Friday, September 30, 2011

Fish n' Chips and the Grand Pier

My first night in England, we were all so knackered from the flight, the drive, and the general excitement that accompanies big changes that we had a quick, delicious dinner of cheese tart, potatoes, salad, and wine that went straight to my head. The next night, however, Liz and Ian were determined to introduce me to what is one of the most famous and quintessentially "British" meals: fish n' chips.

We went to the Worle Fish House to pick up our "takeaways" - aka, for my non-British readers, takeout. I got the traditional battered fish and chips while Ian and Liz opted for battered sausage and chips. The meals were wrapped up in brown paper (with the requisite grease stains seeping through - fish n' chips are definitely a guilty pleasure!) and then we curled up on the couch with some champagne and watched the hilarious British television show The Inbetweeners (I'll blog more about this show later, once I've made it through all three seasons - so far, I'm almost done season 1 and it is honestly the funniest, raunchiest thing I've ever watched!)

The fish n' chips were delicious, sprinkled with a bit of vinegar and salt and some ketchup on the side, although we forgot to order some "mushy peas" as a side, much to Ian's chagrin. Mushy peas are apparently EXACTLY what they sound like, and are a necessary component of an authentic fish n' chips experience soooo...that just means I'll have to return for more later!

Today, after dropping Wills and James off at school, Liz, Baby B and I drove into Weston-Super-Mare, a Victorian coastal resort town that is famous for its Grand Pier. Back in 2008 (actually, the day Wills was born!), the Pier tragically caught on and was recently rebuilt. 2011 has been declared the "Year of the Pier":

Weston-Super-Mare gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon "west tun" (tun = settlement) and the Latin "super mare" meaning "by the sea" - hence, Western settlement by the sea. It is right on the coastline of the Bristol Channel leading out the Celtic* Sea. Weston-Super-Mare really earned its spot on the map in the Victorian era boom of seaside holidays, when Bank Holidays sent city dwellers flocking to the town on the railway that opened in 1841.

While we strolled along the promenade, the salty sea air ruffling my hair and the sun warm on my skin (we have had absolutely amazing weather here since I've arrived - yesterday was the hottest September 29 since 1895!), I could imagine myself in a corset and Victorian-style dress, with a big hat and a parasol. Although the Pier has been rebuilt, there still lingers a strong feeling of being back in time, a time that was slower, more relaxed, more somnolent.

Weston-Super-Mare has the largest tidal range in the world, and when we first got to the promenade, the water was all the way up against the wall. By the time we left an hour later, it had receded back several metres, leaving soft, wet sand behind that made my toes positively curl in delight at the thought of squelching barefoot along in it!

Showing the tides before

And on our way back

We stopped at a Victorian tea room for some drinks and sponge cake, then made our way back to the car to pick up Wills from preschool. I know the words "charming" and "quaint" get thrown around a lot in regards to Victorian towns, but Weston-Super-Mare really is charm personified. What a great way to pass the morning and make the most of the sunshine!

*I ended the debate of "hard C" versus "soft C" once and for all - Liz says that Brits pronounce Celtic with a hard C, so...there you go! I always went back and forth, never knowing which one was correct!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Welcome to the UK: the first few days

"You're in for a fuuuuuuun flight, honey."

These are not the kind of reassuring words one wants to hear from the Air Transat employee checking your boarding pass minutes before getting on a plane.

Yet these were the words directed at me after a hysterical woman screamed and ranted at the airline employees for a good fifteen minutes (sample: "I am a CANADIAN citizen, and I have rights! You're only treating me this way because I'm BLACK!" Yikes. Not touching that one). She finally raced away, resisting all efforts at containment, and somehow made it onto the plane. I had a flashback to my flight from Moscow to Toronto in June, when a drunken, aggressive man was promptly and swiftly detained and kept from boarding the plane entirely - those Russians take no chances!

