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.

Return to Reyjavík: Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a place called the Secret Lagoon, which was a geothermal pool smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off to a town called Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is definitely secret in that there are no signs indicating where it is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. ‘Good on Icelanders,’ I began thinking in support of their fearlessness and the motive behind it to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal in the form of body exposure through mediums such as sexting, glamour modelling and risque TV entertainment as a tool of socio-economic advancement.)

The Lagoon was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I now realised that the Lagoon’s name had become an appealing marketing tool, and there was actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). You could argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders.  I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited.  (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic and technologically advanced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore?  Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I grew up in the North York Moors National Park in England, a place that attracted tourists but never felt overrun by them. I was glad about this, because whilst I was happy for visitors to come and experience the beauty of the area, I didn’t like the idea of sharing my tranquil home with a mass of others. I don’t think there is anything rude or prejudiced about this. It seems a little too late for this concern in Iceland though; the main question is how a big a slice of the pie they will get.

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

Bad Travel Habits We Wish People Would Stop

Have you ever experienced the following?

You’re having a lovely time on your travels, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated in new surroundings, reminded of the wonderful nature of our world thanks to the awe-inspiring environments around you and the memorable interactions with kind locals. Then the behaviour of another traveller suddenly brings you out of your blissful bubble, sending your blood rushing faster than the rivers you’ve crossed and reminding you of the imperfections present on the face of life. Whilst reality will never be perfect, there are things people do that make it less pleasant than it could be.

Some travel habits are only irritating momentarily, with us perhaps even exaggerating their annoyance before the sight of something special waves the memory out of our mind.  Some are one-off incidents that perhaps indicate a lack of experience or background knowledge by the perpetrator that can easily be improved for next time. Other habits are seen more consistently, illustrating unpleasant personality traits that aren’t so easy to change. Certain bad habits pose a serious issue, demonstrating cultural insensitivity and hence creating (or reinforcing) stereotypes of a nation and its citizens which threaten to spoil the experience of other visitors.

I asked some fellow travel bloggers to share the bad travel habits that get them grumbling most. Perhaps those who are guilty of the below could take note for the future!


Too Much Technology 

In August 2014, I hiked up to Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Utah. Reaching the end of this challenging trail underneath the sweltering sunshine felt like a great achievement. But as my boyfriend and I stood on the cliff top admiring the sprawling views ahead, we were distracted by the boisterous banter of four English boys. “Have you got WiFi?” one of them asked his peers loudly. A short while later he laughed haughtily and exclaimed with a smarmy smile: “I’m Facetiming my mum! Hi, mum!” I detected the faint sound of his mother calling his name in confusion. His friends guffawed along with him and they then continued to make boyish jibes at each other whilst comparing Snapchats and whatnot from their phones.

Zion has incredible features and up here on this summit with the ground far below, technology seemed alien and felt unwelcome. It irritated me that these boys didn’t seem to appreciate the views around them like the rest of us. They just wanted to joke around and show off to their friends and family back home, rather than live in the moment like everybody else around. I found them to be inconsiderate of the other tourists around them who, after a long hard hike, wanted to relax and salvage the peace and quiet whilst taking in the views around them. I understand that people are different, but I wish that people were less craving of immediate contact with the outside world in these out-of-the-world situations. In the words of Justin Timberlake, I’m tired of using technology; can we please put the phones away for a few hours??

Angel's Landing - Zion National Park

Angel’s Landing – Zion National Park


Drunken Disorder

It seems I’m not the only person who gets embarrassed by the behaviour of my fellow citizens abroad. Lauren from The Traveller’s Guide by #LJOJLO has been put off visiting certain places after seeing her fellow Aussies get up to no good.

“We party, party, party, we party Bali style” – Bali Party by Drapht is the song that symbolises what Bali is about for a large portion of Australians. Kuta, the main party drag on the Island of the Gods, is a place most Australians visit and stay while being a tourist on this infamous island. Unfortunately, a portion of Australians are giving the rest of us a bad name while they party it up in Kuta. The drunken behaviour, the drugged behaviour, the stumbling as they walk aimlessly around the streets and not to mention the brawls that occur are far too frequent in Bali. Now, of course it is not always Australians acting like this but sadly we make up a large proportion. When holidaying many feel they are invincible and with the cheap alcohol and drugs within Bali temptation often takes over and sadly too often ends in tragedy. These acts end up no longer embarrassing for a nation but heartbreak for the people, friends and families involved.

For these reasons I no longer stay in the Kuta area and rarely visit while in Bali. I don’t wish to surround myself in a culture so destructive that can end in catastrophe after some stupid decisions. Instead, visit other incredible areas of Bali or enjoy the beach only while visiting Kuta, as pictured below.

Kuta Beach - The Traveller's Guide by #ljojlo

Kuta Beach – The Traveller’s Guide by #ljojlo

For more photos check out Lauren’s Instagram. You can also keep up with her blog on Facebook and Pinterest.


Bad Manners

Sonal of Drifter Planet can’t stand people who drift out of line.

Whether it is the toilet queue or security check queue, nothing irks me more than a queue breaker. They see people waiting patiently for their turns but they are too special to wait for theirs! I never shy away from tapping on their shoulders and pointing them to the end of the queue.

