hadn’t had a chance to properly explore and understand a course I was taking.

While there are options for people in the UK older than 18/19 to enrol in university degrees, it is still a less common practice; most will attend university from their late teens to early twenties. It seems to be a more culturally accepted thing in Canada for people to either start their first post-secondary program or take a second program in their mid-twenties and above. Some people might complete an undergraduate arts degree and then later take a post-degree diploma to specialize in a specific area, such as HR. Others might work right after they finish high school, and then enrol in a post-secondary program a few years later when they have saved up to pay the tuition fees. And others might be in their early thirties but go back to school because they want to change their career.

The system for tuition fees also differs between the countries. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are home and international tuition fees. Currently in the UK, home tuition fees for an undergraduate degree are around 9000 GBP per year. (Scottish students studying in Scotland don’t have to pay!) These fees are general and not based on the degree you are studying. This means that as a History student with only 8 hours of contact with teachers per week, I paid the same as someone studying Mechanical Engineering who had more contact hours. In Canada, however, tuition fees are based on the program you take. Someone in the Humanities program will pay less for tuition than someone in Business or Engineering.

Mt. Finlayson on Vancouver Island, BC

Healthcare

Each province in Canada has its own publicly funded health insurance plan. In British Columbia it’s called the Medical Services Plan (MSP). It used to be the case that recipients were charged premiums, with employers often offering to pay the costs. In January 2020, the fees were scrapped. However, eligible residents must still enrol for the plan in order to receive free or subsidized medical assistance. Enrolled residents must get a Services Card with their photo and Personal Health Number, to prove their eligibility to access these services. This card can also be used as a form of government-issued ID for accessing other services, like opening a bank account. If you’re not registered for MSP, you must pay out of pocket for any medical assistance.

One thing to note if moving to BC from the UK is that, regardless of having MSP coverage, some medical-related services in BC incur fees that would not apply in the UK. For example, if someone in BC calls 911 and is taken to a hospital by ground or air ambulance, they will be billed $80. If an ambulance is requested and then declined, they will receive a bill for $50…so making a prank call would be even more stupid. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) is funded by tax payers and there are fewer charged services. Say a Brit suddenly develops chest pains and calls 999 for an ambulance to take them to A&E (or “ER”), they won’t pay a penny.

For this reason, I’ve always found it funny when I hear Canadians commend the country’s “free healthcare system”. For sure, the system is much more generous than that of its southern neighbour, but not as generous as the UK. Again, there are pros and cons to both systems. The NHS has strained resources and as a result, some are calling for patients to start paying for certain services. To avoid burdening the Canadian healthcare system, anyone coming to Canada on a working holiday visa is required to show proof that they have purchased medical insurance.

Something for Brits to take note of is the differences with dentistry. In the UK it’s part of the NHS, but in Canada it falls under the category of extended health. This means it’s not covered by the provincial medical services plan. For this reason, having a job that includes benefits is ideal, as these will be used to cover most of the costs of each dental visit. However, even with benefits, it’s typically still slightly cheaper to go the dentist in the UK.

In the UK, the dentist pretty much does everything, and the dental assistant helps with paperwork and equipment prep. In Canada there is a dental hygienist who does the initial assessment, x-rays and cleaning, and then the dentist will do an exam and any necessary surgery. Oh, and Canadians say “hy-gen-ist”, not “hy-geen-ist”. Weird…

Marijuana

The growth, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes became legalized in Canada in 2018. Any cannabis shops or pharmacies must be licensed and follow certain regulations. Consumers are allowed to grow up to four plants in their house. Of course, Canadians were smoking weed for a long time before it became legal. Marijuana shops are now a normal sight, and it’s not unusual to catch a whiff of weed while walking down a street. Over the past decade, use of marijuana for medical purposes has also become more common in Canada. CBD and THC (chemicals within the plant) have been used to relieve muscle spasms and treat conditions including MS and PTSD.

Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island

Tipping

While tipping bartenders or servers (aka what the UK would call “waiters/waitresses”) is not required in Canada, it basically feels like it is. A minimum tip of 15% is pretty much expected. Even if you go to a deli (also a more commonly used word in Canada, I’ve noticed) and simply order a sandwich, the option to tip will come up when you pay by card. In such cases, I don’t bother. Why would I if all the person has done is pick up a pre-made, pre-wrapped sandwich from the counter and hand it to me??