Luckily for me and the rest of the passengers headed to Gatwick, the crazy woman was sedated or something, because she was quiet for the entire flight. It was actually quite enjoyable, if you gloss over the freezing temperature, the centre aisle seat (ouch! Drew Barrymore made a very good point in The Wedding Singer about flight attendants banging your elbow while passing by with the drinks cart!), and the lack of blankets or pillows....clearly, I've been spoiled flying British Airways before because Air Transat was just not the same!

My lovely view from the top

The highlight of the flight, though, was a very random coincidence - the woman I was sitting beside was fluent in Russian! She studied it in university because she figured that Russian or Mandarin was going to be the next "global" language, so she went with Russian...uh, I suppose that was a bit of a mistake due to the whole fall of the Soviet Union, but it was a nice surprise and we chatted happily about Russia and when it was time to disembark, we said our "da svidanya"s and went our separate ways.

Once I was lined up at the passport control, that's when it REALLY hit me - I was moving to England. Somewhere in the airport, Liz was waiting to take me to what would be my home for the next year. I was slightly freaking out when I heard, "Next!" and before I knew it, I was handing over my passport and then...being let into the country with a "Enjoy your experience here in the UK!"

I made my way through Gatwick to the Arrivals and was greeted by Liz, Baby B, and two enormous balloons - a star-shaped one and a Union Jack! Right away, I felt like I had known Liz forever, thanks to our emails and phone chats that have been taking place over the last nine months. We hugged and talked for a bit before making our way to the parking lot (er, CAR PARK) where I headed over to the right side of the car and went to open the door.

"Are you driving home?" Liz asked with an amused grin.

Flustered, I realized my mistake (a mistake that I have made 99% of the times when we've gone somewhere in the car these past two days!) - I was getting in on the driver's side! Still getting used to that well as the whole driving on the "right" side of the road, as Ian puts it!

Liz and Ian and their three adorable children (James, Wills, and Baby B) live about 2.5 hours southwest of London, in Somerset. Our drive was lovely - it was 21 degrees and sunny, with clear bright blue skies and lush, rolling green hills. At one point, Liz pointed to the left side of the road.

"Oh, there's Windsor Castle," she said.

Ummm...I am used to driving on the 401 in Canada where the only things on the side of the highway are Tim Hortons' coffee rest stops. Windsor Castle!?!?! I almost fainted from excitement.

We pulled into their driveway at 5:45pm, where Ian and the boys were waiting. I had been expecting some shyness at first as we all got used to each other, but James and Wills rushed over to me right away - whew! "Katie, Katie!" they called out in what has to be the cutest accent for kids EVER. Seriously. (Tonight at dinner James was killing himself laughing at how I say "tomatoes". "It's not to-MAY-to, it's to-MAH-to!" he giggled, and I immediately felt like a boorish North American philistine).

Anyways, they were very excited to show me my room and help unwrap the absolutely lovely presents that were waiting for me:

James with "Runny Hunny Bunny", the stuffed rabbit they made me at Build-a-Bear (does anyone besides me fear that Build-a-Bear is slowly taking over the world? They're everywhere!)

My room

One of my new presents - love it!!

The view from my window - their garden (not called
a backyard!) and James' school - literally behind the fence!

I must take a brief break here to get really sentimental, so bear with me :) Over the past year and a bit, since I've graduated university and been traveling, I've learned a lot - about the world, about myself, and about others. And I think one of the most important and uplifting lessons I've learned centers on the kindness of strangers. I don't mean to call Liz and Ian strangers at all, but the fact is, they barely know me and they are welcoming me into their beautiful home. And they have been so, so unbelievably warm and welcoming and WONDERFUL...that I am just blown away. I've been so overwhelmed by all of the preparation and thought and consideration that they have put into my arrival and shown me since arriving here on Tuesday.

I know that some people may read this and roll their eyes at what they may consider my naivete, but the kindness of strangers has been the underlying thread running throughout my experiences traveling, and I truly believe that people really are inherently kind and good. I've been lucky enough to have celebrated Russian New Year's with Russians, to have been given a cell phone on my birthday from my students because I randomly mentioned that I didn't have one, to have been stopped on the street and asked if I needed any help with directions, and countless other experiences with strangers who have just shown me so much kindness. Sure, I don't think I'll ever stop cringing at the memory of the guy who pulled over in his car to show me his you-know-what in the Russian countryside, but hey! Yeah, sure, there are freaks out there. Anywhere. But as James and Wills would put it, the "goodies" far outweigh the "baddies"!