Sonal tweets @DrifterPlanet and you can follow her blog on Facebook.


On a flight from Warsaw to London once, I noticed a lady sat in my assigned window seat but didn’t bother asking her to change back. Even though having the middle seat didn’t ruin my relatively short journey, I later wondered if I should have spoken up for the sake of pointing out her error (and the potentially impolite intentions that came with it). Have you ever called out a person for their bad travel habits?


Lazy with the Language

While SoleSeeking, I’m also keen on language-speaking!

Whenever I visit a continental European country, I am normally embarrassed by the native English-speakers who make no attempt at the local language, instead rambling on quickly in their own tongue, assuming that everyone understands them and getting grumpy when they don’t. Brits already don’t have the best reputation abroad, often mocked (“nil point”, anyone?) for their weak foreign language (and football!) skills. And following the controversial vote to leave the European Union on the basis of high immigration levels, it seems unfair that they should expect to walk into any country on the continent and have everyone they meet speak English. Having a fairly decent understanding of French and German already, one thing I love about travelling is the opportunity to pick up a few foreign phrases. It makes the experience more interesting and, even if your pronunciation isn’t perfect and your vocabulary limited, the effort is appreciated and often means you’re more likely to be treated well and get what you ask for. I always make sure I know a few basis phrases including: “Please/Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry” and “I don’t speak…/Do you speak English?”

Read about the beauty of Communicating Through Different Languages.


Eroding the Environment

The team behind Don’t Forget to Move also say don’t forget to pick up your litter!

One thing that really annoys us with travelers is when they don’t respect the local environment they visit. There’s nothing worse than exploring a beautiful beach, tucked away in paradise, and finding the remnants of the last tourist who visited. Not only is it annoying, but it’s super disrespectful to the country you’re visiting. While spending time on the islands of Koh Rong in Cambodia it was so disappointing to see other travelers who had come down to the beach to have bonfires and parties, and then just left their trash there. Just because you’re on a holiday, it doesn’t mean Mother Nature is!

Trash in Cambodia - Don't Forget to Move

Trash in Cambodia – Don’t Forget to Move

Find nicer pictures of Cambodia by Don’t Forget to Move on Instagram or you can follow their movements on Facebook and Twitter.


Defying Dorm Etiquette

Two Scots Abroad have advice for those guilty of making nighttime noise in dorms.

Tip: if you check in late, don’t drag your rucksack into the hostel dorm room where others are sleeping, especially if your bag has more zippers than Michael Jackson’s leather jacket. Roaming romancers! A multi-bed dorm room is not the best setting to instigate or consummate any relationship, check out Airbnb for cheap private rooms. Finally, if you weren’t lucky enough to pull him at the bar crawl, it’s unlikely he wants you to try and get into his bed…and neither does the guy in the bed next to him! If the tables were turned, this would be sexual harassment. I (Gemma) have experienced all of the above, all while backpacking in Colombia (regardless of hitting 15 other countries during that 17 – month trip!)

For more stories and tips, follow Two Scots on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.


Boastful Behaviour

A lot of travellers proudly state how many countries they’ve visited, but The Thought Card thinks this encourages unhealthy competition.

One traveler habit that irritates me is when I’m asked how many countries I’ve visited so far. Since I’ve traveled to over 16+ countries, I think it’s so annoying and obnoxious to share the entire list. It’s also insensitive if the person I’m talking to hasn’t had as many opportunities to travel as me. Instead, I always try to turn the focus of any travel conversation towards the other person. I ask questions like: “Where have you been lately?” or “Where to next?” Travel isn’t a contest my friends!

Something Danielle does encourage is hiking the Cotswold Way! You can find more thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.


Whatever our background, budget and style of travel, anyone who gets the opportunity to see a different part of the world is lucky. On this note, is travel blogging about showing off or helping others? There is a fine line between inspiring and alienating.


Invading Personal Boundaries

Hannah of Getting Stamped gets stomping when beach-goers disregard privacy and don’t make use of available space.

Imagine sitting on a gorgeous white sandy beach in Bali that goes on for miles. It’s one of my favorite things to do in Bali BUT I can’t stand it when another traveler literally puts their beach towel on top of me. When there is an entire open beach why must people be right next to you?!? It’s even worse if they bring a speaker a play loud music – don’t people believe in headphones anymore?

Bali's Beaches - Getting Stamped

Bali’s Beaches – Getting Stamped

Getting Stamped are on Facebook and Instagram or you can follow their adventures on YouTube.


More Than Enough Music

Playing loud music irks me too. Hiking the Chief in Squamish, British Columbia, I heard ‘Mountain at my Gates’ by Foals ringing out of someone’s phone several metres away. Perhaps the listener felt the song’s lyrics encapsulated his struggle with the thigh-burning gradient and challenging rock climbs. Sure it’s a great song, but not everybody else wants to hear it during an idyllic hike!

Views from the Summit of The Chief

Views from the Summit of The Chief


A Lack of Respect for Loss of Life

In a world increasingly obsessed with social media and the fame that can come with it, The World Pursuit highlights the growing issue of uncompassionate selfies.

