Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasileira to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King João I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate a new month.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything a palace should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

 

Escape to Portugal: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

My third morning in Portugal saw me heading to Lisbon, with a single bus ticket costing 19Euros. In the early hours of the morning I quietly stuffed clothes into my bag, praying that the zip wouldn’t break under pressure. I had my bus ticket in my camera bag, so at least I wouldn’t have to open this one for a few more hours…

Even though I had walked past it previously, I still found myself getting lost on the way to Redo Expresso bus station. On a street corner I dropped my bags to the floor and reluctantly re-opened my bag to rummage around for my map, pulling out clothes creased with a frown that seemed to say ‘I was just getting comfortable’. Out spilled my toiletries from the plastic bag used for the airport screening, the bristles of my toothbrush just happening to land on the dirty floor. I quickly clarified where I was and, hearing footsteps approaching, precariously shoved my things back inside the bag. It was 7.30 in the morning and on this empty street, I probably should have been more careful not to expose my luggage like that.

Inside the bus station a scruffy man loitered between waiting passengers asking for money and occasionally yelling out bus numbers. I noticed a tall skinny blonde girl on my left with a large suitcase also avoiding his unsettling gaze. Looking down as he approached again, I noticed I still had toothpaste on my legs from having applied it to defend me against midges in the night. Whoops. A darker girl eating a pastry then joined the blonde and asked if I knew the ETA for Lisbon. I followed them onto the bus and they happened to sit down adjacent to my reserved seat, only my window space was taken up by a sleeping lady who scowled at me when I attempted to explain. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get far so I sat down next to the aisle with her bum sticking into my right thigh and buckled up. It soon emerged that I was the only one wearing my seatbelt. As we zoomed along the motorway, passengers would walk up to the driver to ask him something without any repercussions. A sharp contrast from transport rules in England!

I got talking to the girls next to me. One was from Croatia and the blonde was a Hungarian called Virág. “It means ‘flower’ in English,” she proudly told me. They had been participating in a student exchange program in Porto and were bewildered when I said I was travelling alone (“aren’t you scared?”) Virág would be alone in Lisbon until Monday and was keen to go sightseeing together.

I always find it a little strange when I meet people travelling who want to buddy-up. If friends from home ask if I get lonely when travelling, I often say that it’s easy to meet people, and yet when I do I’m sometimes reluctant to spend time with them, having got comfortable with my own plans and company. Sometimes just 15 minutes of chatter is enough to satisfy a desire for conversation. Nevertheless as we headed towards the metro station, I swapped numbers with the Hungarian girl, but with neither of us having Portuguese sim cards and hence being unable to call each other, we simply set a time and place to meet in Baixo.

Outside Jardim Zoológico station we were accosted by a lady who pointed at her daughter in a pram and held out her hand for money. I’ve seen homeless people in London use dogs as an incentive to give them money, but never a child. There would be further sights of poverty on the metro as disfigured men walked through carriages asking for money. I would later be told by a Lisbon-expert that such facial damage is sometimes be created intentionally for begging purposes.

A green ‘Viva Viagem’ card costs 50 cents and you can top up accordingly for where you need to travel to, with a single journey costing 1.40. Leaving the Baixa-Chiado metro station, I was overwhelmed by the rush of people and the midday heat. Porto had been quieter and simpler in terms of navigation, but here I had no idea where to begin. I paid 3Euros for a map from a vendor who pointed me in the direction of Alfama, where my hostel was. He told me it would take an hour to walk there. I just wanted to throw my luggage somewhere and chill out for a while, but the mere thought of walking in this heat and through these crowds was exhausting on its own.

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I wandered down streets with boutiques and high-fashion stores towards the Praça do Comércio, the statue of King José I overlooking the Rio Tejo. The bright sun reflected off the gravelly ground and my head began to feel heavy from the heat. It had only been 10 minutes of walking, but that was enough for me to know that I really didn’t feel up to walking around sightseeing today. However I was unable to get through to Virág, and I wasn’t convinced she had given me the correct number in the first place for me to try texting her. By the time I would reach my hostel to dump my bag and rest in the shade for a bit, it seemed that getting back to meet her on time would be difficult.