Well, I think on that note, I'll end this post here as its getting rather long. Next up: my first experience having some authentic English fish and chips!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Arrivals and Departures

"Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport." - Hugh Grant, Love Actually

Arrivals is one of the most joyous places you can be! The kisses, the hugs, the tears, the exclamations over changed appearances, the laughter and the grins, the "how have you been?"s and the "I missed you so much!"s.

Departures, on the other hand, are a strange place to be, a melange of sadness and anticipation and regret and nostalgia and hope and promise. I know, because I've just come from Departures where I hugged my parents goodbye for what will be...a year? More? Now I'm sitting in the lounge of Gate 31, waiting for my flight to start boarding (it's going to be awhile...yay delays!) and looking around at the people who will be my fellow passengers, wondering what their stories are, where they're headed, and why.

There's an Asian man in a tight, striped v-neck pullover doing lunges and arm swings around the chairs - pre-flight exercise maybe? Judging from the looks he's getting, I'm not placing any bets on anyone joining him. Man, I REALLY hope he's not sitting beside me on the plane. A mental image of me getting knocked out by one of his arms just flashed across my brain. Two flight attendants are sipping coffee and chatting, looking smart in their navy suits and swishy blonde ponytails. A gaggle of girls are gossiping about the model on the cover of Cosmopolitan, trying to figure out where they know her from. A sleepy toddler is cuddled up against her mum, while one guy around my age is stretched out across four chairs with his Mac across his chest, no doubt dreaming sweet dreams of the iphone 5. All around me, there are people, suitcases, signs, laptops, confusion, jetlag, and an undercurrent of charged excitement in the air. And then there's me - still unable to fully believe that I'm actually on my way to England!

Saying goodbye to my "little" bro, Mike

Well, they just announced that the boarding for my flight has commenced - I'll write once I'm in the UK so until then...cheers mate! :)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I am (reluctantly, at times) Canadian

Celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving in Russia.

Don't get me wrong. I love my home and native land. Living in a foreign country was the wake-up call my dormant patriotism needed, as I learned to look at my country through the eyes of others. I was often surprised and gratified to hear what my students thought of Canada - "you are the best at hockey" "your country is beautiful and Canadians are so friendly!" "I want my daughter to study at a Canadian university because there are so many more opportunities for her there" "You Canadians know how to drink almost as well as us Russians" - and being the only Canadian amongst American, British, and Irish teachers made me more of a fervent Canuck than ever (I may have purposely started ending my sentences with "eh", although I never admitted to being from the same country as Justin Bieber and I never will).

But even though there are great things about being Canadian, there are definite downsides, too. I mean, the rest of the world thinks we don't know how to pronounce the word "about". And we were number four in the "Top 5 Least Cool Nationalities" poll - that's just embarrassing. We're more uncool than, say, Iraq?! I demand a recount.

In all seriousness though, I love being Canadian and my only real gripe with my nationality is that it makes living and working in other countries a pain in the you-know-what. Because we're not a part of the European Union, visas are necessary in order to spend longer than 90 days in most European countries and to work while you're there. With Russia, I was lucky that my employer took care of all my visa issues and even refunded the $135 cost! But to live and work in the UK, I had to take matters into my own hands.

Luckily, Canada is part of a Youth Mobility Scheme with the United Kingdom, whereby people ages 18-30 from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan can apply for a 2 year "working holiday" multiple entry visa. This was EXACTLY what I needed to work as an au pair in England, so I was ecstatic when I heard about it. However, its not as simple as "Hey, I'm Katie, I'm a 23-year old Canadian, can I have a visa now please?"

You need to have the equivalent of 1600 pounds in your bank account, because this visa does not allow you recourse to public funds while you're over there, so they want to make sure you can support yourself in the time it takes to get a job. You also have to fill out a long, seven-page form where, amongst other declarations, you promise you've never been convicted of crimes against humanity or genocide.

