Relations & Realizations | An Expat’s Summer in Canada

It’s been ten months since I left the UK for Vancouver Island, Canada. Summer with its droughts and wildfires has now passed, and I still have no desire to return back to England. 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, as opposed to being in a culture that seems to promote spending the evenings in a pub. 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 on stage 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 sweltering Saturday in June, when I fainted after having a vasovagal episode. 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, before deciding 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?” 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.

This same lady would later text me 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?”

I impulsively offered to help, and without hesitation, the woman accepted. Little Sally sat calmly on a bench and rolled her eyes at me as if acknowledging her mother’s flappy 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.

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. And then I considered all the little things I had experienced just over the summer – the run clubs, the beach days, the outdoor adventures, the friendly interactions, the pleasant sights. Things 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 made a list of goals for when I would become single. One of them involved running competitively 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.

I spent a day walking around Calgary (not for me) and then got a bus to Banff. The town was flooded with tourists for the Labour Day weekend and had become a lot more commercialized since my last visit. I was a little disappointed by my return visit, but just having some alone time in a different setting felt good.

One 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 (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.

This summer turned out to be different from how I initially envisioned it would be. But the unexpected developments turned out to be positive. They gave me some important realizations and helped inspire my future plans.

Finding Happiness as an Expat

It’s been a while since I posted something, partly because of not knowing what to write about. I always thought my first post about living and working in Canada would 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 and developing friendships with them, and I’m sure it would be the same today.

But when you’re trying to get your foot in the career-door, 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 a tiny perventage 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 housed by a second family that I’ve lived with for my first few months here. On the other hand, a downside of having and living with a partner – especially one you haven’t seen in several months – is that it 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.

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 quickly. 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 a band play in Vancouver. In fact, there aren’t really any photos of me on Facebook that show me being sociable in the past few months. 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 of people in social settings. There have been times since living in Canada when I’ve looked at my page in comparison, and wondered if my lack of comparative “socializing evidence” means I’m not fun, that I have a boring life. 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 well, 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. I came here aiming to develop my 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. Now, 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. The neighborhood I’m in is ideal for me. 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 on 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. 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.