Monthly Archives: September 2010

virginia woolf on blogging…

“The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world.”

…Okay, maybe not. Maybe I’m stretching it, but today I started reading her 1925 piece titled “The Modern Essay” and couldn’t help but think, maybe she does have something relevant to say about our 21st-century ways of communicating. Her essay is actually a review of a five-volume collection of essays first published in 1920 and in it, she traces the evolution of the essay at the beginning of the 20th century. It was her first work of non-fiction I’ve read and I was just as blown away by it (okay, not quite but almost) as I was by the death of Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse.

Essentially she says that the essayist’s “most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool” is, well, himself. The essayist has “brought personality into literature” by making his own ideas, thoughts and opinions as the subject of his writing. But the key point Woolf drives home is that this can only happen if the essayist actually knows how to write – this ability is the underlying prequisite:

“For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always–that is the problem. Some of the essayists in Mr. Rhys’ collection, to be frank, have not altogether succeeded in solving it. We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print. As talk, no doubt, it was charming, and certainly the writer is a good fellow to meet over a bottle of beer. But literature is stern; it is no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless, she seems to reiterate, you fulfil her first condition–to know how to write.”

The funny thing about this passage was that after reading through it for the first time, my thoughts went immediately to the culture of blogs that has taken over the world (along with ten thousand other social media outlets…). When it comes to blogging these days, everyone is doing it. Reading, writing, following and subscribing – these new platforms for personal thought and opinion are proliferating almost faster than that cute little bluebird over at Twitter.

But are they all adhering to Woolf’s tenets of good writing? As I read the essay, I thought of how important it is to constantly remind ourselves of her admonition – know how to write. It’s a challenge I’m keen to put in front of myself before I go to post each time – write well. Make sure what I am about to write is worth others’ time.

Another thing Woolf addresses is the changes that have occurred (at the time of writing) in the frequency of this kind of publication. Personal essays at one time were crafted only for the drawing room, the table of the drawing room being like “an altar where, once upon a time, people deposited offerings – fruit from their own orchards, gifts carved with their own hands.” But the widened circulation of essays in public hands changed the nature of the essay – for both the writer and the reader:

“To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad. They do it, but instinctively draw out of harm’s way anything precious that might be damaged by contact with the public, or anything sharp that might irritate its skin. And so, if one reads Mr. Lucas, Mr. Lynd, or Mr. Squire in the bulk, one feels that a common greyness silvers everything. They are as far removed from the extravagant beauty of Walter Pater as they are from the intemperate candour of Leslie Stephen. Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half; and thought, like a brown paper parcel in a waistcoat pocket, has a way of spoiling the symmetry of an article. It is a kind, tired, apathetic world for which they write, and the marvel is that they never cease to attempt, at least, to write well.”

Can you imagine a more piercing thought? “Beauty and courage are dangerous spirits to bottle in a column and a half…” and yet bloggers are cautioned to keep posts under 1,000 words, preferably split neatly into eight paragraphs, and on and on, and experts are beginning to wonder if our new magical habits of social media-multitasking aren’t more detrimental in the long run to our ability to focus and perform in general. What (if anything) are we losing in this shift to the “column and a half”?

Whatever the verdict, it’s always good to hear an old hero’s thoughts on today’s concerns…


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on my love-hate relationship with long-term hostels…

Tomorrow is a big day. Not only do classes begin at Kingston but – and what’s about to follow eclipses even the excitement of finally starting my master’s – I get to move into my flat. (Yes, I did resist from inserting about five thousand exclamation points after that sentence.) It has been a long two weeks at my hostel in southeast London. Of course the price was right, but with the discounted weekly rate and free breakfast came sacrifices. What won’t I miss on move-out day tomorrow?

The beds. They’re spring mattresses…that happen to be about fifty years old. You feel every curling wire. What’s worse, you hear every squeak and creak. The bunks are those cheap metal assemble-yourself kind you see often in children’s rooms that seem to gasp and groan with every minor movement.

The snorers. At times there have been up to three a night in my ten-bed dorm. I thought the music invading our room at 2am from the hostel’s bar just below was bad until the snoring started up. It hasn’t been good for my sanity.

The fridge. Something died in there…I’m not kidding. Today, one guy apologized to the whole lounge before opening the fridge door. We took our positions, pulling the collars of our hoodies and jackets up over our noses, before the stench was released. It has an awful way of lingering in the air.

