Friday, 27 November 2009

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

Well. Here I am. My last night in Canada. All of a sudden it seems very real, and very immediate that I am going back to England. It almost feels like I'm going for a holiday. So, what to write at the end of such a trip? What I've learnt? What I feel? Regrets, if any? Plans for the UK? Highlights, and lowlights? I shall try and put a bit of everything in here.

Firstly. Highlights. So many to choose from! The range from the minute and intangible - like the feeling of really belonging after my first shift at coffee chain Tim Horton's back in January, to the obvious ones: camping wild in Tofino, seeing whales not 50m from our boat, Hawaii, the Rockies and the black bear, Whistler. And then some more random ones in between: spending a day driving maniacally round Vancouver trying to furnish a house on a shoestring. Heading to the park with all my housemates and playing basketball, soccer and climbing on the playground before going home to dinner, drinks and cards. Hockey games. Coldplay gig. Being promoted at work. Running the Run for the Cure race with colleagues. Hosting a "waifs and strays" Thanksgiving dinner. And I'm sure I could think of many more if I put my mind to it.

Lowlights. We all have them, let's be honest! The hostel in Vancouver before we moved into the house. Feeling like it was taking a while to make friends of my own other than my housemates. Our landlady (although that's more craziness than bad point). House tensions, which are inevitable when so many of you are living under one roof.

Do I regret that I'm coming home before my technical "year" is up? I did. For sure. And it was a struggle to let go of that idea. But sometimes, life just has a way of slotting things into place that makes total sense, despite your own initial feelings. Now I know that, realistically, after my time in Chicago, NY, and Canada with Han and Alana, Vancouver would never be the same to return to. And to be there for the sake of it, with no real home, or job would never be as much fun as it was before. And I've had complete peace about it for a good few weeks now :-)

Do I regret not extending my visa. Yes and No. Yes because, well, I love Canada! Any time spent here is awesome. No because, no matter how much I love it, leaving would always be hard, whether I do it now, or in three years' time. Maybe I would have stayed longer, but I also made a decision, even before arriving here that would influence my time in Canada, a decision also based very much on a solid gut instinct and the then current situation (which is always a good way of making choices). I'm talking, of course, about Quentin. Some might have said it was madness to agree to him following me over after having known him the grand total of a month. I'd have agreed! But, gut instinct is a powerful, and usually correct tool. Sure enough, it has worked out, better I think than either of us had hoped, or expected even. And when it comes to matters of this nature, as much as the willful, independent girl in me would protest this, eventually it ceases to be about your geographical location but that other person, and considering what they want as well.

What have I learnt? Many things. None of them springing to mind, typically! For one, free bank accounts are a marvelous thing, and we would do well to appreciate them more! Being generous with your helpfulness and kindness is a wonderful thing. Doing extra to give the best directions possible, opening doors, giving a stranded traveller with no change the $2 for the bus where notes aren't taken, or letting an old, homeless man pat your dog for a few minutes, and chat to him are small things but they're the things that leave the best impressions. Canada is home to the most consistently happy to help, approachable people I've ever known.

Sales assistants aren't evil. Or even purposefully annoying. In most cases, they're in the job because they are of a helpful, outgoing nature - well suited to retail. A good one knows that the best way to do the job is not all about the sale. It's the help and advice that matter. If you take the time to ask for it, it can be invaluable. But if not, and if there's only one thing that you take from this, it's that bowing your head and avoiding them is unneccessary and makes them (me!) feel rubbish. All it takes is a genuine smile, and something along the lines of "just looking for now but I'll shout if I need anything" and everyone's happy.

Over the year I've felt a specific plight pressing on my mind and heart - that of isolated, lonely (usually more elderly) people. People that don't have too much of a support network around them. Probably because worrying that I have no friends and feeling lonely is something that I can succumb to quite easily.

People aren't as intimidating as I think. Still working on keeping this one in mind, as it's another thing I'm apt to think - that everyone's too cool for me. But if you push past it, more often there is a fabulous person in their own right underneath. They might not be who you would usually choose to befriend, but they're worthy of friendship and love nonetheless. Having spent this year living with a group of people that I'd previously have been massively intimidated by and thought would never want to be friends with me, I know this is the case. And I wouldn't have swapped any of my housemates for the world, and I miss them a lot!

Being on my own is fine :-) People aren't staring at me, secretly wondering why this girl doesn't have any friends. Lots of people are alone, for many different reasons, and alone does not equal loneliness.