I was reminded just how different this custom is from the UK and Europe in general when my parents visited a couple of summers ago. My dad, never one afraid to be honest and express himself, asked our server how much she’d like for a tip. “That’s up to you,” she said politely while I put my head in my hands. As if thinking a negotiation was required, he asked her, “How about 10%?”. At this point I ran away to the ice cream counter. Of course, UK restaurants will now typically add a service charge to the bill in order to get around the cultural reluctance to tip.

On that note, Canadians also ask for the “bill”, and not the “check” like some people assume.

Sports

In the UK, girls in secondary school will often play hockey on grass or turf. In Canada, hockey means “ice” hockey. The less popular UK game would be referred to as “field hockey”. I still struggle not to say “ice hockey” in full, and it always seems to make people smile. If you’re watching a baseball game, prepare to hear lots of people shouting “good hustle” to players. It basically means “good effort”.

Holidays

In England and Wales, there are eight bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, the two in May, one in August, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. In Canada, public holidays are called “statutory holidays”, five of which are nationwide. The remaining holidays are determined by province. In BC there are ten holidays: New Year’s Day, Family Day (February), Good Friday, Victoria Day (May), Canada Day (July), Civic Day (August), Labour Day (September), Thanksgiving (October), Remembrance Day (November), and Christmas Day. I appreciate the even distribution!

Language 

Now we come to my favourite part. As a native English speaker in a country where English is one of the official languages, I expected I’d be pretty well understood by Canadians. Not the case.

The main issue I have is the enunciation of R’s. In England we don’t emphasize them. “Water” is “wawtuh”. “Work” is “wuuuk”. “Art” is “aaat”, and so forth. I once ordered a turkey sandwich from a deli and it took five attempts for the person to understand me. As a result, I’ve found that adapting my accent at certain times in the workplace has been necessary, particularly when speaking with people over the phone.

There are also differences in full pronunciation of words. Some common words I say that incite giggles among my peers are “yoghurt”, “vitamin”, “basil”, “tomato”, “oregano”, and “aluminium”. Meanwhile, I find the way some Canadians say “bagel”, “route”, “thorough” and “details” very odd.

Another issue is different words being to describe the same noun. Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples:
“Jumper” = “sweater”
“Trousers” = “pants”
“Trainers” = “runners” or “sneakers”
“Wellies” =”rubber boots”
“Biscuit” =”cookie”
“Handbag” =”purse”
“Purse” =”wallet”
“Cinema” =”theatre”
“Boot” =”trunk”
“Bonnet” =”hood”
“Nappy” = “diaper”
“Soother” = “dummy”
“Aubergine” =”eggplant”
“Courgette” = “zucchini”
“Rocket” = “arugula”
“Spring onion” = “scallion”

And if you say “brolly”, most will have no idea what you’re talking about. Who knew there would be such a language barrier?!

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If you’re planning to move to British Columbia for a while, I hope this article is useful resource to help you prepare yourself for the political and cultural differences you can expect to find!

Canals & Cobblestones | Exploring Copenhagen on Foot

In early October 2019, I spent a few days in Denmark visiting one of my closest friends who currently lives there. She was offered a job that started just before my arrival date (yay for her!), so I would be entertaining myself for two of the four days. This was a great opportunity for me to have some solo travel time I’d been craving, and I spent it walking around Copenhagen.

After touching down in Copenhagen in the mid-morning, its airport quickly stood out as the best of the many I’d been through in the weeks prior. The washrooms were clean, there was lots of signage that actually led you to the correct place, plenty of bins, and there were free maps! I love a free map. The back of it even had a photo of a bikini-clad lady wrapped around a pole, advertising a gentleman’s club in the city centre. How did they know that’s what I was looking for?!

Buying a one-way ticket for 36Kr, I hopped on the metro to Christianshavn, wondering how quickly I’d regret only bringing one sweater with me. I’d been in Greece the week before, where the temperature had been a good 15 degrees warmer with zero chances of rain. At a nearby Fakta supermarket, I got off to a strong start by giving the wrong change (why must the smallest amounts be the bigger coins?!) to the cashier who, upon realizing the bright blonde girl in front of her wasn’t Danish, looked very confused. It was bound to happen at some point, so I mayaswell have got it over with early on.

