Guilty Compromises and Quarter-Life Crises: Lessons in Living Overseas

When I turned 25 last year, I was proud to feel able to say I had reached my quarter-century having accomplished many things in both a personal and professional sense. Had you known me 10 years ago, you would never have imagined I’d be living and working halfway across the world right now. I was a very shy child. My best friend was my family’s Labrador, Tom, as was Milly, my spaniel, who was not actually a real dog but a bag I took everywhere with me. My siblings tell me I had an imaginary friend called Jinky who I’d talk to under the barn steps. Much of my time was spent wandering around our fields in a daydream or incessantly scribbling down pony stories in notebooks. Like many children, I was bullied for a few years, and my way of dealing with it by saying nothing, casing myself in a shell and trying to distract myself with my imagination, has contributed to my quiet voice and love of writing. As a teenager I didn’t really fit in with the catty group of girls I found myself in a friendship group with. While they loved shopping and make-up and got attention from boys, I did sports, felt more comfortable in scruffy hand-me-downs and believed my broken nose made me ugly.

Like with many people, my experiences of being mocked through school instilled in me a quiet ambition to aspire for greater things. I truly believed that something better was waiting down the line if I kept working hard, and I was determined that in later years I would look back on the past and be the one laughing at how insignificant the events and those people inside it all seemed. I still experience moments of Impostor Syndrome when I wonder how my shy young self grew up to be who and where I am. However, the question I am most often asked as an expat is: “Don’t you miss home and your family?”

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The answer is yes, of course I do, but I was fortunate in that my parents encouraged all of my siblings to travel and see the world. They presented time away from home as something to be excited rather than worried about. As a result, I never struggled with homesickness when I went on school trips overseas. The last time my whole family was together was in 2013. To some families this would seem indicative of a dysfunctional dynamic; for us it’s normal. We are adults in our 20s and 30s who have all fled the nest to go in different directions around the world, and we were brought up to understand that this is simply how life goes.

Even with an independent mindset however, this doesn’t mean living in a foreign country doesn’t have its extremely challenging personal moments. A lot of travel bloggers will glorify the expat life, presenting their lifestyle as a trouble-free haven to which we should all aspire – “I quit my 9-5 job for paradise”. What these people aren’t telling you is that difficult personal experiences follow you wherever you go. Everyone goes through complex emotional stages in life. Place yourself in a foreign country away from your family and there is a whole new dimension involved. Gone are those unconditional physical comforts and avenues for support. Gone is the certainty of what steps to take next (and in some cases, which steps you are entitled to take as a foreign resident). Under the impression that they should always be smiling because of living in a beautiful new country, I personally believe that a lot of expats struggle to identify when they are unhappy. I was one of them at the end of 2017.

This post is not intended to invite sympathy out of an implication that I have a difficult life, because I don’t at all. I debated sharing it for a while because some of the content seemed too personal and conceited. Then I realized that if I was to rewind back two years to when I started my visa application in the midst of a long-distance relationship, the experiences I’m about to share are things I wish I had been more prepared for. But of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and life is unpredictable. On the whole I don’t have many regrets, and I am a believer that things happen for a reason. If I could go back however, I would approach some things differently.

While my decision to move overseas was also largely based on a desire to leave England and experience working abroad, having a boyfriend in Canada inevitably had an integral influence on the type of experience I had in my first few months here. Realistically, both members knew we were no longer a good match and were simply staying together because of history. Regardless, I clung onto a failing relationship for a long time, and on reflection I know it was because I didn’t feel secure enough in my own life here to brave going it alone. Around this time I didn’t have a stable job, I didn’t have many of my own friends, and I didn’t live separately in my own apartment. I didn’t feel I had enough independence to become independent. All break-ups are hard, but it turns out that ending a long-term relationship while living away from home is really hard. In losing a boyfriend I had first met aged 19 on my first trip to Canada, I had also inevitably lost the strength of connection with what I had considered for a long time to be my second family. As much as a partner’s family members might insist on keeping in touch, realistically things can never fully be the same. Gone were the guaranteed Thanksgiving and Christmas invites, collections from the ferry or airport, and advice on Canadian systems and laws.