One thing that is sure to annoy me while traveling is tourists taking selfies at sensitive spots. It’s okay to take a photo at a memorial or other places where tragedy may have taken place, but to take a photo with yourself smiling – happy as can be – tends to annoy me. Two incidents that happened recently were at Auschwitz and in Istanbul. At Auschwitz young girls were going around having a model runway photo shoot on the infamous train tracks. We flew out of Istanbul Ataturk one day after the terrorist attack there, and we found some people taking selfies in front of where blood was spilled. Very heartbreaking and insensitive.

Auschwitz, Poland - The World Pursuit

Auschwitz, Poland – The World Pursuit

More observations by The World Pursuit can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Needless Nudity

The Aussies are at it again! Weeks after the ‘Budgie Nine’ were arrested in Malaysia for “public indecency”, Lauren vents some more about travellers who strip down overseas.

When in the Austrian winter you would expect people to be covered up, wouldn’t you? Well in typical Australian form the mentality was the fewer clothes, the better, and as an Australian, this irritated the s*&t out of me. Why, do you ask? Well, I just can’t comprehend why people can’t just keep their clothes on in public, and for some reason, Aussies are always getting their kit off. So anyway, while backpacking around Austria and staying in an Australian-owned hostel there were copious amounts of Aussies getting the gear off. Whether it was in the hostel in the evening or skiing down the Alps with their pants around their ankles, there were Australians getting naked everywhere. Bits and pieces that shouldn’t be witnessed were viewed, and let’s be honest no one wants to see that, or I don’t anyway. 

Aussies Getting Naked - The Traveller's Guide by #ljojlo

Aussies Getting Naked – The Traveller’s Guide by #ljojlo


Some travellers prefer staying in a hostel popular with people from their own country for the familiarity aspect. Others avoid this at all costs to prevent falling into the trap of limited mingling with foreigners and locals. What do you prefer?


Cultural Insensitivity

On the topic of clothing (or lack of), Gabriela from Gabriela Here and There is one of many people annoyed by travellers who do not research a country’s requirements and wear appropriate clothing.

This is something I’ve witnessed many times before: travelers not wearing appropriate clothing. Whether it’s a temple in Thailand, church in Italy or just any public place in a Muslim country, there will always be some tourists running around in mini-skirts, shorts and tank tops. Show some respect for the culture and find out how to dress properly! It’s also easier for you because you avoid people’s stares and judgments.

For more views and photos, check out Gabriela Here And There on Facebook and Instagram.


Does this behaviour indicate a one-off lack of preparation, or do some people simply refuse to temporarily abandon their usual norms to meet another nation’s standards? And on the social media attack again, how much is this attire problem caused by the desire of people to “look good” for photos?


Airplane Divas

Enough moaning about Brits and Aussies; some Americans are also guilty of bad conduct in foreign environments…and I’m not just talking about former/future presidents. The man behind SkyeTravels wishes his fellow citizens would follow the rules when they fly.

I don’t like to be disrespectful of my home country, but some Americans can be so disrespectful. Too many times in my travels I see an American trying to correct a local of another country on something, shouting too loud in a holy or sacred location, getting drunk in a culture where that’s frowned upon, etc.
Last year I was on a flight from China to Los Angeles where a stewardess was telling an American he needed to turn his phone off and not just on airplane mode. Instead of just complying, he was shouting viciously at her that she didn’t understand English and asking to see her superior. Why?!

You can follow Skye’s tracks on Facebook and Instagram

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We’ve probably all experienced some of the above habits on our travels. Thankfully, many of them can be remedied. In writing about travel, bloggers set the standard for sensible, sensitive habits. The above habits may seem insignificant when considering other events currently taking place on the planet, but in a world that is increasingly economically globalised yet also becoming more violently divided across cultural, political and religious lines, mindful travel has the potential to ease unnecessary tensions and remind mankind of the value that comes with thinking about others and the planet we all share.

Have you witnessed another bad travel habit that hasn’t been mentioned? Please share below.

Travel & Trepidation: How My Solo Adventures Began

People often remark how interesting/brave/crazy it is that I go travelling by myself. In a world where we often hear stories about kidnap and homicide abroad, it can seem risky, especially if you’re a young female. I sense that people don’t really understand why I’m happy to do it, or how I go about doing it. As I mark five years since I first travelled solo, I’ve been remembering how this seasonal hobby of mine came about.

The funny thing is that I too used to feel the same way as those aforementioned people. If a psychic had told me in the summer of 2010 that a year later I would be travelling through Canada by myself, I would have laughed in their face. I’d been lucky to travel to some great places on opposite ends of the world as a child with my family, and I had loved those experiences, but I couldn’t imagine going off somewhere myself. The world seemed so big and I didn’t think I’d be able to cope on my own.

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After finishing my A levels I opted to take a gap year, with my main aims being to apply to university and earn some money. The first half of that year was spent filling out UCAS forms and getting up at 5.15 a.m. to start a morning shift at the sports centre where I worked. Then in March 2011, after craving a break from the bleak spring weather, I flew to Australia to spend a month with some family friends. The only thing I had to do on my own was the flying, and then I would be in the care of people I knew. I would be meeting up with my sister at one point to visit our cousin for a few days, but hadn’t made any specific plans to go and see somewhere by myself. It wasn’t going to be a true travelling experience as such; I simply wanted to chill out in the sun for a while.

