Saturday, March 7, 2015

Day 189: A Working Vacation

CN Tower in Toronto
If it wasn’t for the three large screens playing the hockey game, the Irish pub would almost feel authentic. There are certainly enough signs advertising Guinness, and the waitress’s accent sounds foreign yet familiar. Still, the ceiling is a tad too high, and the mirrors on one wall make the building appear airy and spacious, nothing like the quaint cramped spaces I got used to in Ireland and Scotland.

Of course, I’m not in Ireland, or the UK. I’m in downtown Toronto, halfway between Ottawa and London. I’ll be “home” in a few hours (still not quite sure what that word means) but for now I’m enjoying the last meal of my working vacation, courtesy of Western University. Gotta say, the food-allowance part of going to conferences is definitely something I could get used to.

Where have I been these past few days? In Ottawa, at the 21st Annual Underhill Graduate Student Colloquium, hosted by the History Department at Carleton University. The conference was centered around the idea of performing history, so I presented a paper on dance in Ben Jonson’s 1609 Masque of Queens, a court performance where the dance styles were very much tied to political opinions.

Exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa 
I’d never presented a paper before, so I can’t say I wasn’t nervous, but this colloquium was pretty much the ideal place for a first presentation. It was an extremely supportive forum for graduate students to present their research—the conference was fairly evenly divided between MAs and PhDs, there were a fair number of universities represented (UNB, U of T, McMaster, Western, and UBC, to name a few), and projects outside of straight history were definitely welcome (such as Art History, Medieval Studies, Digital Humanities, and my field, English). The other conference attendees were extremely friendly, the other papers presented (41 in all) were fascinating, and the question periods at the end of each session generated intriguing discussions.

Catching the train
I presented on the first session of the first day, which was originally something I was quite pleased about. After all, it was lovely to show up on Thursday morning, present for fifteen minutes, and then enjoy the rest of the conference stress-free. However, since the conference was such a supportive environment, it was too bad that I presented so early, before many people had shown up. There were only ten other people in the room when I gave my talk, which I’m told isn’t a poor showing for an academic conference, but the rest of the panels I attended later in the day had 20-40 attendees and a much more energetic question period.

Still, it was a fantastic experience to tell other people about my research. After all, up to this point, no one except my professors, my mother, and my best friend have ever read anything academic I’ve written, so an audience of ten actually represents a 333% increase. I loved standing in front of the room, presenting my ideas to a group of people, however small, who cared about what I was talking about and who were all working on equally fascinating projects. Underhill may have been a great conference to start with, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Day 150: Well, I'm Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”
-- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Final day in St. Andrews- a walk on the 18th hole of the Old Course

Day 150. I’ve been back in Canada for 150 days. Yikes.

It’s been good, for the most part. I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t hard to leave Scotland and that every moment back in Canada has been amazing and that I never want to leave here again. Coming back was difficult and stressful and full of reverse culture shock and longing for cobbled streets and old stone buildings.

But, despite all that, it has been good to come back. I needed to return to Canada and see my country through new eyes. Yes, there are plenty of things that now frustrate me, like how spread out everything is or how people don’t know how to queue or how no one properly appreciates a good cup of tea. Yet, there are so many things I do appreciate, like proper malls and nice airports and heated houses and having all my clothes with me and having a family who knows me so well and loves me anyways.

I’m glad to have returned. I don’t think it would have been good for me to have stayed away much longer. Living the crazy life of an exchange student, it’s far too easy to forget that “home”—whatever that word means—does actually matter.

That’s the problem with going on exchange: it’s so temporary… and so exciting for that very reason. During my one year at St. Andrews I packed in several years’ worth of travel and theatre-going and celebrity-meeting. I did so much that home couldn’t help but feel boring… but I only did so much because I wasn’t at home. My friends who call Britain home could have done just as much as I did, but they didn’t, because they were at home. It was the exchange that gave me license to have such an amazing year, not the living in Britain.

An exchange is fundamentally transitory. It’s got an absolute beginning and end. It’s like a little bubble space off of real life. I never want to say that it has no bearing on real life, because it absolutely does, but it still is a special time that must end. I might even go as far as to say that the fact that an exchange year ends is ultimately what makes it all worthwhile.

That’s why I had to come back. Because returning to Canada and reevaluating my homeland also allows me to look back and appreciate Scotland for what it was: a life changing year. My year abroad changed me in so many ways that didn’t even become evident until I came back. It’s all well and good to reinvent yourself in a new country, but the real test is when you come back “home.”

This probably all sounds too final, like I’m content return home and put my exchange year behind me. That’s not true at all. Right now I’m doing all I can to get myself back to Britain and I still don’t particularly want to stay in Canada long term. But I know that returning here was important, even essential, and I’m so glad, after 150 days, that I came back. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Day 365: I'm going... Home?