In spite of this huge change in my circumstances, I thought I was doing pretty well in the break-up’s aftermath. In a September blog post, I discussed how content I was with my Canadian life. Little did I realize how much this was more me trying to convince myself everything was great, underestimating how much my confidence had been unsettled. This was largely because I didn’t have family and close friends around who knew me well enough to understand and suggest how I was really doing. I also didn’t realize how much the break-up had affected me because I had been quickly distracted by an attraction to a new person who seemed to come along at a perfect time near the end of the relationship, when I had felt so much uncertainty about my future in a foreign country. Excited by the new attention and comforted by the prospect of immediate company, I let myself get caught up in a complicated romance without realizing that my current mindset was not in a strong place to form a new relationship. My emotionally needy self clashed with someone emotionally unavailable. The impact of the emotional collision was drawn out over a confusing period, and the final broken remnants left me questioning many things about myself and my ability to form fulfilling relationships in which my level of care would be reciprocated. Having always prided myself on being an independent person, I didn’t recognize the clingy person I had become. I had invested so much time and effort caring about someone, when really it was myself I needed to take care of. The soundtrack to my 2017 Christmas was Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’. Aided by a dose of SAD, I felt lonely, tired, pessimistic and unmotivated. Trying to understand my self-esteem was like trying to decipher a face through a cracked mirror.

Around the same time, I also went through that “quarter-life-crisis” stage common to people of my age. I was a few years into an unexpected career field, living away from home being a true “grown up”, and yet there was still a shy, indecisive person inside me who was scared by the prospect of a structured work life and unsure of where my life was going. We are constantly pressured to aspire for more – more money, more titles, more living space, more materialistic possessions – yet I didn’t feel ready or interested to follow that trend; I was drawn to the idea of a life where I could just take off whenever I felt like exploring a new place. To afford to travel, you need to work. But to have a worthwhile travel experience, you need time. And when you work full-time in a permanent role, time doesn’t come easily. When unemployed, we crave having a permanent job, and yet when we have it, we long for more freedom. The prospect of my future consisting of days spent at work seemed so confining. I was very grateful to have a job that I love, but my priorities and plans in life went through a period of feeling muddled. Billy Joel’s ‘River of Dreams’ was added to my soundtrack. (Evidently, rivers are pretty symbolic.)

I’d never planned to go home for Christmas 2017, and the same plan still stood even when I became single. Flights seemed too expensive, I wouldn’t have enough time there to make it worth the expense, I figured better to wait for a visit in the summertime, “it’s only Christmas”. Yet another underestimation of how difficult things would be. I put on a brave face to family because I didn’t want them to worry about me. I had a stubborn desire to prove that I was fine and could be a “big girl”.

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A last-minute decision to get away for a few days of solo travel time helped pick me up. Corny and cliche as it may sound, my trip to Kelowna helped restore my understanding of myself and rejuvenate my sense of purpose. Heading into 2018, I resolved to look forward. A single 25-year-old young professional in a foreign country – I had so much freedom to carve out the type of lifestyle I wanted. I realized this was an exciting time for me, not a sad one.

I started focusing even more on running and fitness, and even started swimming occasionally again – a sport I was not known to enjoy during my teenage days as a Modern Pentathlete. I got stricter with my diet after having let meals slip into lazy choices during December. I turned off the sad soul and acoustic blues – the Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Neil Young – and turned on more optimistic Motown and funk. I started making use of my creativity again and writing more guest posts for other bloggers.  I focused on quality and not quantity when it came to socializing with people. I won my first 5k race of the season with a better time than I’d expected. As my sense of self-worth rose again, I shook off my scepticism about male intentions and relationships, and let myself give a guy I’d been wondering about a chance that turned out to be worthwhile.

As the days get longer and the spring flowers start to bloom, I now feel like I’ve truly established my own life here in Canada. I feel truly content and independent. I’m blessed to have some fantastic people in my life, some fun hobbies, and some beautiful surroundings. I feel like I’m having the lifestyle and relationships that I wanted, and it feels great.

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So after everything that’s happened in the past few months, why do I sometimes feel bad saying that I’m happy?

Every so often, I’ll experience what I call ‘The Cycle of Guilt’. The guilt relates to being far away from home as my parents get older. Even if parents are fortunate to be in great health, the distance from family makes worries about the future that most children experience throughout their lives a little more pertinent when living overseas. A recent article on long-term expat experiences even suggested that a desire to look after parents often influences family members to return home, even if they struggle to readjust to their old lives themselves.  A thought of happiness I have will sometimes be followed by a voice of judgment. The voice tells me that I am being selfish and inconsiderate. It reminds me of the wonderful childhood my parents created for me and my siblings – one that wasn’t filled with many materialistic things, but with health, adventure and encouragement. How can I just get up and leave them when they did all this for me? How can I act so ungrateful?

On UK Mother’s Day in March, Victoria saw its warmest day of the year so far. I walked around in a t-shirt along the oceanfront and bought ice cream at the park. The sound of an English woman’s accent ordering an ice cream had me involuntarily spinning around to catch a glimpse of this familiar stranger, and the sight of an elderly lady on her own, fumbling with her purse and trying not to drop her walking stick, consumed me with a sudden feeling of guilt. I envisioned a similar (and very far away!) future scene featuring my own mum and, irrational as I knew it was, felt bad for having a lovely day over here rather than being at home with her.