I turned up at the house only to find out that the family were hosting a Scottish man, who was working for them in return for food and accommodation. He’d set off nearly a year ago by himself to do a round-the-world trip, and hearing his stories got me thinking. Even if he was a few years older than me (and male), he made travelling alone sound fun and, most importantly, doable.

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I returned to England with the travel bug, revitalised by my month away. I’d received an offer to study at university in London before I left, and I now accepted it. I would be moving from life in the isolated countryside to the bustling capital – a complete paradox. London had previously seemed too daunting a place to live for a girl who was used to travelling 10 miles to the nearest village. But following my time in Australia, my curiosity about the world had increased and London seemed like the right choice.

In early May I started researching Canada, a couple of weeks after I returned from Oz. Hiking in the Rockies attracted me, and yet the prospect of travelling alone still made me feel nervous. Ideally I still wanted to travel with someone, but was unable to find anyone with the time, money or interest. In response, I looked up help-exchange schemes similar to the one my friend in Australia had been part of, thinking that I would just live with different families the whole time. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about turning up at a hostel with nobody to talk to. I found a few families in British Columbia who were happy to host me for a week each. However all the families I wrote to in the Rockies were fully booked, or demanded a minimum length of stay that I couldn’t commit to.

The plan seemed to be crumbling and I began regretting telling my friends so definitively that I was going to Canada.  Questions of rationality filled my head – had I really thought about this, or was I just trying to impress someone? And yet I couldn’t just give up so easily. To me that would be a failure. Slowly it sunk in that for the first week of my five-week trip, I would have to stay in hostels and risk having nobody to hang out with.

But gradually I got more into the idea of travelling alone. It was exciting – I could plan my own adventures without having to think about what anyone else wanted. I was totally free. I realised that I did want to do this for myself. It was my own challenge – I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Travelling alone formed a category in this new and improved ‘me’ that I wanted to create. I saw it as a way of reinventing myself before starting this new chapter in my life of university and life in the  big city. I wanted to be able to tell stories like my friend had – unique and interesting stories that were my own.

From that point onwards I became determined that this trip would happen. I was bored of my daily routine and craved an adventure. In early June I gave in my notice at work. My spare time when I wasn’t lifeguarding or serving customers was spent poring over my ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook and typing websites into Google, papers covered in scruffy notes soon beginning to pile up on my desk. I’d decided to start in Toronto and then spend a few days exploring the Rockies, and on June 25th I booked my flights. It was really happening – I was going to a new country by myself…and I had no idea what to expect. Of course I was excited to see a new country, but I still felt unsure of my capability to cope alone. 19 still seemed very young to have so much responsibility.

At the beginning of July I sorted out my travel insurance (with my dad’s help) and booked my hostel for two nights in Toronto and a flight to Calgary. It was really beginning to feel like an adventure now. July 1st may mark Canada Day and the increasing unification of territories into one nation, but for me too it marked a growing sense of autonomy and completeness. My friends and work colleagues remarked how brave I was going on my own, and it made me feel good. They assured me that I’d have no trouble making friends. I’d learned in this year that kindness can get you far, and it would now be time to use it. About ten days before my trip I went to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony in Sheffield, and afterwards joined her and her friends for drinks to celebrate. One of them told her that I was “confident without being arrogant.” It surprised me. I hadn’t realised I portrayed such traits. ‘Maybe I am braver than I thought?’ I wondered to myself. While I was still more nervous than I appeared, these comments helped boost my incentive. I liked the idea of being regarded by my peers as an inspiration.

I was volunteering at an international competition in Kent a few days before I left for Canada, so had to organise and pack everything before and bring it down in the car with me. I started feeling stressed, remembering how easy Australia had been in comparison. My backpack was stuffed with horse-riding gear, trainers and outdoor clothes and I couldn’t decide whether it was too much. “How am I going to carry all this?” I asked my mum incredulously, only half-joking. I checked and re-checked I had my passport and then said goodbye to my dad, who seemed very relaxed. He’d travelled alone when he was 17 and obviously thought there was little to it. With one last look back from the car at my home with the rose bushes taking over the front of the house, it was weird to think that I wouldn’t be back for another six weeks.

In Kent I was asked whether I was scared about going travelling on my own. My brave face re-appeared as I replied with a “Nahhh”. But I seemed to lose my voice over those few days, surrounded by adults who made me feel really young. I felt embarrassed as I struggled to make myself heard in conversation. Was this what it would be like in Canada?  My friend asked my mum if she was worried about me going away on my own. She said “Not at all” confidently, and I believed she meant it. But I wasn’t so sure of myself.

On the evening before my flight I took some clothes out of my backpack, still unable to decide exactly how much to bring. It was difficult to estimate – I had to consider how often I’d be able to find a washing machine and so on. At midnight I had finally finished, and collapsed on my bed exhausted. Mum asked how I was feeling. “Fine, just wary of getting lost,” I said with a nervous laugh. She reminded me to check everything twice, whether it be my luggage, or a map, or a bus schedule. It seemed simple, yet the butterflies were beginning to kick in. It suddenly hit me that I was going to be on my own, without her help. I lay on my bed in the hotel room and felt like crying. But I couldn’t pull out now.