My flight leaves in two hours. I've all but left Scotland- Edinburgh airport doesn't really count as part of the country I've called home for the past year. I've said goodbye to England, to Scotland, to my friends, to St. Andrews... All that's left is to board the plane, sit back, and let it take me across the ocean. 

Am I excited to go back to Canada? Yes, of course. I do miss my country, my friends, my university, my family... I'm looking forward to seeing everything again and it'll be great to start my MA at Western. 

Still, I don't want to go. Over the past year Britain has truly captured my heart. St. Andrews has become my home, the town I know and love best in all the world. When I'm there I truly feel alive, like I belong. 

Going back to Canada doesn't feel like going home- it feels like travelling. Maybe it would be different if I was heading back to PEI, to be with my family, but flying straight back to Ontario, which I'm not particularly attached to, feels almost a little alienating. 

I'm not trying to downplay Ontario, or Western, or my friends there, or Canada as a whole. God has blessed me with twenty wonderful years in that country and I have so much to be thankful for. To all Canadians reading this, I'm not trying to imply that there's anything negative or lacking about our country. I'm proud to be Canadian.

It's just that travelling complicates the idea of home. After living in Britain, gaining the accent, and travelling Europe, I cannot be solely Canadian anymore. When I've lived in more than one place for so long, finding just one place to call home becomes pretty much impossible.

Maybe I'll go back and discover that Canada really is where I belong. Maybe I'll want to settle down there and content myself with occasional visits to Europe. 

But maybe I'll return to find that it's really not my country anymore. Maybe going 'home' will cement my sense that actually Britain is where I want to live long-term. Maybe Canada will be just as amazing as it always was, but I'll want something different. 

At this point I really don't know. I've got my one year MA ahead of me, but then my PhD could be anywhere. Canada, the US, Britain, Australia? Who knows? At this point I'm up for adventure, trusting that God will eventually show me a place I can call home. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Day 338: Living the Dream?

 I write this while sitting on a patio in Venice, a canopy to protect me from the brilliant sun, jazz music playing, a cup of tea steeping on the table, Italian waiters at the ready to bring me milk, or more hot water, or anything else I should need. 

I'm living the dream, apparently. 

Except, at the risk of sounding like the biggest spoiled brat in the history of the known universe (barring Justin Bieber), my life is no dream. 

Over this past year I've done so many things and been so many places that I've always dreamed about. Scotland. England. Ireland. Holland. Italy... the list could go on and on, but those are some of the main ones. Basically, for the past year, I have been quite literally living my dream. 

But, of course, this little thing called like tends to get in the way. The dream Britain is full of rolling hills and fish and chips and cups of tea with the Queen, but the real Britain involves wind and rain and supper in crowded MacDonalds and overnight busses breaking down at 5am.

The dream Italy involves relaxing on a balcony over the Mediterranean sipping wine, then taking a gondola ride through Venice and eating bowls of gelato in expensive florentine caf├ęs. The real Italy involves grabbing meals in overpriced supermarkets and riding on crowded trains and getting hit on my creepy middle aged men and suffering blistered feet and sunburns. 

I'm not saying this to complain. Italy is amazing. All my travels have been fantastic. I wouldn't give up this past year for anything. But I just want to make it clear that my life is about as different from a travel magazine as a real life relationship is from a romance novel. 

Yes, I love my life. But it's really not a dream. That's why it's called life. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Day 332.2: Rome!

I love this place! I'd been warned that it was a bit of a dump, and yeah, it kind of is, but the sheer number of beautiful buildings make up for the crumbling ones and the  illustrious history compensates for the mediocre present.

After the thoroughly tiring plane flight, I made it to Rome a bit before 9am. Dragging my little green suitcase behind me I set off to find the hostel, which was apparently just seven blocks away. Well, it wasn't far, but it wasn't exactly easy to find, as it was on the top floor of a normal looking apartment building and there was no sign whatsoever! Thank goodness I had printed out a map with the address or I never would have found it. 

When I rang, the door was opened by a middle aged Turkish man who turned out to be a traveller in the same predicament as me- he arrived too early to check in. We left our bags in a side room, then set off together to the Colosseum. 

The first sight of the Colosseum was surreal. I've seen hundreds of pictures of it in history books and tourist guides... and then to have it rise up in front of me... Crazy... Unfortunately, the effect was diminished slightly by the fact that half of the main facade was covered by scaffolding. Still. So cool.

Admission cost €12 and also included the nearby Roman Forum and Palatine hill, which I thought was reasonable. Going in was so bizarre, thinking about the thousands of Romans who flocked there 2000 years ago to watch the gladiator fights... Strangely, the arena itself was much smaller than I expected. The outer walls, which look so thin in photos, are actually really thick to allow for layers and layers of seats. This means that the actual fighting ring is comparatively tiny. 

After grabbing some lunch from a cafe manned by a lanky Italian guy with long hair and a bored expression, I returned to the hostel to check in. I had reserved a six bed dorm, but it turns out I was given a room with just two beds, the other taken by an eccentric but friendly Hungarian woman who grew up in the US and now lives in Germany. She's a tad odd, but fun to chat with, and definitely an improvement over a dorm full of strangers!