One of the biggest challenges as an expat (or Canadian resident who has moved to the other side of this huge country!) is maintaining strong relations with people back home while investing in new ones in your current place of residence. Despite all the technological options for keeping in touch with people around the world, doing so still takes a lot of work. I will not deny that I am bad at scheduling Skypes with friends and family outside of Canada. It’s not because I’ve forgotten about or been forgotten by them, but because life gets in the way. With a Monday-to-Friday work schedule, the 8-hour time difference with the UK is very restrictive. A time might be planned on a weekend, only for something to come up and my priorities be cast into doubt. Do I miss out on a unique opportunity for an interesting outdoor or social activity, or catch up with a friend overseas I haven’t properly spoken to in a few weeks? While I’m very organized when it comes to sending cards for special occasions, I Skype my parents only every few months. The ending with my mum always seems to follow a “You hang up”-“No you hang up” pattern, and the end of every call is followed by a little cry before I snap myself out of it and get on with my day.

Although these cycles of guilt will be an inevitable occurrence while I am away, my rational self knows I should not punish myself with such feelings. I also know that as soon as they read this post, my parents will email me insisting I’m a silly billy who shouldn’t be worrying or feeling bad. Realistically, I know that my parents are happy for me. They want me to be happy, and they know that being here makes me happy. I’ve come to realize that the best parents don’t ask their children to stay close, but encourage them to go far. By trying to persuade children to stay nearby, it’s the parents that are actually being selfish. Had I stayed at home, I would not be feeling guilt over others, but I would be feeling discontent with myself. I’d be frustrated that I’d only wondered about a life overseas and not actually attempted to pursue the dream. Guilt is a natural antagonist of joy. More than guilt I feel pride in the things I’ve accomplished,  and the parents that helped me accomplish those things by “letting me go”. The past year has taught me the importance of not wasting time, of taking advantage of opportunities and trying to fill life with as many memorable experiences as possible. Life involves compromises, and time with family is a big one you have to make if you decide to move abroad. But awkward as it feels to say it, when you look at the bigger picture, the compromise is worth it.

In June I’m heading home for a couple weeks to visit family and friends. It will be my first trip back to England since December 2016. The time together will be brief, but I know I will greatly cherish every moment of it.

 

 

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Locked Out & Snowed In: A Winter Welcome from Kelowna

As the plane began its descent, billowing clouds dispersed to reveal the sight of snow-dusted, tree-studded mountains flanking a shimmering lake. A rush of frosty air hit me as I descended the plane’s steps and walked into the airport. With no checked bags to wait for, I headed straight to the line of yellow cabs outside. Yes, cabs. No longer am I the super frugal 20-year-old student always looking for the cheapest mode of transport. There was no direct bus route from the airport, and I didn’t fancy waiting outside in this weather.

“So what are your plans for Kelowna, visiting family or friends?” asked my driver.

“Ah no, I’m here alone,” I replied brightly. “Just going to wander round, do some hiking, you know.”

“Do you ski?”

“Nope.”

At this point the driver must have decided I was a weird person, because he didn’t ask me anymore questions.

This was my first trip to the Okanagan Valley in six years, having previously spent a week doing a Workaway exchange in a tiny town called Cawston. In bitterly cold late December, it was hard to remember how hot it can get in this region during summer. I had almost come to Kelowna in the late summer of 2017, but since it was mostly on fire, opted for the slightly less smoky Rockies instead. It was actually at the Kelowna Greyhound bus depot where my backpack went missing. But hey, that was six years ago, no grudges.

The 15k drive into downtown Kelowna saw us pass large department stores, car dealers and warehouses. I paid my $40 fare and walked up the steps to my airbnb motel apartment  – an excellent choice for a solo traveller looking for simplicity and convenience. (If you’re new to airbnb, you can get $45 in travel credit by following this link.) I dumped my things and headed out to wander through City Park, located close by. Traffic roared over the bridge that leads to West Kelowna. The beach, scattered with bathers in the scorching summer months, was now swathed in snow and there were super pretty views of the mountains across the placid lake. I walked along the lakeside passing squealing children on an ice rink, a small marina, Canada geese gathered on a hill to escape the icy waters, and a Cactus Club Cafe pumping out music while its guests celebrated Boxing Day. Near Waterfront Park, two boys with hockey sticks zoomed up and down a frozen pond against the backdrop of a casino.