We left the hotel early on the morning of August 2nd to avoid the busy traffic. I saw the signs for Gatwick airport and almost longed for a traffic jam so that I would miss my flight. But we soon pulled up at the drop off gate and it was time to say goodbye. Mum hugged me tight, saying “Love you, squeeze you, miss you already” as she always does, only her voice was starting to break. I pulled away and saw tears forming in her eyes. I hadn’t expected that from her because she’d seemed so calm about me going off by myself.  I felt my own eyes start to water and had to make myself turn around and not look back. Her fifth and final baby was going off into the big world and I guess I should have expected her to get quite emotional about it.

I had a window seat on the plane and looked down absent-mindedly at the men below scurrying around on the luggage buggies. To distract from thinking about my mum, I started talking to the mother and daughter next to me, asking if they were from Canada or visiting. The daughter said, “You’ll enjoy Toronto, it’s a great city.” I told myself she would be right, but when it came into view six hours later the butterflies returned. This was it. I waited for my backpack to emerge on the conveyer belt and sighed with relief when it did. As I checked it over and re-arranged the straps, I suddenly felt really glad of its company, as if it was some kind of friend. A girl with blonde hair similar to mine was doing the same about 10 metres away. ‘Maybe she’s staying at my hostel,’ I thought hopefully. But she soon walked off with a purposeful gait that suggested she had been here before, and my spontaneous hopes of immediately finding a travel companion were dashed.

As I walked through the arrival lounge I felt like a lost puppy. Then a young guy approached me, asking if I was heading downtown. “Er, yeah,” I said hazily. He told me where to get the bus from and where to get off in the city. I thanked him, my confidence soaring. My trip had started off well without me having to do anything. But naturally as soon as I got off at my stop the hustle and bustle of the city hit me and I felt confused again. I fumbled in my pocket for the map of the city that I’d picked up from the guy at the airport, only to find that it had fallen out and was now being trampled by people’s feet. I had no option but to ask someone, but people looked like they were in a rush to get somewhere and my voice came out faint and pathetic. Then I spotted a girl in a summery dress walking in my direction who looked a similar age, so I cleared my throat and asked her if she knew where my hostel was. “Sure, it’s…oh actually, I’ll just walk you there.” I followed her gratefully for a couple of blocks and she wished me a nice stay.

An Irish woman checked me in, giving me quizzical looks as if questioning whether I was about to vomit. I walked into my dorm only to see two girls sat on the floor studying a map. I greeted them with a prolonged “Heeeey” that sounded more confident than I expected. They nodded a greeting in return then got back to their map, mumbling in French. I turned away awkwardly and began making my bed in silence. They obviously had their own agenda and weren’t interested in making conversation. It was around 5 p.m. now. ‘I can’t just stay in here like this’ I thought to myself, so I padlocked my backpack and went for a walk around. The road system was confusing. I went to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing only to jump backwards in shock as a car shot round the corner. I cautiously watched other people to find out what the road rules were, feeling completely out of my comfort zone. Soon I stumbled upon a food store and bought some ham and bagels – breakfast and dinner for the next two days. The store was busy and I sensed the fellow customer’s impatience as I took my time to make sure I used the right coins. I hadn’t realised that tax wasn’t included in the item’s displayed price, and fumbled around clumsily in my purse for more change, wishing I’d remembered to remove my British currency.

I had no sense of where I was and soon realised I was lost again. Feeling like an idiot, I asked a couple for help. The girl got her iPhone out to find the hostel. She then gave me her number when I told her about the reserved girls in my dorm, in case I wanted to hang out. I felt surprised but relieved at the same time. But when I did get back to the hostel and turned on my phone, I realised I’d forgotten the pin to activate my new Sim card. I rummaged through my bag for the piece of paper, cursing myself silently when it became obvious I didn’t have it. Pessimistic thoughts flooded my mind. I went to email home from the computers in the hostel, to let mum and dad know I’d arrived safe. Trying to sound upbeat was difficult. I was completely useless at finding my way around, had nearly been run-over, had nobody to talk to, and didn’t have a working phone to contact my hosts later on with. All the worries I had carried beforehand about my ability to cope alone seemed to make sense. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought to myself, head in hands.

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I went down to the kitchen to make my boring bagel, feeling disheartened. Then I suddenly heard an Australian accent and my shoulders lifted as the familiarity of it gave me a sense of comfort. A guy was making some pasta with a German girl. I realised I had to speak up. It was now or never. So I made a joke about something he said. We got chatting and they asked if I wanted to join them outside.  I was offered a beer and crisps were shared out as everyone spoke about their individual travel plans. Most of them planned to stay in Toronto for a while and work here. I began to relax and enjoy myself, relieved that I’d made the effort to join in. The afternoon had started badly but now I was beginning to feel more positive.

The next morning I’d booked to go on a tour to Niagara Falls, but nobody from that group was going. I hoped I wouldn’t be on my own all day. A few minutes later two smiley girls got on my bus, chatting in Italian. They seemed friendly enough, but how did I know they’d want me to join them? I spotted another guy sat on the other side of the bus, and sensed he was English. Sure enough, I heard the accent when the tour guide asked him something. One voice in my head said ‘Perfect! You can hang out with him’, but another was reluctant. I knew English people. If I wanted to hang out with them I could have just stayed at home. This was my opportunity to meet people of different nationalities.