Most of all, it’s the feeling that I can never be alone. As an introvert at heart, I need my space as much as food and water. In general, I find I am a more pleasant person to be around if I’ve had at least an hour to myself, but that space is nearly impossible to find here – let alone trying to find a quiet corner from which to Skype home. But strangely enough over these last two weeks, I’ve developed close ties to those around me. This was my first long-term hostel experience and as each night has gone by, I feel like the group of us who are here for the long-haul (at least compared to those who stay for only a night or a few at most) have grown closer together.

There’s Glen, a Kiwi who’s trekked through nine countries in nine months and is now in London hoping to find work and accommodation. It’s slow going, but he hasn’t stopped looking.

Mike, a Frenchman and aspiring hip hop artist. He is our resident DJ and keeps the tunes going, whether it’s a surprisingly comprehensive collection of classical music, top 40 hits or even his own beats and creations (the last two often being hard to distinguish between).

Rod, a Caribbean from Trinidad who’s known for not exactly being able to handle his drink. He keeps odd hours, working at the hostel on the overnight shift, running the breakfast buffet, and changing the sheets and duvets after guests have checked out.

Philip, a young German with angelic blond curls any girl would envy. He’s here in London on a gap year after high school and is seeking employment as a live-in nanny or carer. Philip is the definition of proactive, making daily trips to the library, writing up posters to advertise his availability, and using a dictionary to ever improve his English.

Laura, a Canadian from Toronto here as a substitute teacher. She thought she’d found a place to live, only to get a call the day before she was due to move in, saying the tenant before her was having problems with her boyfriend and wouldn’t be moving in with him after all.

Sean, an American from Michigan who makes a living writing freelance reference articles about Shakespeare. He’s lived in Austria for seven years (with fluency in German to prove it) and Buenos Aires for one. Am I jealous? You know it.

There are more, even, and what we’ve come to comprise is a sort of unspoken support group for each other. Everyone here is looking – for a flat, for a job, for a connection. This place is like a holding room. I just Googled the term and a woman named Eileen McDargh defines it as “a room backstage where speakers wait to go on.” Like actors waiting for our big break, we’re all in a holding pattern, hoping for a chance to show the world what we’ve got.

There’s a camaraderie we’ve developed, spending hours on uncomfortable couches, playing cards or chess, watching crappy TV movies and eating cheap food our mothers would be appalled to see us consume days on end. We’re all here, all waiting for life to begin. Our phones never leave our side, our email always open, in hopes for that one phone call, that interview, that flat showing, that something to get our lives started.

We’re here for each other when the phone doesn’t ring. When our inbox isn’t overflowing. When Glen comes back from his first day at work, only to realize it’s not the dream job he’d hoped for. When the flat Laura was hoping to love is even dirtier than our hostel. When we just need somebody to listen.

But we’re also here when things do work out. Last week, Mike and Rod were hoping to find a flat together near Canada Water. I came into the lounge that afternoon only to hear Mike yelling at Rod for being too tired to go the flat viewing. “Why don’t you just go by yourself?” I asked Mike. “Let Rod sleep, at least you can check it out.” When I saw him later that night, he high-fived me. “We got it!” he said excitedly. “We move in on Friday!” And the funny thing was, I didn’t have to feign any excitement in return. I was genuinely happy it had worked out for them. “How’s it going?” we ask each other every night, “How was your day?” While our families are either asleep or at work, out of touch on the other side of loathable time zones, we’re the only family each other has got in this corner of the world.

So can I wait to move into my own place, sleep in my own bed, cook in my own kitchen and share a shower with three others – not thirty? Heck no.

But can I wait to leave behind these quirky, funky friendships, this little home we’ve crafted in one of London’s grubbiest hostels?

About that, I’m not so sure…

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where the rubber meets the road.

Talk is easy.

It was one thing to be home for the summer, telling people that I’m moving to London to pursue not only a master’s in travel writing but to get my career going as a writer itself. And yet, it’s been another thing altogether now that I’ve actually arrived. Well, I tell myself, here you are…you’re here and what are you going to do about it?

I took my first step yesterday, having had the incredible opportunity of attending a travel writing workshop hosted by Peter Carty, a long-time travel writer and editor whose publishing credits are only slightly daunting to fledgling writers like myself. I’m talking, The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, Conde Nast Traveller, The Telegraph…yeah, I think you get the picture. I know I wasn’t the only one out of the twenty or so attendees who knew we were privileged to be able to learn from his experience, let alone speak with him during the workshop.