Tip number 1 when travelling to a new place it to research the nearest supermarket before arrival. Bernard Avenue had a nice array of bars, cafes, bookstores and boutiques, as well as a Safeway. By now my face had probably frozen into an awkward expression and through my jeans my legs stung with cold. Thankfully there was a Starbucks inside the Safeway, as if the store manager had anticipated the visit of naive English girls to Kelowna in the winter. Normally I’d prefer to support local independent coffee shops, but right now I was desperate for a sugary liquid to warm my insides.

Setting off back to my apartment unashamed to concede defeat to the -10 temperature, I pulled out my keys and inserted them into the lock, excited for warmth. But the door wouldn’t open. I blew on my fingers and tried again, but to no avail. At first I laughed about it, until a further five minutes of failure inspired me to ask for help for one of my neighbours. Five different doors and no response. Worry levels starting to rise, I tried the lock again only to cuss in frustration when the door didn’t budge.

Suddenly the door two rooms down opened and out peeked a dozy looking topless guy, followed by a strong wift of weed.

“Oh, hi! I’m sorry, I was trying to -” The door shut before I had a chance to ask him for help, although that was probably for the best…

Looking around me, there seemed no other option but to ask one of the (slightly better off-looking) neighbours across the road. An elderly lady wearing bright red lipstick opened the door.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” I began in my strongest English accent, “but I’m staying across the road and can’t seem to unlock my door.” *Rolls my eyes self-deprecatingly*

The lady “Ooohed” sympathetically and ushered me inside before calling down her husband. “Marcel, come help this nice young lady here.”

Marcel followed me back to my door, asking with a French accent where I was from, which inevitably led to the “long way from home” spiel I’ve heard many times the past year.

“I’m pretty sure the top one is unlocked, it’s just the bottom one that’s really stiff,” I explained.

Marcel took the keys and opened the door immediately. My mouth fell open. “More power!” he exclaimed.

“Oh, silly me!” I laughed, thanking him and apologizing profusely before he went back to his wife to mock silly young English girls.

Tip number 2 (or maybe that should be 3 after “learn how to unlock a door properly”) is to make the most of good weather for hiking, even if it’s been your plan to complete a certain activity another day. I awoke the next morning to see snow falling and wind blowing the tree branches. Appropriately layered, I walked up Ellis St towards Knox Mountain…only to realize I couldn’t actually see it too well. I had a head lamp and suitable footwear, but decided a solo hike wouldn’t be a smart move if I couldn’t see the trail. I should have gone the afternoon I arrived, when skies were clearer and I’d still had a few hours of light left. Lesson learned.

Instead, I headed back south and walked down Abbott St past cozy houses and small lakeside parks towards Mission Creek Greenway, where I commenced a 6k walk on a snowy path alongside the frozen creek. It was a nice walk during which I encountered dog walkers, runners who were somehow finding traction, and elderly couples.  A pleasant oasis from the town, the greenway would make a lovely running route in the dryer months. About 3k into the walk, the views on both sides of the creek changed from residential properties to open spaces with hay barns and horses. Upon reaching Mission Creek Greenway Regional Park, I now had to find my way back to downtown. Returning the same way seemed a little pointless, but my only other choice was to walk along the fairly busy Springfield Rd. Most of this 6k walk was spent inhaling car fumes and focusing intently on the ground, because I did not want to slip on my backside in front of swarms of traffic.

I made it back downtown with my legs exhausted from around 15k of snow-walking. As I collapsed on a bench in City Park, I was greeted by a cheery elderly couple. Then I looked up to see a handsome hunky runner, who also looked at me but of course said nothing, because handsome hunky runners do not simply initiate a greeting with shivering pale people. And then a middle-aged lady jogged by and jovially remarked, “Now you just need a Starbucks cup!” Indeed, that seems to be the Kelowna attitude towards winter weather: get yourself a hot drink, and get on with it. Thankfully, it only took two minutes for me to unlock my door this time.

On my third day there was a snowfall warning in effect. It looked like I wouldn’t get any of my mountain hikes in afterall. I guess I should have been a little more realistic. Still, missing a hike wouldn’t detract from the trip. Ultimately I had a good idea of what views I could expect; it would just be a rewarding bit of exercise. Instead, heavy snow days are for art galleries, museums and cafes. Luckily for me, admission to Kelowna’s art gallery is free on Thursdays. While I’m not talented at creating them myself, paintings are something that I have recently realized I really appreciate. Based on Water St, the gallery had some lovely oil and acrylic canvases, as well as a rather dark but interesting exhibition exploring existential themes.