Grey clouds filled the sky as we walked down to the falls and got handed our blue waterproofs ready for our ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat trip. I purposefully stood myself fairly close to the girls. One of them caught my eye and we laughed at how funny we looked, with introductions following. They were the first Italians I’d ever spoken to. We hung out on the boat together, getting drenched by the spray from the magnificent falls. I went on to spend the rest of the day with them. I almost felt bad, as if I was intruding, but they didn’t mind at all.

Niagara Falls

We were driven on to a quaint little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake with amazing chocolate shops and a store dedicated to Christmas. On the way there we passed a building with the name ‘School of Horticulture’ crafted in flowers on the front lawn. Its name rang a bell. I looked at my watch and smiled when I read ‘Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture’. I’d found it in a hostel in Australia with my sister and had (naughtily) taken it. It wasn’t flashy at all, but there was something about it that I’d liked. Now I was randomly and completely unassumingly passing its original home. It was as if I’d been destined to come here.

The tour ended with a trip to a winery where we got to sample some sickly sweet Ice Wine. The girls were staying at a different hostel to me. I wrote my name and email on a piece of paper, ready to offer it should they wish to keep in touch but anxious that they wouldn’t. But sure enough, they turned around as we approached their stop and the question “Do you have Facebook?” went on to become a key motto of my trip.

Before I got back to my hostel I went to the shop from the day before again to stock up on water, and felt slightly smug as I returned without getting lost. I was beginning to feel more like I could cope and I was walking around feeling less self-conscious. This time when I approached my hostel reception  to collect my key, the Irish lady flashed me a smile, as if my increased confidence showed. As I sat in the living area reading my guidebook, a German girl walked in and asked “Where do I go?” with a laugh. I told her where the dorms were and she later joined me. We sat with an Austrian boy and two Irish people. One of them was 30 and said she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to travel alone at 19. But then she added how great it is to do so because it makes you more open. I totally understood what she meant. Suddenly I felt really glad that I was on my own. Thinking back to the French girls in my dorm, I felt sorry for them. Their trip was going to be limited by the fact that they weren’t allowing themselves to hang out with other people who might enrich their experience.

I asked the German girl and Austrian guy if they wanted to go up the CN Tower with me in the morning. They said yes and we set off the next day with the sun now shining over the city, as if reflecting how much brighter my trip was becoming with every new day. From the tower one could see for miles. It couldn’t quite match the views in New York, but was still impressive. I stood on the thick pane of glass staring down 1500 feet at the ground below. Some people even dared jump up and down on it. We then spent the rest of the morning wondering around the city. On the way to Kensington Market in Chinatown with its abundance of fruit stalls, the Austrian guy pointed out a road sign with ‘King’s College’ on it. “Isn’t that where you’re going to study?” he asked. I laughed at the irony of it. But London was nowhere near here, and university still felt like ages away. I was starting to really enjoy myself and didn’t want to think about studying.

My bus to the airport was at 1 p.m. I gave the other two my contact details and checked out of the hostel, excited for the Rockies. I had a map of the city, but soon got confused and when I asked someone for help they sent me in the wrong direction. My back soon began to ache from lugging my huge backpack around in the midday heat. When I did find the stop, the driver told me its schedule meant I wouldn’t get to the airport in time. My confidence that had been improving so much began to falter as I envisaged missing my plane to Calgary. I had no idea what to do and stood helplessly on the pavement as passers-by looked at me inquisitively. Then another man showed up with a travel bag, only to hear the same information. He looked at me running my hands through my hair anxiously and asked if I wanted to split the fare for a cab to the next station where our bus would be. Without thinking twice I said yes. He was going to visit his mother in Ottawa for the weekend. I ran to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us as he gave the money, and sank into a seat, relieved that this man had been in the same boat. Some people might be funny about sharing taxis with strangers, but I had no regrets. It had been the most sensible option and was nice to know that we’d done each other a favour. I suddenly felt like a real traveller – spontaneous and practical.

We arrived at the airport and the guy called “Have a good trip” with a wave. I was sat next to a good-looking man on the plane, probably around 30 years old, and I didn’t expect him to want to talk. Then he asked casually, “You heading home or away?” I smiled to myself, remembering how I had asked the family on my flight over the same thing. We flew with the Great Lakes below us, and I asked him more about the geography of the country, surprising myself with how chatty I was. ‘Why sit in silence when you can learn something?’ I thought.

We landed in Calgary four hours later. I found my bus to Banff with no problems and as the glacier mountains came into view my excitement kicked in. This was the part of the trip I’d been most looking forward to. I got off on Banff Avenue and went to find a bank, remembering Dad’s advice about getting lots of money out at a time because of commission prices. The streets were filled with tourists on the way to dinner. A group of older ladies in peep-toe sandals gave me funny looks as I roamed around in my scruffy flannel shirt and trainers, hoisting my huge backpack higher up. This time I had no trouble finding my hostel. It was situated in a quiet area over the bridge. I was sharing a dorm with two girls from Montreal, who invited me to join them at a bonfire. The offer contrasted so much to the reception I received in the Toronto hostel, but I politely said I was going to do my own thing. It was different now. I’m a country girl. When I got to the city I felt miniscule and needed someone. But now I was in a rural area I felt more at home and less apprehensive about being on my own.