The workshop itself was fantastic. We started off the morning going through three main style issues for our travel articles: use of language, introductions, and structure. We were told to “leave our cliches at home,” and to get us started, Peter had us each go around and share a classic adjective employed far too often by travel writers. Some of the ones we came up with included:

Charming, exotic, magical, sun-kissed, island paradise, manicured gardens, crystal-clear waters, vibrant cities – to which Peter responded, “Yes, a city’s only vibrant in an earthquake.” Brilliant. Someone mentioned “lapping waves” and Peter said, “The sea’s been lapping away for far too long in travel writing.” He told us to leave the journey out of our articles – everyone’s read enough about dimly-lit airport terminals and crazy taxi drivers. “They’re always stepping from planes in their writing.”

Palm trees, azure waters, golden sands…living the cliche in French Polynesia.
We talked about particularity of detail. I loved what Peter said: Give the reader a few hooks and they’ll hang the picture for you. It’s not that you have to spell out everything, but make the few details you do include unique and vivid enough that you’ve done your job well.

The afternoon session focused more on the business side of things – choosing suitable subject matter, crafting good pitches, marketing our pieces successfully, etc. It was what I’d most been looking forward to, diving into the nitty-gritty of actually getting published. Peter handed us a sheet of entry-level publications we actually have a realistic chance of getting our work in. It was so much more concrete and hands-on than any of the songwriting workshops I attended a few years ago. But nothing came without humor: on a list of “Ten Telephone Sales Pointers” to use when following up on submissions, Peter advises us in pointer #7:

If you are not feeling very confident, imagining that the person on the other end of the phone is naked can work very well.

But what I most appreciated about the workshop was that it wasn’t a passive experience. We never had a tea or lunch break in which we weren’t given an assignment – whether it was writing a strong introduction, researching local establishments for a short travel feature, or crafting a perfect pitch. Peter seemed to really like the idea I came up with for my pitch and told me to send it to him to have a look at. It’s hard to believe someone as accomplished as he is would be willing to work with those of us so fresh in the field, but it’s an opportunity I know I simply can’t pass up.

All I have to do now is write the article…..easy enough, eh?

And so I find myself in the same place as three years ago, at a crossroads of connections and decisions. During my third year of university, I was selected as one of ten finalists in a songwriting competition in Charlottesville, Virginia – hometown of the Dave Matthews Band. Although ecstatic at the opportunity to perform in a well-known local venue, my nerves shot through the roof at the realization that the two judges would be none other than Bruce Flohr, manager of DMB and a former senior VP for RCA Records, and Boyd Tinsley, the band’s violinist. How would I approach Bruce? What would I say to him? Obviously, I couldn’t let this chance pass me by.

As it turned out, Bruce took care of it himself. During intermission, after I’d performed my song “Playground,” he walked up to me and said he’d love to talk with me more about my music. He gave me his card and told me to be in touch.

Oh, sure, Bruce, just let me check my schedule…

Although it took about three months for the meeting to happen – Thanksgiving and Christmas always seem to get in the way, don’t they? – I finally found myself sitting in his office, trying as hard as I could not to be intimidated by the plethora of platinum records lining the walls.

After listening to a couple of songs I’d recorded, Bruce told me my next step was going to New York. I needed to get an internship with a record label and should apply on my own first, but if nothing worked out, to let him know and he’d “make some calls.”

And so I went and got an editorial internship with a publishing company in Boston instead. Go figure…

At the time, my hesitance to throw myself fully into music came from an uncertainty of whether or not that was exactly what I wanted to be doing. There was another side of me that wondered about the world of writing/publishing/editing and didn’t know if I’d be making the wrong decision by moving to NYC.

Any angst or regret over my non-existent music career has pretty much dissipated at this point, but yesterday as I sat in the workshop with Peter, I thought – here I am again. My life is in my hands and it’s up to me to make it happen. It’s scary as anything, at this stage where non-action costs little and success so unlikely, but everybody starts somewhere, right?

This is where the rubber meets the road…let’s just hope I can hang on for the ride.

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it takes all kinds.

As a blonde, I try to avoid ditzy moments – they certainly don’t help our reputation in the world. We all remember Miss South Carolina, after all:
But Saturday night while staying at the lovely Palmer’s Lodge in Swiss Cottage (seriously, I recommend it to anyone passing through London), it was my turn. I had just come back from the bathroom and was about to climb the two flights of stairs into my third-story bunkbed. Like every conscientious backpacker, I checked carefully, religiously almost, to make sure I’d put everything valuable into my locker before clicking the lock shut and heading to bed. And I had – everything, including the lock’s keys. Who does that? A surge of panic rushed through me, as well as a fury of unrepeatable words. I remembered every dumb thing I’d done in my life and thought, how do you plan on getting out of this one, Candace?