Life usually works out, if you let it. And put a bit of effort in. There's always a solution. It might involve some extra cash, or a bit of waiting around, or a detour (especially traveling!) but you are rarely optionless. And even if you are, it's not the end of the world, it's just annoying. So chill. It'll work out. Adaptability and a good dose of "go with the flow" are inevitable in all situations.

What I haven't figured out is what I want to do when I get back to London. Ooops! I do know that as much as I think it's a very cool city, I don't want to be there forever. I'm don't think I'm in love with it. Harsh maybe, but true. Not that I don't want to live there again, I do, but it's not the be all and end all. I think I'd like to return to Canada one day, properly.

What am I looking forward to? Ribena, cheese, accessibility to most places, better phone and banking, Spooks, BBC dramas.

What will I miss? Mountains, so much! The Pacific, which by now I think is the ocean I've spent most time with, out of all the waters of the world. It feels more local to me than the Channel, or the Atlantic. Pancakes and maple syrup. Hockey. I can't tell you how much I'm dreading coming back to the endless phenomenon of football matches, reports and fights. Big lakes. Local skiing. Cheap transport. Cheap gas. Tim Horton's. Ton's more. Good sushi. Raccoons in my garden. Summer evenings on the beach. My big verandah. House games of fives and Settlers. Talking skiing/hiking/camping for a job. Tons, tons, tons more. That feeling of striking out on my own independently.

I could write more. I'm sure I've not done this year justice in this post. But I have to check out of my hotel in a quarter of an hour, so I bring this to an end. It's been amazing, fun, hard, cold, hot, bizarre, easy, lonely, busy, hilarious, random, loving, full of laughter. Not sure I'd have done anything differently to be honest. I have no regrets. Every good bit and bad bit contributed to the overall lasting experience, which, when I look back on it, feels undeniably me. And that's about all you can ask for :-)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

And then there was one.

Well, the poutine with the girls didn't happen. Pancakes did, though, in a proper back country town diner en route (very scenically) from Ottawa to Toronto on Saturday morning.

So, back in the big T, we settled into our hotel room, had some dinner and then set off on Sunday morning for Niagara. A short drive later, we were looking over the pretty spectacular falls, and getting very wet from the spray in the process. I discovered that instead of my camera I'd got deodorant in my bag(??!!) but it didn't matter as Hannah was taking about three photos each from every conceivable angle, so there should be some to spare. They are very impressive. I felt slightly worried that I was losing my sense of wonder at the world: I'd seen them before, and have since seen Victoria Falls, which are a) WAY better (sorry, Canada) and b) devoid of all the touristy crap that surrounds these ones. But it was good to be around the girls and their enthusiasm definitely rubbed off on me, in a very welcome way.

We weren't long there. In the off season, most of the affiliated attractions aren't running so once you've seen them, there's not much else to do. Even Starbucks only had minimal staff. And we had a hockey match to get to: Toronto Marlies vs Lake Erie Monsters. So back we drove to the Ricoh Coliseum to buy tickets, hot dogs and, most importantly, a big foam finger for Han. Explaining the rules of game was a little like the blind leading the blind, but a good time was had by all, judging by the exclamations and finger waves coming from next to me! Although I was proudly wearing my Canucks top, our team won, in a shootout so we got to see maximum hockey for our dosh. After a "quick" trip to the airport to return our faithful vehicle we returned to the hotel, quite pooped, but satisfied that we'd made the most of our day.

Time for another quick NY-style roundup...:

CN Tower: went up at night. Great for view with all the city lights on. Our mission was to have cocktails up there. The bar was shut, so we were directed to the 360 restaurant where they very kindly they let us just order drinks. Unfortunately, it was the one drink each. Because the CN tower boasts the tallest observation deck in the world, it also needs the most expensive prices to go up it, of course, which rather limited the drinking budget. Ho hum. Good cocktails though - quality not quantity, n'est ce pas?

Toronto Islands: This was especially fun. We took a water taxi over and wandered round the tiny islands just into the harbour. We found a beautiful deserted beach, adorable, quaint houses and idyllic, sleepy village life (no cafes or shops open), and a very quirky but sweet old woman who talked with us on the beach for much longer than I think any of us anticipated, or possibly, felt like, given the wind conditions...

We also touched on Kensington Markets, shops and the cinema, which is a great solution for a rainy afternoon when you're not feeling up to much or spending a small fortune on art galleries. Am ever more appreciative of London's free museums.

The girls left today, but not after we had a manicure in the hotel spa. Very relaxing and nice to have lovely nails once more, but I have managed to smudge my varnish not two hours after it was applied. Expected, and somewhat surprised it wasn't sooner, to be honest. Sigh.