So there I was in this odd and unexpected situation of feeling a sense of loyalty to someone, of having to think about someone else. The only other time this had been the case was when I was travelling with a boyfriend whose welfare I naturally wanted to consider. But this was a person who I had only just met. I felt conflicted in that part of me wanted to be alone, yet I almost felt a sense of duty to hang out with this stranger, especially following our spontaneous plan to meet.

With my battery running low but having failed to get through to Virág, I hesitantly turned off my phone. A Yellow Bus Tours kiosk near to where I was sat on a stone stool downing all the water I had left was advertising a boat tour on the river. This seemed like a great way to see the city without having to walk around, and I told myself that I would regret not filling my time with some sort of passive activity. I paid 16Euros for the tour and asked the helpful girl for more recommendations of what to see before joining the queue. Virág had seemed slightly wary of walking around alone and I felt terrible when I glanced at my watch on board the boat at 3 p.m., imagining her standing outside the station waiting for me. But I told myself that this experience would be good for her, and reminded myself that I was here to see Lisbon, not keep people company who I didn’t know and might not even have much in common with. Making friends would just be a bonus of the trip.

The 90 minute boat tour itself was pleasant enough. We passed Cacilhas in the municipality of Almada opposite Lisbon before sailing underneath the Ponte 25 de Abril which seems to represent a European version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran. Built in 1966, the name of the suspension bridge refers to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, with this date being celebrated yearly as ‘Freedom Day’ from the fascist dictatorship of  Estado Novo (New State). To our left stood the Cristo Rei (Christ the King), embracing Lisbon with open arms in a pose similar to that seen on the monument in Rio de Janeiro. This was inaugurated in 1959 to commemorate Portugal’s promise not to participate in the Second World War, the pose being intended to express gratitude for the subsequent lack of hardship borne on the nation. With the famous fado music being played in the background, the tour commentary then drew our attention to the Torre de Belém on our right, which was built in the 16th Century as a base for defending Lisbon from foreign attacks. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is an impressive monument erected in 1960 to celebrate Portugal’s imperial expansion during the 15th Century.

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With a better idea of Lisbon and it’s history (and some fresh river breeze) inside me, I was re-energised and ready to find my hostel in Alfama. The man who had suggested it would take an hour’s walk couldn’t have been more wrong. I hoped he just had a terrible sense of time and direction and it wasn’t because he had looked at me and assumed I was too weak to walk at a good pace! Walking up Rua da Madalena in this Old Town area of the city was the moment when I began to develop an attraction towards Lisbon. Life became a constant scene of steep cobbled streets with the pretty tiles on the houses like those in Porto – only prettier and radiating more warmth because of the extra sun – with trams clanging and tuk tuks whizzing past.

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My map led me past Igreja Sta Luzia where I was distracted by the sight of three women putting finishing touches to a mural of blue and white tiles. Behind a pool of water was a lookout point with purple flowers dangling down from the pillars. White houses with orange roofs and rising Church steeples sat gathered before the shimmering blue of the river. Further up, the lookout from the Igreja St Tiago was even more rewarding. Before coming to Portugal, I had envisioned a large reddish-brown wooden door surrounded by pretty paintwork and lush flowers. Now I had found that image. Here was what I regarded as quintessential Portugal, and it was lovely. I surveyed the nearby tourists for who looked to be the most reliable photographer, but even she didn’t seem to get what elements were needed to make it a good photo. Once again I was reminded of a key downside of solo travel.

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Carrying on up the Rua de St. Tome, the postcard-perfect views continued. I eventually managed to drag myself away and found the road that led to my hostel, passing a salsa bar on the corner with a red mini parked outside. Alfama Patio Hostel – what a place! My impression of Lisbon continued to grow. Dumping my stuff in my dorm, I changed into sandals and went in search of an ATM, tempted by the receptionist’s talk of a BBQ. Map-less, I walked along the street past more gorgeous houses with old men sat on the tables outside smoking wistfully. Tuk tuks would appear out of nowhere, charging up the narrow streets but in a way that was entertaining rather than off-putting. I walked up a street towards the famous Castelo de São Jorge and dropped some cents in the tin of a small lady playing the accordion. Further up a group of tanned, long-haired guys and girls in their mid-twenties attracted a large crowd with their music. I ignored the men bothering people with sales of selfie-sticks and continued my hunt for an ATM.