I set off walking along the Bow River, appreciating the peace and quiet. The air smelt of pine cones and midges hummed near the water. When I checked my emails later Mum had replied, saying she hoped I was okay – I’d sounded quite downbeat in the first email. That seemed like a long time ago now. I updated her of my whereabouts, telling her my plans for the next day. The girls were still asleep as I got up to get dressed and go explore in the early morning. I felt completely in my element. I didn’t even have a real map but just followed my feet and unlike in the city, they always led me to the right place. Reaching a main road which headed up towards Sulphur Mountain, I knew there was a bus I could get and went to read the signs, hearing mum’s advice of “check twice” in my head. Unlike in that store on my first day, I didn’t have to rush. With the rural environment comes so much more freedom.

I didn’t have time to hike the 5.6km route up to the mountain’s summit, so I got the gondola instead. A boy who looked about my age was sat in the ticket office looking bored. He gave me a look when I asked for my ticket that seemed to say ‘Why are you on your own?’ It made me blush and I got into my carriage feeling a little silly. As I rode up to the top I noticed that the carriages above and below me contained couples or groups. I was reminded of my Scottish friend recalling how some people had thought he was weird for travelling on his own. “I guess I’m weird too then,” I said aloud to myself, gazing at my watch pensively.

But if I was weird, it was worth it. After admiring the mountain squirrels for a few minutes, I walked along to a viewing point that overlooked the town below. It was breathtaking. I could just make out the glistening of a lake in the distance, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on either side. The turquoise river wound its way through the town with its patchwork of tiny houses, situated amongst layers of lush fir trees. I’d seen this very view in a photo on a website, and read about it in my guidebook. Now I was here myself, all through my own doing. A great sense of fulfillment hit me and I felt really proud of myself. This was my own personal achievement. All the stress and worries and embarrassing moments from before seemed like nothing now. It didn’t matter anymore if I got funny looks from people for wondering around on my own with this huge backpack. How many of them could say they had done something similar at the same age? I felt like I was on top of the world and nobody could take this feeling away from me.

Views from Sulphur Mountain

So in conclusion, I suppose that’s why I like to travel alone, because of that unbeatable feeling of individual accomplishment that it brings. I’ve always liked exploring the outdoors and in a sense it was something I soon fell into easily after the first few days. But it was by no means something I’d planned to do from a young age. There were butterflies, there were cynical questions, and there were tears. But with that comes so much more confidence afterwards. Since that trip, I’ve never looked back. Going off somewhere by myself just seems natural now and if anything, travelling with someone else feels ore stressful to me. Travelling alone gave me an extra spark, and I really don’t think I’d be who I am today without having done it.

Views of the Afternoon in Szeged, Hungary

Most people who visit Hungary are bound for the bars and bridges of Budapest. I however began my trip from Liszt Ferenc airport not towards the capital city, but south towards Szeged where I would be reunited with a girl I met on a bus from Porto to Lisbon in July 2015. I left behind the Brits on their stag-dos and girly weekends for the quieter side of Hungary, encountering views of a modest country life that exists away from busy beaming tourism, and views that exist behind closed doors and closed borders.

I decided to purchase First Class tickets for my journey from Ferihegy to Szeged, simply because they translated into £14 and I’ve never experienced a train journey in this class before. I boarded a quiet carriage occupied by only a few people, businessmen and smartly dressed ladies. The two men sitting near my seat reservation looked up at me in surprise, as in unused to seeing people of my age and casual dress in this carriage. I quickly realised that First Class in Hungary offers the equivalent to standard class in England i.e. no complimentary drinks and meals. Dang. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of my two hour journey to Szeged as country life began to unfold outside the window after we pulled out of the rusty train station where a white cat wandered warily along a wall covered in graffiti.

It looked like winter had been harsh on the land. In the distance a tractor stood abandoned in a bland field, waiting for summer to awake it from its slumber. An old man ambled among his dreary crops as around him crows pecked around like looters looking for the last valuables from a battleground. A pile of logs and mouldy hay bales lay forgotten near a muddy marsh. Dilapidated shacks were dotted randomly in areas of wasteland covered in blankets of felled trees. In their small pastures, families shovelled manure from a wheel barrow onto the hungry ground. Thick-fleeced sheep huddled together whilst a shaggy coated horse sniffed for signs of grass and chickens scratched at the sandy earth. A scarecrow stood lonely in a deserted orchard that was too bare for even the most desperate of crows. But as the train approached Szeged, the views seemed to get brighter. Three deer cantered elegantly through a field where the grass was greener. The Hungarian flag blew gently in the breeze as it hung off a canary-yellow house with a pool in the back garden. A local white bus cruised along a road in the distance until the traffic increased on a large road heading into the city. Szeged is known as the “city of sunshine” and sure enough, the sun came out from behind its cover as my train pulled in.