So now I am back in Canadiana for two nights before checking into the Fairmont for one indulgent evening. Because I'm moving my flight forward about a week I thought I'd treat myself to that - allowed because I won't be staying for as long and spending money that way! Very much looking forward to my own space. Although, I'm totally comfortable being here on my own and not feeling the need to rush out and make friends - it's a great confidence boost, to be cool with your own company amidst others. It's also great fun listening in to people's conversations about where they've been, or how they're settling in to this new country they are in!

Time will pass quickly, I'm sure. Loose ends need tieing/tying/tyeing - which one is it?!?!?! A bit of contemplation is in order, reflection on the year, reflection on what to do next...all suggestions welcome!

Friday, 20 November 2009

Back on the Road

This is a quick hello from Ottawa! The last couple of days in Montreal were spent shopping, eating fabulous steak in the old town area and an evening with my friends JB and Jeremy in Chez Serge, a brilliant bar that gave us free popcorn with our bucket-of-cocktail, had a huge moose head covered with bras on the wall and a bucking bronco bull that of course, we all had several turns on. Jeremy was by far the best, managing a grand total of 98 seconds! Time has never passed as slowly as when you're trying not to slide off a rotating, bucking plastic bull.

So today we picked up our hire car and drove to Ottawa. We managed to see some of the city, mainly a walk by the river and some of the funky bar/restaurant area, and the many government buildings (it being the country's capital and all, and I have to say, they were very aesthetically pleasing). We retreated fairly early back to the hotel given because we were cold and it is VERY wet here - although apparently not as wet as Cumbria :-s

Tomorrow we're getting back into the car and heading on down to Toronto. If we have time, we'll try and get to a hockey match in the afternoon, but if not, we'll try and catch a game on Sunday instead after going down to Niagara Falls. So still lots to do before the girls fly home on the 25th. My return date isn't quite sorted yet. Could be a week on Monday, could be a few days after. We'll see. But, in any case, the impending return is quickly coming up to meet me - but not quite as unwelcome as it was a few weeks ago. Constant travelling and "being on holiday" can be quite tiring, and sad to say, sometimes I just want to stay in the hotel - my equivalent of home right now - and read/internet/chill, do whatever really! But that option wouldn't go down to well with les filles so it's onwards we go.

The still-to-do list is now largely food-based: poutine, Tim Hortons, and pancakes. As well as the falls, possibly the CN tower and maybe Hockey Hall of Fame.

Not long now...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Three little girls went to Montreal...

...but didn't go running all the way home, no no no. It is indeed good to be back in the Great White North, and it feels very much like coming home again. After one last wet day, and a final night out in West Village, Alana and I said goodbye to New York. We said hello to my old friend the Greyhound, and drove up through New York state enjoying views of the Adirondacks for seven beautiful hours.

Monday passed fairly quietly and before we knew it we were heading off to meet Hannah at the airport. Now, I couldn't remember how exactly I'd gotten to Trudeau last time, but figured STM Montreal website would have the answer. It had AN answer, but, it became quickly apparent, not the correct one. One detour later, taking in an industrial estate, Air Canada's headquarters, the side of a freeway and a dilapidated gas station, we called a cab and surrendered. We were there within five minutes (through all of this we'd been able to see the planes landing - so near yet so far).

Lovely to have Han with us. Today was the Old Town, the fantastic Museum of History and Archeology, explaining the history and founding of Montreal. The best multimedia and interactive displays and presentations I've seen for a long time. Then another bit of a wander before out for cocktails this evening. Lots of catching up, gossip and general laughter being had by all :-) as well as snatching as much of an NHL game as Fi could via the bar TVs (Montreal vs Carolina, M win in shoot-out!)

Tomorrow we're making the most of the promised weather and heading to the park before meeting Montreal friends of mine, JB and Jeremy for cocktails and "mechanical bull riding"!! Awesome :-)

Friday, 13 November 2009

Two English Girls in New York

On Sunday I left Chicago and the boyfriend behind and settled in to a 20-hour train journey to New York city to hang out with Alana, a good friend from home. It was long, but I had good company with an Alaskan hippy and we chatted and played cards until we drew into Penn station, where, with a crunching headache, I summoned a cab and headed over to the hotel for dinner and a long-over due catch up with my friend.

So far this week, we’ve walked a very, very long way, managed to not get run over by crazy traffic and successfully navigated the grimy, grungy, ever-so-slightly confusing subway network. Here’s some of the other things we’ve done and seen…

The Met: Fantastic art museum, with a never-ending warren of galleries and rooms. The full-sized stone Egyptian sarcophagus was particularly cool.