Outside the gallery, cars drove along the snowy roads as if there was nothing slippery on them. I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading in Pulp Fiction Coffee House on Pandosy St. Featuring a vintage bookstore and antiques section, this retro cafe played music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Jackie Wilson and Del Shannon. I resisted buying a cinnamon bun until I left. All for the good cause of supporting local, obviously…

I didn’t hike Knox Mountain and see views of Okanagan Lake from the summit; I didn’t see the trestles at Myra Canyon or witness the waterfalls at Crawford; I didn’t climb the extinct volcano of Mt. Boucherie, but I still got something out of the trip. I fulfilled my need to get off Vancouver Island for a few days and spend time alone exploring a new place at my own pace, with time to process recent feelings and events that materialized during what I found to be quite an emotionally challenging December. In the age of Instagram (which I foolishly joined recently), there is so much pressure to do the BIG things and get the BEST shot. This takes the attention off simply enjoying the experience of being somewhere different. Aimless wandering is an underrated activity. Sometimes you just need to get away to clear your head.

The next morning I booked another cab for 11am, my airbnb checkout time. My driver quickly commented on the volume of flight cancellations caused by snow the day prior. “Oh no!” I replied, not for a second considering that these circumstances might repeat themselves. The queue for security was huge. I got chatting to a man who hadn’t flown for 10 years and looked perplexed when he saw signs with the rules on liquids, and a lady originally from Liverpool going to visit her boyfriend in Cranbrook. 30 minutes later her flight would get cancelled. And then other flights were delayed…only to be cancelled because planes couldn’t land in the snowstorm. I soon learned that the stereotype of Canadians being sweet, passive folk is very misleading…

“Oh dear, what will you do?” asked one lady I’d gotten chatting to, after my flight was officially announced as cancelled.

I shrugged and smiled. “I’ll probably just sleep in the airport and get the earliest flight I can tomorrow.”

“I’d offer you a place to stay, but I’m all the way down in Summerland.”

“That’s very kind of you, but it makes sense to just stay here so I can leave as soon as possible tomorrow.”

Of course, I soon learned that all Saturday’s flights with my airline were fully booked. The next available flight was Sunday at the same time of 15:45. Oh good God. I quickly checked the Greyhound website to assess the possibility of an awkward reunion with the Kelowna depot, but all buses to Vancouver were fully booked the whole weekend. I saw little point in  paying money to go back into Kelowna when I had no guarantee of a place to stay, and I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I mean, there was a hunky guy who also missed my flight and was in front of me in the queue to chat to the airline staff. He left the airport soon after, and I figured it might be a wee bit forward to tap him on his shoulder and ask if I could invite myself to a sleepover. It was official: I was going to slum it in an airport for two nights.

‘Kelowna really doesn’t like me,’ I thought as I headed towards Tim Hortons to commence my longest relationship with this national chain, the only catering option in the airport aside from a White Spot restaurant. As I ate my crispy chicken meal combo, I looked around at the other passengers with their disrupted travel plans and couldn’t help but wish I at least had someone to keep to company – to watch my stuff when I needed the washroom, to fetch me snacks, to make me laugh. Travelling solo definitely has its challenges in certain situations.

Airports are already draining enough when you’re waiting for an on-time flight. By 7pm I had already had enough of my temporary home, and in an act of desperation, I went to the next level of abandoning my frugal principles and booked a room at the hotel opposite the airport for the next evening. As I entered my credit card details on the reservations website, I tried not to think about the weeks of groceries I could buy with this money. But screw it, when do I otherwise have a reason to stay in a hotel? Why not treat myself to a bit of relative luxury?

After achieving a PB of four hours’ sleep in an airport, I spent the morning just watching all the people passing by heading off in various directions (when their flight wasn’t cancelled, that is). I was pretty much lying across a row of seats in the same clothes as the day before with my hair greasy and messy, looking like a true hobo and not giving a damn.

At 3pm I walked up to the Four Points at Sheraton Hotel, doubtlessly entertaining drivers as I struggled to walk through the knee-deep piles of snow at the junction island. While I don’t believe my room was worth the money I paid for it (and there was no complimentary breakfast!!) it was also so worth splashing out on. Privacy, a bath and a proper bed should never be taken for granted. I enjoyed reading the comments friends had written on my Facebook status about my situation. It hit me that evening that it was a year ago that day, December 30th 2017, that I had arrived in Canada full-time to start this crazy new adventure. My circumstances were a lot different then, and most of the people commenting on the status I hadn’t known back then. It’s crazy how one’s life can change so much in the space of a year.