I took a quick nap to make up for my sleepless night, then set off for the Roman Forum. This was certainly a highlight of the trip and one of Rome's most underrated attractions. It's the original site of the Forum, the Senate, the home of the Vestal Virgins, half a dozen temples, and Augustus's place. Basically, anything you've read about Rome- it's there. Of course, all these things are in ruins, but the site is actually an active archaeological dig, so you can see what they've discovered and what they're still looking for. I spent three hours wandering around here and ended up getting kicked out at closing time. Definitely recommended. 

At this point I was tired and hungry, so I returned to the hostel and got to sleep early. I wanted to be good and ready for the next day, touring the rest of Rome and the Vatican!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Day 332.1: Farewell Romania, Hello Rome!

It seems like most of my travel experiences involve being ridiculously tired. This is probably because the budget airlines always fly at inhumane hours of the morning, like the flight I'm waiting for right now, which leaves for Rome at 6:35am. That's why I got up this morning at 3:30 to be at the airport by 4:30, where, fortunately, the check in desk and security queues were quite efficient. 

I'm waiting at the boarding gate now, slightly before 5am, so I've got awhile to go yet. Boredom, combined with extreme tiredness, of course puts me in the blogging mood. Apologies, internets. Whenever I'm awake enough to write coherent blogs I'm probably off doing something more exciting.

Passport control was a tad awkward, since the guy kept flipping through my passport, looking from my photo to me and back again. I have got my hair cut fairly drastically since that photo, so that was probably the issue. He also asked me about my trip to Ukraine, about who I went with and was it safe. After chatting for a bit and actually joking a little he let me through, so I don't really know what the holdup was at first. 

(Have I mentioned I went to Ukraine? Don't think so... Well, I did. The day after the plane got shot down. Definitely genius planning on my part. But I survived, and some interesting blog posts will come from it, at any rate.)

So, I'm going to Rome. In fact, by the time I actually post this, I'll be in Rome. That's pretty crazy. I'm not quite sure why, but Rome has always been one of the top places in the world I've wanted to visit. A lot of people have told me that it's overrated and actually kind of a dump, but I'm still excited. It's got the colosseum, for Pete's sake! And the catacombs! And the Vatican! There are quite literally thousands of years of history standing right there-- I don't see how that can not be exciting.

And now, time for a power nap, and then I'll start praying the boarding crew doesn't ask me to put my bag in the sizer...


I'm in Rome! And I've been in the colosseum! And St. Peter's basilica! And I'm not going to visit the Sistine Chapel because it's really expensive, but I've been close. And I've seen so many beautiful buildings... I love this city! 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Day 330: Romania is a Wrap

On Friday I finished my second (and last) English teaching placement in Romania. We had a party, handed our certificates, and had a celebratory water fight... and then it was over. A few hugs, some thank you's, and I said goodbye-- perhaps forever-- to the group or students and volunteers who have filled my life for the past few weeks.

(Edumax, the first school I taught at)

It's a bit cliche, but it hasn't sunk in yet that I'm done. I've gotten so used to waking up at 7 every morning to plan lessons, to walking into the staff lounge and greeting the other volunteers, and to teasing Georgiana (my hostess/student). I'm pretty used to life in Suceava, and, despite it not being the most interesting city on the planet, I have enjoyed living here. 

(Photoshoot by an abandoned barn)

It's been a great month. Teaching certainly hasn't been without its challenges, and neither has been adjusting to such a different culture, but on the whole it's been really rewarding and a lot of fun. 

Before I came, last year's volunteers told me that Romanians were really friendly-- that's certainly proved true. I've loved spending time with my host families and the Romanian volunteers at the school. Together, we've explored Suceava, climbed a mountain, and spent countless hours chatting in pubs. 

(The top of mount Ceahlau, 1800m up!)

I can't say I'll be sad to get back to Britain in a week. As much as I'll miss the beautiful countryside and the friendly people and the great restaurants, I'm looking forward to getting back to a familiar language and a shared heritage and cleaner public places. At the risk of sounding horrendously snobby, I will be happy to return to a higher-income country, leaving the cracked pavement and the stray dogs far behind. 

But before Britain, Italy! On the 29th I fly out to Italy, where I'll spend a week visiting Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, and Venice. It's going to be a whirl-wind tour, but I'm definitely looking forward to it. 

(A monastery)

Just one more month travelling Europe. Three new countries left, bringing my total for this year to 20. Being on the road again will be tiring, but there is just so much more to see and do. I'm gonna make the most of this year. 

Romania, farewell. I couldn't live here-- I'm definitely too accustomed to my western standard of living. But even if Romania isn't as comfortable as the West, there's something more real here, a genuine vibrancy and warmth that made my stay so memorable. Hopefully I'll return some day. But even if I don't, Romania will always be part of me.