Veteran’s Day Parade: We lined up on 5th to watch this parade go past. Took a shameful amount of time to connect the parade title with the day’s date (Nov 11th – it made a bit more sense once we’d added all that up). The parade was much more entertaining than the stuffy Westminster ceremony in London. First we had a procession of Harley Davidsons, then regiments from different areas of the military past and present, marching bands, floats and finally a stream of classic cars. Fun and engaging, but still managing to keep the deeper meaning of what it was all about.

Cool corners to eat: So far we’ve been to Serendipity, a beautiful, kitsch fairyland of a café, where we indulged in extreme ice-cream based food. Alana selected the chocolate cake sundae, and I chose a strawberry cheesecake one. Final result: sundaes 2 girls 0. Today, we went to the Clinton Street Bakery for brunch. It’s a delightful café in a lower east side neighbourhood that doesn’t look much, but this gem of a place was worth the trek and the wait. The best pancakes I’ve ever had. Period. Tomorrow we’re heading to the Alice in Wonderland café for some more fantastical food.

Empire State Building: High. Windy. Cold. Better done at dusk.

WTC site: A big building site. Come back in about five years.

Broadway: We saw Mary Poppins last night and it was awesome! We’re still singing the songs and the dance routines and sets were a visual/audio feast. We left feeling as sparkly as the lights around us.

Shopping: But of course! We’ve covered Macy’s, Century 21 and Saks, lots of 5th and much more. I indulged in another pair of jeans. Having found my “perfect fit” brand in Vancouver, it was only sensible that I should get another pair as I’ve never seen them in England. It’s exhausting though, and there is no chaos greater than women rifling through handbag sale boxes. Time to head back to the hotel…

I’m really enjoying girl time and re-visiting New York. Under the surface, though, I’m churning over my impending return to the UK. Bed time seems to be the time when Fi’s brain goes into obsession mode on the subject. Cocktails, I was reminded last night, are an excellent way of over-riding brain to fall straight asleep. Plans to repeat process tonight are afoot.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Au Revoir Vancouver, welcome to Chicago, y'all!

It finally happened - we left Vancouver. After much time anticipating the departure, yet not feeling like it was actually real, the final week at 938 W14th passed in a flurry of packing, sorting, a LOT of cleaning and farewell shenanigans - a delicious meal with Jeff and Happy at a seafood restaurant, watching a final hockey match with Canadians, drinks with Annie, Sarah and Meika, and a last night of Magic playing for Q. Suddenly it was our final night. Packed and ready for our 4.30am start, we had a last meal at Earls with the housemates & Jeff but minus Loic, and headed over to a friend's place to carve some pumpkins. Then back to ours for a last game of Settlers before goodbyes and two hours sleep.

Our trip to Chicago was a long one with lots of waiting and long journeys (which included some necessary baggage reshuffling and emergency jettisoning of spare books to get suitcases to an acceptable weight!). We were pretty beat by the time we were met by a hilariously disguised Kurt and Jen at O'Hare. A hot shower, good dinner, a few drinks and great company kept us going til we sunk very gratefully into bed.

The rest of our time in Chicago has been excellent. A mix of chilled-out reading time (The Wheel of Time and the latest Dan Brown) with exploring down-town Chicago and walking the dogs. Kurt, Q and I also took part in a very US and Chicago-biased pub quiz night! I think we were the only team to answer any non-US question correctly. Or even attempt one. However, since 95% of questions involved either Chicago streets/taverns/bakeries/baseball, we didn't fare so well overall...although Q and I managed to get 5/7 of the most populous US cities ending in an "s". That's right. I'd challenge any of our competitors to do the same for the UK!

And of course, there was Halloween: US-style! This was a first for me, and I very much enjoyed seeing how they do it: max-fun, max-dressing up (none of the 3 options of ghost/witch/vampire you get in the UK) and max-pumpkinage. As well as carving said veggies, we fed hideous amounts of candy to small children and scoured the thrift stores in order to find something to complete our costumes. I had a pair of fabulous/hideous knee-high patent stiletto purple boots, two green net curtains, some purple satin long gloves and a lot of green make up. Q had a velvet smoking jacket, cigar and purple satin trousers. Introducing....Poison Ivy and Hugh Hefner! Photos forthcoming. Accompanied by Vampire Jen and Brokeback Kurt, we hit possibly the poshest bar I've been to in a long time: Roof - unsurprisingly on a rooftop of a high-rise downtown. After a few drinks, scoping out the other costumes (Tetris and Earl from My Name Is Earl being my favourites, whilst Q checked on as many of his bunnies as he could find) and scooping a free plate of fries, we headed off to a decidedly cheaper bar and met up with a girl in a bathtub - Jen's friend Kelly. A few drinks and conversations with the Tenenbaums, Snow White and Ghostbusters later, we headed home, sated.