Overgarden Oven Vandet ran along a quiet canal lined with trees and overlooked by tall colourful buildings. I quickly got accustomed to the sound of my suitcase rumbling along the cobblestones. Locals and tourists passed by on their bikes, all helmet-less. The city is very bike-friendly, as you would hope all would be to help reduce global carbon emissions. I crossed the Inderhavnsbroen (pedestrian bridge) and caught a glimpse of colour in the distance. Following its direction, I soon realized I was approaching Copenhagen’s most photographed spot: Nyhavn (New Harbour). A swarm of buzzing photographers were gathered on the bridge with their cameras to capture the colourful buildings and the old boats that sat before them. Grey skies weren’t clouding their excitement. I annoyed a sufficient number of the hive by squeezing past with my suitcase in tow to take a quick peak, before escaping to a quieter viewing spot down the side of the canal.

I then continued down Havnegade, pausing on a bench to eat one of my cheap supermarket snacks. Passers-by would occasionally look my way, sometimes with a curious expression and sometimes indifferent, and I remembered how strangely nice it is to be alone surrounded by strangers. It’s the best way to realize that you don’t actually care how you look to other people.

By the early afternoon, I was starting to lose feeling in my fingers from dragging my suitcase, so I went to find the Royal Danish Library on Castle Island, where I’d agreed to meet my friend later on. Behind it is the Danish Jewish Museum, and behind that is the Bibliotekshave (library garden), a lovely little oasis with a pond, statues, and benches for sitting with a book. In today’s case it was too cold for that, so I went into the library and found a spot to read on the second floor. It’s a lovely library and I was fondly reminded of my days as a university student when I basically called the library my home.

Higher education is free in Denmark, which probably explains why so many of the people studying looked older than me. All of the females also looked very cool, and not because they were trying to wear the latest trends; they just looked genuinely and effortlessly cool in their fashion sense. With their stony faces, you’d think they were walking the runway rather than trying to find the Philosophy section.

That brings me to my next observation. The Danish (or at least, those in Copenhagen) don’t exactly strike you as the friendliest bunch of people. You can’t help but feel that if you were to collapse to the ground from a heart attack, they’d cycle past you with a look of disdain that suggested you were inconveniencing them. When I met up with my friend (who, incidentally, I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!), I brought up my observation and she confirmed that it’s an accepted cultural trait. She even recalled how someone had once told her he could tell she wasn’t Danish because she smiled too much…

The next morning, after an evening of learning about hygge, I got the train from Lyngby to Nørreport. Seating consisted of fabric-covered benches rather than individual seats, however this communal arrangement failed to encourage any conversation between the passengers. Opening the inter-carriage doors required you to wave at them in front of your face, which often resulted in one looking daft if it wasn’t done properly.

Today I was suitcase-less, meaning I’d be able to move quicker, not have to deal with the incessant sound of wheels struggling over cobbles, and avoid losing one hand to numbness from the cold. I also now had a woolly hat lent to me by my friend. It was going to be a good day. 

Approaching the station, my bladder suddenly decided to put in a request. Thankfully there was a free public washroom located outside Nørreport station, one of those circular ones like the one outside Russell Square in London (if it still exists). These had always seemed a little sketchy to me, but upon opening I was pleasantly surprised. It was clean, there were multiple cubicles with doors that worked, and the sink actually had soap, water and hand towels. This might just be an underestimated contributing factor to why Denmark is often considered one of the happiest nations in the world..!

After browsing a Netto supermarket for the cheapest carbs that would keep me going through the day, I headed to the Royal Garden, located off Gothersgade. With its open space and pretty horticultural arrangements, this seems like a great place to walk a dog and pen the next popular Scandinavian crime series.

Further up the road was the Botanical Garden, another aesthetically pleasing place where I could admire the autumn colours starting to show on the trees. From here I walked down the street path past Peblinge Sø (lake), which was popular with runners. Continuing my tour of Copenhagen’s parks led me to Ørstedsparken, where I witnessed an Eastern European couple taking pictures of every single monument around. A fluffy labradoodle-cross caught my attention, galloping around gleefully with a stick in his mouth. He ran up to me and I petted him for a few seconds, only to look up and see his owner several yards away watching with a mightily pissed off expression. At least the dogs are friendly here.