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Walking back, a solo guitarist played outside a restaurant on the corner and I experienced a brief longing for a romantic date. A mini-mercado sold iced tea and orange biscuits and I sat slurping away on a bench at one of the viewpoints next to a hunky French guy with a man-bun smoking a roll-up and tapping his feet to Bob Marley’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ playing in a restaurant below. Later on on the viewing ledge opposite young boys would start break-dancing. This area and the view around was infectious, one of those places where it didn’t matter if you were alone and not doing anything specific – you could just sit and get lost in your thoughts.

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Back at the hostel I got chatting to an an older German lady on the patio who recommended that I see Belém, before she left to meet a friend. People then started arriving from the sister-hostels for this barbecue. I wanted to at least have become acquainted with someone else who was going before heading down to join, but the Swiss girls in my dorm were pretty cliquey and it was difficult to make conversation. I looked out of my open window at the increasing mass of people, trying to psych myself up. ‘I’ll go down in 10 minutes,’ I would tell myself, but I kept adding time on as I began to feel more and more shy. I climbed up to my bunk, unsure what to do. My stomach began to rumble and I ended up opening my pack of biscuits and remaining in the dorm all evening, too shy to go downstairs to a party and introduce myself to an English-speaking crowd. ‘This is pathetic, what’s wrong with you?’ I thought. I had flashbacks to my first solo trip, hesitantly going down to the hostel kitchen in Toronto and daring myself to make conversation with an Aussie guy. I had come so far since that point four years ago, and now I seemed to have regressed. But something put me off joining the party and I instead opted to feel lonely, with only a 1Euro pack of biscuits for comfort.

Out of desperation I turned on my phone, as if hoping it would provide me with some sort of company. Normally I hate using social media whilst travelling but I was craving contact from someone, anyone! A text message with a new number flashed up. It was Virág from earlier, asking where I was. I felt awful and relieved at the same time, instinctively texting back to explain myself. Suddenly the idea of being alone in Lisbon for the next two days didn’t appeal. I had been reading my guidebook for ideas of what to do whilst here and proposed that we spend the next day together in Sintra. We agreed a time and location and my optimism increased. My outlook had changed and I was now looking forward to getting to know someone new, and getting to know a new place with them.

The party continued all night. It was a Friday evening and I knew I couldn’t expect much less. But as much as I struggled to fall asleep, I felt better for having a plan for the next day, and for now having what would soon become great company. Now when I reflect back on how things turned out, I’m glad that I was a social wimp and sad loner on that evening…

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Read how the next day went in Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Escape to Portugal: A Train Trip to Pinhão

When I woke to my alarm on my first full day in Portugal, I heard rain pattering on the balcony outside. The man at reception in my hostel said the weather was supposed to improve later, but I’d already decided I would head inland and take the recommended train journey to Pinhão.

Breakfast comes free with your booking at Magnolia Porto Hostel. I sat down with some cereal and juice and then a lady came and placed before me a plate of bread with jams and sliced ham and cheese. The only thing that would make the setting nicer was if the TV was playing traditional Portuguese music, rather than showing MTV and various scantily dressed women dancing. After filling my boots (because when it’s free, why not?) I asked the man where I could find the nearest supermarket. He said his brother at reception would show me on the map, which made me wonder if the lady who brought me the food was their mother. I hope so.