On Sunday morning I watched out of my window to see planes taking off. The skies were a little clearer. Hopefully I would be back in Victoria before 2018! I naturally took away the room’s pen and toiletries (because hey, I mayaswell get my money’s worth!) and went to check out. My aim to get my money’s worth also included taking advantage of the free hotel shuttle that runs to the airport, even though I’d probably have walked there just as quick. A lady called Svitlana with a thick Ukrainian accent was driving the shuttle, and I happened to be the only passenger at this time. Svitlana seemed a little nervous, and I soon began to wonder how often she had driven the van in snow, if at all.

“What asshole!” she exclaimed at the 4-way junction when the driver opposite pulled out instead of letting her go. I settled myself back in my seat having been thrown forward by her jamming on the brakes, and laughed politely. As we precariously descended the hill towards the airport, I had to bite my lip to refrain from suggesting she use the engine brake a little more.

Having arrived in one piece, I went to check in for the second time. My flight was delayed by an hour, and with the airline having an open seating policy, never have I rushed up so quickly to get on a plane once the boarding call has begun. It was a tiny plane with one seat on each side. We set off down the runway to depart, only to turn back again so the pilots could double check the wings didn’t need de-icing. I’m a pretty chilled person when it comes to reacting to delays that are caused by safety-related issues, but at this point my weary soul was ready to have a tantrum. Thankfully no de-icing was required. We touched down at Victoria airport around 6pm on New Year’s Eve, and a friend kindly gave me a ride home where, exhausted, I went to bed at 9pm.

Getting away from Victoria and the Christmas-time blues for a few days (plus two extra) left me feeling mentally rejuvenated on the first day of 2018, but never have I felt so glad to be back in my Canadian home.

 

 

 

 

Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Weekend with Nature: Stories from Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, Chum and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. While Chum proceeded to free-climb a rock face over the water, I watched a man and his carer tentatively test the clear water in their bathers before I commenced my own climb onwards (above dry land).  Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

 

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” Chum and I replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked younger than me. I’ve never been one to call a girlfriend “babe”, “hun” or even “lovely”; it just doesn’t feel natural to me, I’ve never felt “qualified” to do it. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

Chum was stuffed after the main, but not me. I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. Chum shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Chum conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed. Chum and I looked at each other in alarm.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” Chum remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if Chum got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.

Finding Happiness as an Expat

It’s been a while since I posted something, partly because of being busy and partly because of not knowing what to write about. I always thought my first post about living and working in Canada would be entitled something like, “Why I Left London to Live in Canada”, with a list of all the great things about the move and my new life overseas. But as the weeks went on after arriving, I realized writing this would be untruthful. Many blog posts enthuse about the joys of being an expat, encouraging readers to ditch their full-time city job and move to another country for a “better life” (the definition of which, it should be added, differs between everyone). Everything seems all rainbows and daisies, and achieving the “dream lifestyle” is so seemingly easy. I’m sure they exist, but rarely have I come across a blog post that has delved into the difficulties life as an expat can bring.

The first challenge is making friends. In this regard, I’d argue there is a difference between being an expat whose purpose is to travel or study, and an expat whose prime purpose is to work full-time in a professional role with the intention of eventually applying for residency. The first two contexts offer environments where one is more likely to encounter and interact with people of similar age and with the same academic/recreational interests and levels of life responsibility. When I backpacked through Canada in 2011, I had no trouble meeting people in hostels, on guided tours or on help exchanges who I developed friendships with, and I’m sure it would be the same today. When you’re trying to get your foot in the career-door however, putting time towards meeting people can’t always be a priority, and depending on where you work, you can’t always guarantee meeting people you can form friendships with. As an example, I worked as a temp for the provincial government for a few months, where only 7% of the entire staff were aged under 30. My chances of meeting a new buddy were low.

On the one hand I am very lucky. My boyfriend is Canadian, and upon arriving here in late December 2016, I was not forced into the unknown territory of a hostel, but instead welcomed by a second family that I’ve lived with for my first few months here. On the other hand, having and living with a partner – especially one you haven’t seen in several months – offers a comfort that can prevent you from making much of an effort to meet new people. Living in a relatively remote area where access to a vehicle is often required to get around can also play a limiting role here. The friends I have here so far I have met through my boyfriend. While this doesn’t mean they are not friends of mine in the fullest sense of the word, and while I can safely say that these friendships are not contingent on there existing a relationship, I’m aware of the value there would be in having friends I met independently of him.