My friend and her boyfriend met me at the station and we walked on towards Dóm Square. For a small entrance fee, visitors can walk up to the top of the twin-spired Votive Church for 360-degree views of the city. It was pleasing to see a lack of skyscrapers for a change.  Home to a very distinguished university, Szeged is a nice area for students. The trees on the other side of the river Tisza lacked colour at this time of year, but it is easy to imagine pretty postcard views in the summer. In warmer seasons, crowds will lap up the sun by sitting on the banks of the river, and there is an Open Air festival held every summer.

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Following the great flood of 1879, the Emperor promised to make Szeged “more beautiful than it used to be.” Within this there was a pledge to build a Church as a thank you to God if he would help the city recover from its immense damage. Inside, it was possibly the most beautiful Church I’ve ever seen. Even someone who is not religious, like myself, couldn’t help but be silenced in awe and respect by its grandeur. The intricate detail of the interior decor was incredible, with regal furnishings catching my eyes and rich colours catching the afternoon light that shone through the glass painted windows.

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We moved on to drink mulled wine and eat cake in a cafe called A Cappella. Ordered desserts were delivered upstairs via an elevator. I sampled Hungary’s “cake of 2015” which contained peach pálinka (brandy) syrup, and dobos cake which is layered with buttercream and topped with hard caramel. We talked about our lives in England and Hungary. My friend’s boyfriend is training to become a doctor and remarked how he’d hoped to study in England because of its reputation for having good medical schools. His high view of the British medical scene seemed ironic when taking into account the strained resources of the NHS and the current strikes by junior doctors.

I then asked my companions about Hungarian views of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. They were aware of their country’s reputation for taking a hard-line stance on immigration, although they were not aware of the infamous video which surfaced in 2015 showing a Hungarian journalist pushing and kicking arriving migrants. I asked why they thought their government had decided to close the border. I was told that the government had chosen this approach itself, but it followed consultation with some members of the public through a survey. Questions they were asked included what they thought the cause of the refugee crisis was, and what they thought the results of taking in migrants would be. It quickly emerged that a fear of terrorism was the key cause of public reluctance to accept them, along with an assumption that those from Arab nations would not assimilate into Hungarian and European culture.

To me this was an interesting view. Hungary was briefly involved in the coalition force that invaded Iraq in 2003. Around 360 Hungarian troops were also sent to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. However, Hungary is not a country one would associate with attracting terrorists. Its involvement in foreign military conflicts is minimal compared to the likes of Britain, France and the United States, i.e. countries who are key targets of terrorist activity.

“I have heard that there are areas of London controlled by Muslim communities,” the boyfriend said. It wasn’t his fault for having this exaggerated view; clearly the right-wing journalists in Hungarian media have been fabricating reports and creating scapegoats. I tried to explain that there is a large presence of Muslims in London, and indeed extremism is probably being secretly bred in some of these areas, but a distinction must be made between moderate followers of the Koran who are proud British citizens, and jihadists who aim to destroy western society from within it.

Later we went to a cool bar and restaurant called Maláta for burgers and home-brewed beer. A silent black-and-white film played on a big screen next to a book shelf and umbrellas hung off the ceiling. At one point I was distracted by the arrival of four boys asking the waiter in English for a table. They had British accents and I assumed they were exchange students doing a semester abroad at the University of Szeged. They were of either Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, possibly Muslims themselves. I thought back to the Muslim boys of their age fleeing Iraq and Syria, perhaps jumping onto jam-packed boats at that very moment to begin a treacherous journey across the ocean. Is the evident fear of migrant-led terrorism present in Hungary based on the migrant’s religion or their citizenship? Would these young male migrants be viewed differently if they hadn’t come from the Middle East and instead had British accents and birth certificates? Or were the British boys enjoying a meal in the bar also being viewed with concern because of their potential association with Islam? The vast majority of Muslim men are fleeing areas controlled by Islamic State due to fear that they will be forced to fight for a group they do not support, and not because they want to spread its violent ideology westwards.

Lying in bed that night and going over the events of my first afternoon in Hungary, I recalled the splendour of the Votive Church. The power of religion is both fascinating and frightening. Some people believe so strongly in the existence and goodness of an unseen higher power that they will invest all their time, effort and money in building a magnificent Church with their two hands to demonstrate their respect and create a place of community for their fellow worshippers. But some of these people cannot respect the peaceful presence of another faith and recognise the clearly visible desperation of its civilian followers fleeing war, oppression and persecution. They refuse to open their arms to at least sympathise with these vulnerable people if they are unable to help them practically. They are so open to the existence of a God, yet so closed to the reality of  human events.

This afternoon in Szeged had revealed many views, some pretty, some unpleasant. I should clarify that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently argued, being reluctant to take in thousands of refugees doesn’t make a nation and its citizens racist. By increasing the population, mass immigration poses a problem for a country’s resources in terms of finance, infrastructure, jobs and welfare. But some of the expressed rationale behind such decisions can reveal the presence of unjust, bigoted views within society. They are views that seem to contradict the instruction in the Bible given to Christians to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Around the time I was in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants, and deals have now been agreed for Turkey to accommodate arrivals form Greece in return for economic support. I hope that those innocent refugees turned away from Europe can understand that there are many people on this continent who pity their situation, and do not view them with fear and suspicion.