My geographical skills had not improved as I tried to find my way to São Bento station. Seeing me scrutinise my map, a man came over and pointed me the right way and with 10 minutes to go until my departure, I was in the queue for tickets. The member of staff asked if I was under 25 and when I said yes, he asked for proof. Amazing! The first time I’ve ever been asked to prove I am younger rather than older! With my age, a return ticket cost only 16.30Euros. Good on the Portuguese for offering international travellers discounts too. Telling me when the last train back would leave, the man warned me with a wink to watch out for the red wine. I found my train and asked the conductor (Jorge) if I could sit anywhere. He recommended the front carriage and sure enough it was empty so I could find a seat near the window. I liked how friendly and helpful both these men had been – if you just make some effort in the language to clarify that you don’t speak Portuguese (by asking “Fala Inglês?”) you will be helped in embarrassingly good English. Seeing him help a group of young French tourists in their own language raised an interesting point of comparison. Working on a train in England isn’t regarded as the most impressive of jobs, but over here the use of different languages makes it a very important one, alongside other hospitality and retail work.

At Campanhã station a lady got on with her teenage daughter and sat opposite me. The mum looked exactly how I’ve always imagined Portuguese women to be – curvy in a floral dress and sandals with a strong big-boned face, big brown eyes and hands that have worked. As the mother read some biblical pamphlet, the girl and I would occasionally catch eyes and with her sulky face I was reminded of those days as a teenager when your parents are the most embarrassing thing on the planet and you feel completely misunderstood and frustrated.

The cloudy skies began to disappear as we headed inland. Lush green jungle-esque vegetation strewed the landscape with a few dots of white houses with orange roofs here and there. We passed hills hosting wind turbines and then the glistening river Douro appeared, winding its way around hills zig-zagging with vines with cars slowly ascending the hairpin bends. The mum opposite would pat her daughter’s knee and encourage her to take photos, upon which the girl would unplug her earphones with a scowl.

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On this inter-regional train there were no announcements when the next station was coming so after two hours I started to check the signs at each station. Stepping onto the quiet platform in Pinhão, I instantly regretted still having leggings on from rainy Porto as the midday heat began to roast my legs. There was no bridge to cross to the other side so people would casually cross the rail track – a fine-worthy offence in England! Unable to find a washroom at the tiny station, instinct told me to turn left and along the quiet cobbled street. I needed a bathroom to change in and a cafe called Princesa do Douro looked promising. I wandered in and nobody was around, but there was a WC to the right. Hallelujah! Changing into shorts, I couldn’t decide if I was being travel-smart or being a trespasser. The pastries on the counter looked too good to resist and I wanted to say thanks in some way, so I called over to the lady mopping in the corner and chose a popular toasted ham and cheese croissant and a pastry coated in chocolate with apricot jam on the inside.

Wandering along with no idea where I was going, I noticed before a bridge  that there was an open metal gate off the side of the road. After going over curiously to inspect, found myself walking down some steps past a bunch of orange trees onto the river front. This was when I believed my traveller’s instinct had returned.

There isn’t too much to do in Pinhão and most of my afternoon was spent doing nothing apart from enjoying the quiet rural setting of a town that wasn’t overloaded with tourists. For a moment I wondered if I was bored. In London it’s hard to switch off and with so much always going on, doing nothing feels strange. I had to remind myself that I was on holiday and it was okay not be tearing around various institutions with the aim of doing something productive.

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Eventually I forced myself up from my dozing bench and wondered along the river bank, laughing and shaking my head at young boys on the water cat-calling from their kayaks. Further along the river in the busier part of the village are the boat tours and wine merchants. I remembered what the man in the station had said about the red wine here, but it was definitely too hot to be drinking. I opted for a cooler liquid and walked into a mini-mercado. It must have been obvious that I didn’t speak Portuguese because when I went to pay for my water and iced tea, the old lady got a yellow sticky note just like the ones I use at work and wrote ‘1.80’, showing it to me with a smile. I was tempted to ask to keep it as a souvenir but wasn’t convinced I would be able to make the lady understand why I wanted a scrap of paper.