More Chicago fun to follow - and a trip to Wisconsin this weekend! I'm muchly excited about this as I've really only been to major spots in the US and Wisconsin sounds distincly off-radar. Maybe there will be bears...!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Gossip, brunch and sleeplessness in Seattle

Last Friday, myself, Q, my colleague and fab friend Annie, and her best friend Sarah, hired a car and drove the short three-hour trip from one sodden city to another, to see Gossip play in Seattle. It rained the whole way there - the forecasters' prediction of 100% rain looked likely.

Getting across into the Land Of The Free was, as ever, exasperating. As first-timers to the States, Annie and Sarah didn't have I-94 forms so we all had to line up and get them. Clearly two Brits and two Aussies travelling in a Canadian car was suspicious so we were subjected to extensive questioning as to how we all knew each other, what we were doing in a) Canada and b) the US of A and c) how again, exactly, did we know each other? It was all very serious and prolongued but we eventually were let through after Annie assured the customs official that it was okay that she still looked like her passport photo.

All this only for Quentin, literally ten minutes into the country, to realise that he'd left our tickets at home. Convinced that I'd seen him put them in the bag, I made him hunt through about five times, until he remembered that they were in his wallet the whole time. Turns out, when we finally arrived in Seattle, they weren't even the correct tickets (being only the receipt stubs) and we had to do a lot of schmoozing to let us in with our proof of purchase, ID and Q's talent for talking himself into, or out of, any given situation.**

The gig itself was fantastic. The support acts were a hip-hop group called Champagne Champagne and a very bizarre outfit called Men..? It took a good few songs to establish the gender of the lead singer, but we eventually located an Adam's apple, so unanimously voted male, and carried on enjoying the set - which was a bit of a surprise given the middling review it got from A and S (who had seen Gossip play the night before in Vancouver). When Gossip finally came one, it was an awesome start, a simple, driving beat from the drummer building up parts of the band to Beth Ditto's entrance. Fab voice, great stage presence, sparky, charming, smaller in real life, and, contrary to what London Lite would have you believe, didn't strip to her underwear at any given moment (although she did the night before, the Annie/Sarah info source informed us). The vibe in the venue was awesome- a small place meant people were right up close to the stage - we were about 3 lines of people from the front and the beat you could feel from the floor was electric, catchy, hypnotic almost. We tried to continue to do the evening justice, but trying to get into bars armed with only a driver's license in the state of Washington proved tricky. It was passports only, and seeing as we were all tired and had an early start the next day, we called in quits and headed back to Annie's friend's place to hang out and crash.

Saturday 8am saw us all up and about to drop Q off at the Space Needle to play a Magic tournament. Us girls then headed in search of brunch in a funky place. And did we find it. Bedlam is one of the funkiest, coolest cafes I've been to in a long while. Great service, drinks and the best doorstop toast all in a vintagey, chilled, eclectic setting, complete with comfy sofas and newspapers. It's a wonder we even saw any of Seattle. But we tore ourselves away and headed for the public markets and the Mecca spot for all modern-day, professional North Americans. I'm talking of course, of Pike Place Starbucks, the original Starbucks, the seemingly innocent location that spawned the branding and coffee behemoth it currently is today. Too lazy to queue for the same drink I could get a block from work, I stole a paper napkin and we left. Next stop, trying to find the underground original city that stood before natural disasters destroyed it and new Seattle was built on top. What exactly caused the original city to disappear, we didn't find out as we were ever so politely (and promptly!) chucked off the tour we sneakily tagged on to. So we settled for exploration on our own, shopping and generally admiring the cool architecture around. Seattle had lots of brickworks, hence why many of their buildings are brick, as opposed to here were they have lots of wood - so everything is clapboard and wood.

Meanwhile, Quentin was having fun destroying all his opponents in the tournament. Great for him, but it meant that we had to stay a lot later than planned before driving home. We left, at last, with Annie and Sarah under sleeping bags on the back seat, trying to fall asleep and myself tanking up with several cups of coffee. The drive back was easy - no rain, no traffic, no Americans at the border: where have you been/where do you live/how are you doing today is the customary line of questioning to get back into Canada.... ah Canada :-)

**Currently packing up our lives ready to go to Chicago on Friday, what did Q find on the floor by the bin? The actual Gossip tickets. Of course.