Then you have to take the form, your passport, a statement from your bank, and specially-sized photographs of yourself to the UK Home Office or, in my case, the agency in Toronto that forwards everything to Ottawa. After watching the "Welcome to the UK" promo video in the waiting room approximately seventeen times while I waited for my name to be called (I was beginning to feel like there was no point in me even going to England anymore as I had now seen everything it had to offer) I handed over my papers, got my fingerprints electronically scanned, and...that was it.

A week later, I got an email saying that my application had been approved and my visa had been issued and was ready for pick-up. Two weeks later, I paid my credit card bill (you need to pay for your visa online; they don't accept any other form of payment) and nearly fainted. A cool $315. Her Majesty the Queen REALLY must be in need of renovations to Windsor Castle or something if a youth visa to her kingdom costs that much! I thought us Canadians were still loyal subjects, anyhow. Not like those colonials who threw off the yoke of British rule back in 1776. I think we deserve a little something-something in gratitude, don't you?

So this is where the whole "I wish I had dual citizenship in some EU country" thing comes into play. My friend Iain is Irish, and can flit around Europe hassle-free because of his Golden Ticket - aka his Irish, EU-member passport. Contrast this with my former roommate in Russia, American-born Colleen. She's studied and worked in Scotland, fallen in love with a Scotsman (my other roommate, Stu...and they are truly a match made in death metal, beer-swilling heaven) and now she's facing deportation because her visa time is running out. She is actually considering marrying Stu so she can stay in the country...

I know I shouldn't complain - the grass is always greener on the other side, right? And my understanding of visas and citizenship and the inner workings of the EU is most definitely rudimentary and naive. But sometimes I really, really wish I could be Canadian AND Irish/British/German/Italian/French, etc etc...the best of both worlds!

If you could have dual citizenship, what would it be? Why?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fitting my life into a suitcase


After - ta da!

Does anyone else out there occasionally pretend their life is a movie? Complete with soundtrack, wardrobe changes, and the odd voiceover or two?

I can't be the only one.

I'm standing in front of my wardrobe right now, staring into the abyss and wondering what I should pack that will last me for a year in England. While I do this, I can't help imagining myself traipsing through the moors with a Heathcliff doppelganger, dressed in a flowy, romantic dress (uh, just to clarify, that's me in the dress, not Heathcliff! He can be in some manly jodhpurs or something) while Lady Antebellum's "Just a Kiss" plays overhead. Or me hanging out a black taxi cab going over London Bridge while "There She Goes" plays. Or me in a trenchcoat wandering around Camden Market to the strains of One Republic's "Good Life" while I peruse the goods and happily lick an ice cream cone. Or something.

Not that I give the movie of my life much thought or anything. Cough.

Anyways, I have another embarrassing confession to make: I moved home from Moscow in July (yep, that would be two and a half months ago) and I STILL haven't completely unpacked my suitcase. I think my reasoning went a little like this - I'm moving to England in September, so what's the point of unpacking only to have to repack it all again in a few short months? But in a way, that's kind of like those people who don't make their beds because they'll be getting back into them at night...and, well, that's kinda lazy and gross in my opinion.

Another reason why I didn't completely unpack is that unpacking is nowhere near as fun as packing is. Packing is exciting and full of hope and promise and the thrill of the unknown. Where will I be when I wear this sundress? You fold and roll your clothes extra carefully, making sure nothing is creased or crumpled. If you're like me, you fantasize about Heathcliff and taxi cabs and trenchcoats while you tuck socks and underwear in all the little nooks and crevices of the suitcase (hint: I always put little bulky things like Tide To-Go pens, cosmetics, granola bars, etc in my ballet might as well use up that extra space!).

But unpacking is a letdown - your adventure's over, and you're back to reality now. Your clothes, so delicately folded and organized when you were leaving, are thrown in haphazardly, dirty, wrinkled, worn. And you realize you've got a massive amount of laundry to do, knickknacks and souvenirs to put away, memories to store and hold onto and, hopefully, never forget.