In March I was fortunate to meet a Belgian girl who was staying with my boyfriend’s family for a month on a Workaway exchange. Being the same age and having shared similar experiences, we clicked and at a time when I was in between temp jobs, she became my dog walking-companion, brunch-buddy, yoga-chum, movie night-mate and dancing-sidekick at our own little spontaneous 90s disco party. My experience in Canada was definitely enriched by the short time I spent with her, and yet there are no photos on social media that have captured these memorable moments together and can therefore “prove” that we shared a fun and supportive friendship. Nor are there photos depicting the times I have tried out a new cafe with other friends, gone for sunny group hikes or seen the Chili Peppers play in Vancouver. In fact, there aren’t really any photos of me on Facebook anymore that show me in sociable situations surrounded by others, and in this day and age, it almost seems like this is something I should be concerned about. No photos, it seems, indicates no social life, and no friends.

My Facebook news-feed is filled with an array of photos: pre-night out pouting selfies; impressive plates of food from fancy restaurants or the latest trendy Shoreditch pop-up; tilted head-smiles with cocktail in hand; couples on dog walks; group selfies from house parties. There have been times since living in Canada when I’ve looked at my page in comparison, and wondered if my lack of “socializing evidence” means I’m not fun, that I have a boring life which will wither away without anyone noticing. There have been times when this has made me feel sad and lonely. The rational part of me always soon remembers that Facebook is a superficial social platform, and that my life isn’t boring and that I do have friends, even if they are spread all around the globe and I can’t see them often. Nevertheless, I now make a conscious effort to only spend time on Facebook if it’s for a communicative or informative purposes, and not for aimless browsing of other people’s lives. I also maintain my stance that there is no obligation (or desire from others) for you to share photos of every single sociable thing you do online.

Along with the expat’s challenge of making physical friends (i.e. not those met and interacted with through a blogging forum), there is the challenge of the job hunt. In London, I was paid a good salary for a job that I enjoyed doing and that gave me a desirable level of responsibility and valuable management experience. It was also a job where I had met and worked alongside one of my closest friends. I knew I couldn’t count on being so lucky in Canada, and based on economic factors, I also knew to expect fewer job openings and a pay cut in the small Canadian city I was moving to. I was also aware that it likely wouldn’t be a case of just sending a company my CV and being offered a job within days of arriving. However the difficulty I faced in landing a job still came as an unsettling reality check. Upon starting that tedious task of writing cover letters, I discovered a surprising amount of stylistic differences between British and Canadian English. I soon learned that while my visa made me eligible for any job, adapting myself to the Canadian job market would require more effort than I’d expected. I would apply for jobs that I knew I could do with my eyes closed only to be “ghosted”, and it began to hurt. I knew I was putting pressure on myself and that this was maybe unreasonable considering the small job market I was searching in, but I wasn’t one of those expats content to get a part-time job in a cafe or house-sit while living modestly out of a backpack. I came here aiming to earn a living and develop a career further with the intention of applying for permanent residency later.  Temping proved to be a good solution when it became clear that finding a permanent job with my temporary work visa wouldn’t be so easy. Almost five months after arriving in Canada, I have been offered a permanent job that I am thrilled about, but the journey was a long and often demoralizing one.

It was always my plan to move away from my boyfriend’s place and live with other people after a few months, so that I had more space and more of an incentive to meet other people. Now I am living in a lovely place near the ocean and closer to downtown. In contrast to London, the value for money when it comes to rent is excellent, especially considering that it’s really a student apartment. (“Detached? A garden? A spacious living area? Nice clean furnishings and utilities that work? This must be a dream!” I initially thought when I first saw it.) The neighborhood I’m in is ideal for me too. I can sunbathe in my garden without feeling like neighbors are peering down on me, walk to the beach and breathe in the clean air and pet cute dogs and chat to their friendly owners. I can go for runs along pleasant trails and smell blossom trees and nosy handsome houses and get on buses where the drivers smile and passengers say “thank you” before they get off.

Does this mean my life is perfect and I am the happiest I have ever been? No. I still haven’t met many new friends, and while with my new home and new job position I am feeling in a better place from which to explore new places, try new things, and meet new people, it’s inevitable that I will still have moments of loneliness now and then. But do I ever wish I was still in London? Hell no! I obviously miss friends, I miss the theater and ‘Time Out Offers’, and now that it’s summer, I kinda miss scenes of “village cricket” during post-work runs around my favorite Regent’s Park, but my life here in Canada is so much more preferable for my personal interests. While I will definitely feel even more settled once I meet more people, I am one of those ambiverted characters who prefers having guaranteed tranquility and alone-time along with the option to be around people, instead of having no choice but people and noise constantly around me.