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In the early evening I headed back to the train station for the journey home. Hearing a lady tell a fellow French tourist that the train for Porto was “en face”, I quickly crossed to the other platform before I found myself sleeping in the station for the night. It was reassuring to know I remembered some French! By now the midges had introduced themselves and I ignored any odd looks I got from people as I slapped my legs irritably. There was no chance of me finding a seat on this rammed train and I found myself stood in the doorway with the French group from the train here and a Portuguese family. It was hot and my mouth felt dry but there was hardly room to get water from my bag. The thought of standing for two and half hours became more bearable when some merry men in the next carriage began to play the accordion and dance around. Thankfully at the next station a few people got off but I stayed behind preparing to remain standing as the French group shot forwards to grab a seat. Then the girl of the group looked back at me and pointed at a free seat whilst one of the boys held the door for me. I sat down gratefully, only to hear the little boy next to me (also French) say “J’ai mal au ventre!” and feel less comforted…

Following their cooperation I was tempted to make conversation with the French group, but I’ve also learned during my travels when you should just accept some things as a nice gesture and not a sign of possible friendship and company. Sure it might have been nice to go for a drink with them, but did I really need their company for the evening? Instead of changing trains back to São Bento, I walked back from Campanhã past cheap quiet cafes and staring men. I was perplexed to notice that my dorm was unlocked, and a little disappointed to discover there were two new residents inside. I’d been looking forward to lounging around in private. The lights had been fixed as well…and one girl seemed to be afraid of the dark, as well as glued to her phone. I asked if she was from Portugal and she said “Sim” before saying she didn’t speak English. The other lady was Eastern European with long legs and a scary face. Suddenly I wished I’d approached the French group afterall. Luckily the festival in the park opposite had a live singer tonight which covered up the hostile silence, with my restless skin-scratching filling in the gaps.

I was glad to have visited a more rural, quieter area of the country and experienced the interaction I did with the locals in Pinhão and other tourists on the train. I was feeling like a traveller again, getting something out of every seemingly insignificant moment. I was remembering how pleasant one’s own company can be and feeling truly switched off from other commitments.

The rain had stopped and tomorrow I would explore more of Porto.

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Part Three: Exploring Porto Without a Camera

Living in London: The City of Contrasts

I’ve been back residing in London for nearly two months now, and am already feeling fed up with it. There are annoying elements to all cities in general – the noise, the crowds, the air quality – but London is the city I know best, and also happens to be one of the most popular and powerful in the world. People come here with such high expectations, including those who are from England, such is the mania that surrounds the capital. I read blogs gushing about the city, advising tourists of the top 10 things one ‘must’ see and do. These lists tend to involve the activities and sights of splendour that glorify crown and empire, painting a picture of London as being a place where one can access affluence with ease and articulate authority through a posh accent. Most travel bloggers have been guilty at one time or another of only addressing the face-value of a city and not looking any deeper into its cultural soul, but because of its prominence in the world, the habit of doing this when writing about London feels even more frustrating to an actual resident. If only these adoring fans who are supposedly experts on London really knew what it was like to live here as a ‘commoner’.

Firstly there are the practical issues, such as expense. Rent is ridiculously high for a flat that offers very little apart from a box for a bedroom complete with peeling paint and no double glazing.  If you’re prepared to spend three-quarters of your monthly earnings on rent in a central location, you might get a living room. (And yet, London somehow still doesn’t make the top five most expensive cities in the world!) Locals are kicked out of areas that their family has lived in for generations by a process of gentrification that invites Russian oligarchs and Arab princes to take their place. The word ‘terrorism’ seems to hang in the air amongst thick clouds of smog, and yet this monitored threat only leaves behind a lingering sense of personal intrusion from the authorities above. You can go running to make yourself feel better about spending most of your time on your bum cooped up inside an office staring at a computer screen, but unless you’re lucky to live right next to a park (of which, in fairness, there are quite a few) you’re likely to spend much of that ‘healthy’ time poisoning your lungs with car fumes and causing damage to your joints as you pound hard pavements, dodging posing tourists and stopping to wait for the green man.