Until today, I wanted to hold onto Russia as long as I could. I didn't want to go through my suitcase, hang up my winter coat, file away my Russian phrasebooks...I suppose I just didn't want to let go of Russia and my time there. But now that England is so fast approaching - I leave in exactly one week! - I feel ready. One door closes, another opens. My adventure in Russia has ended, but my adventure in England is just beginning.

Heathcliff awaits - so that means I better get picking out the perfect outfits for romantic moor wanderings! (Who's betting that I'll get there and discover that moors are actually horrible, cold, dreary, depressing places with no human life and my fantasies will be crushed?)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New year, new country, new blog!

Well, its September again, and for me that means a few things - sweaters instead of flip flops, pumpkin-flavoured ANYTHING, the fifth season of Gossip Girl... and a new adventure in a foreign country.

Last September, I jetted off to Moscow for a year to teach English (you can read about my crazy experiences in Mother Russia here). This year, I'm headed to England to work as an au pair.

Why England, you might ask? Why au pairing? Good questions. To get the answer, let's go back to December 2010. Imagine a flat in Russia. In winter. Now take away the hot water and heat for three weeks. Add in approximately three hours of cloudy, hazy "sunlight" per day (all during my work hours when I was stuck inside anyways) and you can begin to appreciate the mindset I was in. Seasonal Affective Disorder, anyone?

The holidays were also approaching, and even though Russians do not over-commercialize Christmas to anywhere near the extent us North Americans do, I was still feeling a little lonely and homesick for my family and all our Christmas traditions.

(I was also just kinda longing to get back to a place where I could shower for longer than .23 seconds)

At the same time, however, I was LOVING all the experiences I was having and the friends I was making in Russia. The "travel bug" had definitely bitten me, and hard. One day when I ventured out into the snow to buy some groceries at the local "Perekrestok" chain store, I had a sudden, well, epiphany if you will. "Perekrestok" is Russian for "crossroads," and I realized that I was at a metaphorical crossroads of my own.

Celebrating the Russian New Year
(and the return of hot water and heat
in my flat!)

It seems like EVERYONE my age knows exactly what they want to do. Everyone's in grad school, or law school, or teacher's college, because all we hear nowadays is that a mere bachelor's degree won't get you anywhere (as I write this, I glance over at my own bachelor's degree from uni that's hanging on my wall...pleaaaaase tell me its more than just a really expensive piece of paper!) But where is this "where" that everyone's headed? To a job, a house in the suburbs, 2.2 kids and a dog? Is that really the direction I want to take my life? Don't get me wrong. I couldn't be happier for my friends who are racking up new degrees, getting engaged, and picking out curtain rods at Sears. That's what they want, and good for them! But at the risk of sounding like a whiny twenty-something of the igeneration, I honestly don't know what I want.

I know I love to travel. I love history, meeting new people, writing, exploring cities. I love running and kids and languages and books.

So last December, while I trudged home in the snow, I made the decision to continue my "post-uni world education" by moving to another country and getting a job that would allow me to travel lots too. Becoming an au-pair made a lot of sense - my best friend was working as an au pair in Australia, so she helped me out and gave some great advice, and I also hoped that this way, by becoming part of another family, I wouldn't be as homesick as I sometimes was in Russia.

At first, I corresponded with some families in Italy, France, and Spain, but I never really felt a "connection" with any of the families. Maybe it was the language barrier, or maybe it was the awkwardness of having Skype interviews over a shaky Russian internet connection while I was wearing a dress shirt on top and pyjama pants on the bottom...but I just wasn't feeling it.

Then, I got an email from Liz. And I just knew, right away, that this was the family for me. Which meant that it was going to be da svidanya Russia, hello England!

Nine months after our first exchange of emails, I already feel as though I know Liz, Ian, and their three adorable children. In two weeks, I'll be meeting them at the airport - I can't believe how fast time has flown! I have no idea what to expect this year, but I do know one thing. This Canadian girl's adventures in the UK are just beginning!