As I ambled down Vester Voldgade, which surrounds the more commercial district, I suddenly realized how clean the streets were, and that there was a distinct lack of homelessness in the city. Denmark is known for having one of the highest tax rates in the world, but if that money is going towards ensuring people don’t have to sleep on the streets, you have to applaud it.

I decided to walk around Castle Island again. Today, royal horses were being trained in the arena of Christiansborg Palace.

After retreating into the Royal Danish Library again for 30 minutes of warmth and washroom access, I returned across Knippelsbro to Christianshavn, so that I could admire the neighbourhood’s cobbled streets again without a suitcase. To go up the Church of our Saviour only cost 35Kr. The chance to see 360 degree views of the city and get rid of loose change? Excellent!

It takes around five minutes to reach the top of the Church, depending on one’s level of fitness and how many times you have to wait for people to descend the stairs or, in my case, finish taking a million photos of the same bell. Thankfully the sun had just started to peep out from behind the clouds as a gesture of goodwill. There were some lovely views looking over the harbour and the sea of orange-roofed buildings surrounding it, with Church and tower steeples poking up here and there. I appreciated the lack of skyscrapers.

One thing I really liked about being in Copenhagen was simply hearing bits and pieces of different languages. I was starting to notice however that the majority of conversations I was hearing were in German. At the top of the Church, I saw members of a family taking it in turns to take (or as the Germans would say: “make”) photos of each other. Feeling generous, I asked them in German if they’d like a photo together, but the father waved me off with his hand and a curt “Nein”, before thanking me as an afterthought. Hey buddy, I didn’t vote for Brexit, okay.

I next headed towards Christiania, the Freetown of Copenhagen. As soon as I entered the area, I got weird vibes. The people seemed sketchy and on edge and, frankly, some of them looked like they had just murdered someone. Weed is sold here, and I couldn’t help but find it amusing to see blaring hand-painted signs of “No photos”, along with a man whose specific job seemed to be shouting at people for getting their cameras out. Living in Canada, where recreational use of marijuana became legal in 2018, it’s easy to forget the secrecy that surrounds its selling in other countries. I didn’t stay there long. Taking photos of bronzed leaves against a backdrop of red and yellow houses seemed much more appealing.

Now that the sun was out, I decided to briefly stop by Nyhavn again, and happened to arrive just as the bridge was up. From here I walked down Larsens Plads before taking a left to see Amalienborg Palace, where Denmark’s Queen resides. If you listen carefully, you might hear her still laughing about Donald Trump daring to propose buying Greenland off her.

Further down Frederiksgade is the Marble Church with its distinctive dome. Yet more Eastern Europeans busied themselves taking 5000 pictures of every statue in the courtyard. The ones that displayed male genitalia always seemed to attract the most interest. It was here that an American man asked me to take a picture of him, and then promptly ran off after. “What an interesting place,” I thought.

When continuing down Larsen Plads, you eventually come to Kastellet, which is a preserved fortress. Upon my arrival it started to rain, but I continued to walk through the entrance. Surrounded by an inner and outer moat, the fortress is used by the military but is also a public park popular with runners, especially those wanting a change from flat terrain.

As I walked on down one of the gravel paths surrounding the Kastellet, a lady stopped me to ask for directions. Blatantly assuming I was Danish, she said she was looking for the Little Mermaid statue. Since I had an idea of where it was, I was able to point her in the right direction, and the illusion was maintained. Maybe I look more effortlessly cool than I thought..?

I made my way to Østerport train station to meet my friend, and that concluded my two days of solo time exploring Copenhagen. If you are just looking to walk around and get a comprehensive idea of the city, two days is really all you need. Those planning a longer trip will be able to enjoy many different museums and restaurants.

While Copenhagen was a little too cold (in more ways than one) to win my heart, it is a very walkable and photogenic city with some gorgeous architecture, and overall it’s a great choice for anyone craving some time away for solo exploration.

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If you enjoyed reading this post and would like to use it as a reference during your own trip to Copenhagen, you can download it to your iOS device from the GPSmyCity site by clicking here. Happy travels!