In terms of society, there is so much hostility everywhere, as if the claustrophobia of city life makes people resent the others they are competing with for space. People flash you venomous looks as soon as you happen to accidentally nudge them on the tube, or look at you in suspicious surprise should you thank them for letting you off the train. I’ve seen the same guy at my stop a few times now, and he only receives my smile of recognition with a look that makes me wonder if I have two heads. Taxi drivers seem to spend half their day with their hand on a horn, whilst confrontations between white-van drivers and cyclists are part of the scenery. Every few weeks, a cyclist will be killed in a collision. I seem to encounter so many scenarios that make me feel sad – scenes of poverty, illness and loneliness. The other week, I helped a lady cross a busy road after she twice walked out at tortoise-pace in front of rapidly approaching traffic. Clinging onto my arm, she said simply, “I’m 92 and think I’m going a bit crazy.” I wondered how many people she has here that actually care for her. Then there’s the youthful gang culture which only last weekend saw a 16 year old boy be stabbed to death on my road, supposedly for his bike.

However, sometimes London has its nice socio-cultural moments. I’ve been making notes of the times pleasant things have happened on the way to work, like the time I spoke to a stranger on the tube or witnessed a man offer to help a woman lift her buggy up the station stairs. The fact that these are occasions worthy of note-making is a sign of how rare they are. London is full of contrasts. Cross from one street to another and you’ll find a complete change in socioeconomic status of the residents. Likewise you’ll encounter something cheerful minutes after something unpleasant.

A few Sundays ago, I started walking along Regent’s Canal on my way to Camden, home to my nearest of that wonderful place called Lidl. It was cloudy and I was feeling apathetic. I noticed the litter floating on the water – beer cans, glass bottles and plastic bags chucked in thoughtlessly. I almost got pushed in the murky brown water when a speeding cyclist suddenly dispersed the slow crowd of tourists in front of me with an impatient ring of his bell. A breathless runner grumbled “****in’ hell!” loudly when another tourist didn’t move over sufficiently for him. Then I reached a heaving Camden where I had to wind my way through a mass of people constantly stop-starting to take photos or consult a travel guide. Finally I reached the supermarket and my senses were relaxed by the smell from the bakery section. At the checkout I asked my standard “How are you?” After the girl had replied with a standard “Good, thankyou,” she randomly said “You have really lovely hair by the way.” I felt myself blush with surprised pride and appreciation. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d received a (non-slimy) compliment from a stranger. I walked out of the shop, taking a different route along the backstreets towards the canal, and kept feeling a smile form on the edge of my lips that I couldn’t control. London is so impersonal that it’s surprising when people express their thoughts.

Walking back, the sun came out and I saw a man feeding the ducks. Three oldies were sat down on a bench eating sandwiches and reading books, looking adorably like three old school friends. I stopped to watch the canal lock gates open, admiring a pretty garden across on the other side that I had never noticed before.  Further on, the ‘Words on the Water’ boat was playing classical music as people perused its display of books for sale. I smelled fresh flowers as I made my way off the canal path onto my road, feeling like spring was on its way. At this point I realised that I hadn’t noticed the litter on the water again. For 10 minutes or so, the scenes of ugliness ever present had been hidden under a table of sweet treats.

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 If you come to London really wanting to experience it like a local, don’t carry huge expectations of charm and grandeur with you everywhere you go. It is best to expect an underwhelming welcome, so that you can feel delighted when something nice suddenly happens. If you get drawn into the hype of its stereotype and let yourself assume you are heading to a city full of palaces and poetry you will only be disappointed, because London is just another city with many flaws like the next place. And yet ironically, the unattractive physical features that are distasteful to tourists are perhaps why so many of the native locals love living in central London – this grim reality gives the place a consistent character that they have come to accept as a reflection of their socioeconomic status and therefore something that is their own. The sad fact is that these loyal Londoners will always be subject to those from above wielding their financial and political influence like the contractor wielding his hammer on yet another progressing skyscraper. The ugly, grungy areas that allow locals to afford to live here and pursue the numerous economic opportunities – the benefits of which, like a vicious cycle, mainly seem go back into chasing rather than catching such long-term hopes and dreams of prosperity – will be knocked down and rebuilt into something flashy and vacuous for the approval of foreign cameras and commerce, and those patriotic residents will feel unwelcome yet again.