I crawled downstairs to reception, my face already red from shame, and asked, “This might sound weird, but do you have any metal cutters?” The girl on duty, whom I think might have been Spanish, stared at me for a bit. I began to demonstrate with large motions, as if clipping our backyard hedge. “We only have these,” she said, turning around towards the other side of the office. She held up a large pair of bolt cutters, exactly what I’d been looking for. I sighed with relief. “So I’m not the only person who’s ever done this?” I said desperately, looking mainly to disassociate myself from the types of Miss South Carolina. She shook her head and told me she’d be up shortly to take care of it.

On my way back downstairs later to buy a new lock, I ran into an Indian guy named Timir who’d checked me into the hostel the day before. As he gave me my change, he looked up at the clock – it had only just hit eleven p.m. – and said, “What are you doing going to bed so early on a Saturday? Go change and meet me downstairs for a drink.” I sighed yet again. He was right. Something good had to come out of this night.

Down in the Chapel Bar, I met up with Timir, another American guest named Jason and an Australian guy named Jeremy who works at a different hostel owned by the same company. Once Chelsea had properly dealt with West Ham, Jamie, the Australian bartender on duty, closed up shop and we headed – however regrettably – out to the Walkabout, one of a chain of awful, awful bars popular among the expat community from down under.

And so it was on our way home after about an hour that we walked through the hostel’s parking lot. Someone passed by us and Jeremy asked rather nonchalantly, “Did anyone just see the rollerblader?”

I looked again and corrected him. “You mean, rollerskater?”

When we came outside again in a few minutes, he was still there, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette.

“What’s he doing sitting down?” I asked.

“We all need a break sometimes,” Jeremy said as we sat down on the hostel’s front steps. It felt almost like settling down on the couch as a classic film was about to play – you knew you were in for a good time.

As if he realized he now had an audience, the skater flicked his cigarette away and started up again. What I hope to make clear is that this wasn’t the idle skating of a middle-school field trip, but an intensely focused routine. He went back and forth from one end of the lot to the other, each time working on moves I recalled from Thursdays at “homeschool skate” in sixth grade: crossovers, quick stops, and a kind of side split where he spread his legs out wide before turning. It was nothing as complicated as a barrel roll or grapevine, but it was evident he took his art seriously. Before pushing off each time, he’d do a little dance on his tiptoes – looking remarkably like Mr. Tumnus the Fawn – which was to “gain speed” as he told me later.

But of course, the seriousness with which he practiced was in direct contrast to something else: he wasn’t very good. His side splits looked more like an awkward letter M, his flexibility obviously questionable and his balance often at risk. The fact that he was wearing plaid shorts with a horizontally striped shirt and oversized, white knee pads didn’t aid his credibility.

After watching him for a few minutes, I had to talk to him. His name was Matt and he told me he’s been roller skating for four months. Half-jokingly, I asked if he took lessons. “Oh, yes,” he said. “But I’m only training with the girls’ team right now. They’re amazing.”

He told us how they train in a small gym in their town, a place with mats on the walls like crash pads. One of the girls apparently slid under a radiator once and gashed her knee up. “But she wasn’t wearing any knee pads, so that was stupid.”

“What a rookie,” Jeremy said, and I almost lost it.

I asked him how he got into it. “Well, I work at the local movie theater,” Matt said, and he took a seat on the ground in front of us and began tightening his laces. The toes of his skates had been wrapped in duct tape and the tape was beginning to fray.

“About four months ago we were having a promotion for a new movie coming out on roller skating. Some girls from the local roller derby were there with sign-ups for people who were interested. I figured why not? And now I’m addicted. Before this, I had nothing. Now I don’t do anything else. It’s changed my life.”

This last point he reiterated several times, especially when I asked him if he was merely having us on, giving us a hard time for asking so many questions. “No, I’m serious, it’s changed my life.” I hardly knew what to say.

“Well, everyone needs a hobby,” Jeremy said, but we sort of looked at each other as if to say, this is far, far beyond that. We both agreed this was almost too much to understand and started to wonder if we weren’t on the receiving end of some practical joke the universe was playing on us. I could only marvel at the chances of being able to witness such a thing.

“Every travel writer dreams of stuff like this happening,” I whispered to Jeremy, “This is unreal.”

As a final question, I asked Matt if he knew when he could start competing. “Oh, not for ages. I’ve got heaps to learn.”

When I later told the story to my brother, he asked first if I’d taken a picture and then, when I said I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, why I hadn’t gone to my room to get it. It was a fair question but I then realized, as Jeremy and I had sat watching Matt, there had been no question of moving. It would have been playing with fate, the same as asking a leprechaun to stay put until we could properly document him. Slim chance of that happening.