New surroundings

The first few months of being an expat looking for permanent professional work are bound to involve challenges. I was lucky in that I was already familiar with this country, wouldn’t have to learn a new language, and had contacts prior to arriving, but this didn’t mean things would be a walk in the park. My boyfriend recently introduced me to an American comedian called Louis C.K. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, he humorously explained how, in a time when people crave instant contact with others via their cell phones, we should be more accepting of loneliness and sadness as inevitable feelings in life. Now that I seem to have overcome a major challenge I’ve faced in my first few months as an expat, I’m able to reflect on any setbacks or disappointments as useful experiences: experiences that were not simply reflections of unfixable shortcomings of mine nor an indication that my coming here was a mistake, but experiences that are a part of growing up and have helped develop my strength of character. Living and working abroad is definitely not for everyone and I imagine many people do call it quits and return back to more familiar surroundings. But if everything in life came easy, that would be a boring life. Soon I will turn the milestone age of 25, and when I look back on the life I’ve lived so far, the challenges I recall will be valued just as strongly as the moments of happiness.

Puzzled in Poland: Tales of Coping with a Language Barrier

Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.

Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.

Sightseeing

On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.

The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.

At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.

Yoga Classes

A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child  turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing.  But I was older now and more used to new situations.

We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for going to the back!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.

The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.

I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off…and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet. (Manicures and pedicures appear to be a big thing in Poland.)

By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.

Dog Shows

I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)

I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.

This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Portugal, when I would walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.

There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unaware. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.

Great Grandparents

My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of  just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room, heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee, like a sugar-addict entering an empty candy shop. I had no choice but to relinquish him, watching her walk away with the despondent feeling of someone on a TV show who just had the prize they won stolen off them by another contestant.

Birthday Parties

One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner, which involved eating roasted pumpkin with honey for dessert (very tasty). While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings resolutely. Polish people are extremely hospitable and enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods.  “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.

Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.

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There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.

 

Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!

Popular Tourist Spots Which Will Leave You Disappointed

*Guest Post by Jordan Greene*

No one likes to be disappointed, especially when they’re travelling to see something supposedly amazing. But not all tourist spots are worth the hype they get. To save yourself the journey, we’ve picked seven of the most disappointing tourist attractions from around the world. Check them out:

1. The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Look up any list of reasons to visit Denmark, and Copenhagen will be near the top – and rightly so. The capital city is beautiful, chilled and full of enough tourist attractions to keep you busy for a weekend break. But for some reason, a very small statue of a reclining mermaid has become hugely popular for no apparent reason – although the Secret Traveller suggests it might be due to the lack of other attractions in the rest of the country. Stick to Copenhagen’s real attractions, like Tivoli Gardens or the National Gallery of Denmark.


2. Mona Lisa, Louvre Museum, Paris
The Mona Lisa painting itself isn’t what’s disappointing. After all, it is the world’s most famous painting. It’s the fact that you’ll never get close enough to see whether it’s any good or not, as there are so many people stuffed into the one room of the Louvre. Add to that the disappointing view from the Eiffel Tower, and you’ve got a very disappointing visit to Paris if you don’t plan it well.


3. Hollywood Walk Of Fame, Los Angeles
Surrounded by tacky shops trying to get tourists to buy some rubbish souvenir, the Walk Of Fame has nothing good to offer visitors. A TripAdvisor review from someone local to the attraction says it’s a waste of time, and suggests going to Griffith Park and doing the Hollywood sign hike instead. “You’ll get exercise and have a better time,” they say.


4. Times Square, New York
New York is busy, everyone knows that. But every day, tourists still turn up to Times Square hoping to get a great photo to show everyone at home. But there are virtually no pedestrian areas, making it not only disappointing but potentially dangerous. Spend your time elsewhere in the city – Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Top of The Rock are just some suggestions to start you off.


5. Loch Ness, Scotland
Loch Ness in Scotland is famous because of the legend that a monster apparently lurks in the waters – aptly named Nessie. There are numerous “photos” of the beast, and some people have devoted their lives to proving its existence. But at least with all the other disappointing tourist spots on this list, you’ll see something. Here, you won’t.


6. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
All you need to know about Italy’s most famous tower is revealed in its name. It’s a tower than leans. Going to visit it is just a bit underwhelming and you’ll find yourself getting annoyed at everyone trying to get the perfect photo of them “holding” or “pushing” the tower. Adding to the frustration is a load of salesmen trying to get you to buy some trashy souvenir. Looking for a relaxing break? Avoid the Leaning Tower of Pisa at all costs.


7. Stonehenge, England
We’re back to the UK for our last disappointment. Stonehenge might be on many people’s must-visit list, but don’t devote an entire trip to it. As this post says, only visit Stonehenge if you happen to be near the local area. And don’t expect too much – you can only view the boulders from a distance and it’s quite expensive.

Do you agree with these choices of disappointing tourist spots? Have you visited somewhere else and been disappointed? Let us know!

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Please note that all views expressed in this post are those of the guest author and not of SoleSeeking.