And so the lock story, in the end, has little to do with Matt the Roller Derbyman. It is meant merely to show that sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time and that in life, sometimes it takes all kinds.

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on life outside our comfort zone.

“There is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear.”
John Wainwright

“Bravery is being the only one who knows you’re afraid.”
Franklin P. Jones

“Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.”
Omar Bradley

Sometimes, I never learn. You would think having done this whole “moving to London” thing before, I’d have taken a more relaxed approach during the summer leading up to this year’s Big Move. Two years ago, I was so worried about finding a place to live across the pond I’d practically memorized every listing on sites like Gumtree and Craig’s List, so frequently did I visit them (feel free to read “visit” as “stalk”). In many ways, I did chill out, but when my university opened up its Daily Vacancy List in June as a place where registered landlords could list their flats and students could begin the hunt, I found myself slipping into my old ways…Adding the DVL to my morning routine of checking email, Facebook, etc. Buying Skype credit. Calling landlords with the slim hope they’d be understanding enough to send me pictures in lieu of the standard viewing.

As if.

And so it was that with a week to go before my departure, I was on the verge of panic. A feeling akin to helplessness almost made me want to call the whole thing off. I was in Baltimore, on the tail end of a roadtrip around the East Coast to visit old friends I hadn’t seen for ages, and sitting in my friend Emily’s flat alone one morning, I couldn’t help but think, what have I got myself into? The plans I had to stay with friends in London once I arrived fell through, nearly every hostel was booked full, and I thought:

Right. I’ve got to remind myself why I’m doing this.

Thankfully, two things recently got me thinking about the idea of bravery and courage and helped combat the feeling of just wanting to pull the covers over my head and never come out, let alone board an international flight.

One is a book I picked up called Just Courage, written by Gary Haugen, president and CEO of International Justice Mission (IJM). The book’s underlying mission is to address the nagging sense of boredom and restlessness so many people feel today. I haven’t read much of it yet, but I love the distinction he draws between being safe and being brave:

“Fear is normal, even among the earnest and devout, and it can be overcome. But first we must see the opportunity it provides–a revelation that only comes as we step to the precipice of action” (130).

The second thing was getting coffee with a family friend one morning a few weeks ago. Just about to start her senior year of college, she asked to meet with me to talk about “the future.” As soon as she said it, I remembered myself in her shoes – and didn’t envy her a bit, of course. Nothing’s worse than the vague feeling of coming to the edge of a cliff – that very “precipice” Haughen refers to – in those last few months before graduation. So I gave her my full attention in our neighborhood Starbucks, listening to her mull over post-graduation options as diverse as working for IJM in Cambodia or perhaps another non-profit closer to home in DC.

She then asked me questions about my life since graduation and I related it to her in hopes of encouraging her that even our Plan C’s and D’s can work out for the best.

“You’re so brave,” she said, and I was close to setting my mocha down and spinning around in my seat to see who she was talking about – for it certainly wasn’t me. I thought back to a time in my senior year when I decided to go to Nashville for a weekend songwriting conference hosted by the Gospel Music Association. “You’re going by yourself?” a friend had asked during class one day. I told her I was, only to be puzzled by her reply: “That’s so brave of you.”

Or flashback a year and a half to me in Dulles Airport, waiting to board a plane that would carry me to New Zealand. I was crying so hard I couldn’t even form the words to say “goodbye” to my sister on the phone. I hardly imagine anyone who saw me that day would have turned to their friends and said, “Well doesn’t that girl look brave?” But when I tell people now what I did, that’s always one of the first words out of their mouths.

So in short, here are three quick things I think I’m starting to learn about the idea:

1. Bravery looks different for everybody. The boundaries of our comfort zones are rarely drawn along the same lines – what may stretch me might be old hat for someone else, and vice versa.

2. Bravery is less about a conscious decision as it is a gut reaction. It’s usually something we know we just have to do, not spend hours mulling over it.

3. Bravery is acting in spite of fear, not in its absence.

Bravery, I’ve found, has little to do with a lack of fear but rather what we do with our fears. Do we let them control us, paralyse us, keep us in our comfort zone? Or do we show them who’s in control, relegating them to their proper place – as a roadmap for action, not a roadblock? I think it’s good to do something every now and then that scares the hell out of us, good to feel that tight, gripping sensation in the middle of our chests and know that what we’re about to do, we want so badly we’re scared to move towards it.

Sometimes, it’s not about being brave, it’s just about not letting our fears get the best of us. It’s about getting on a plane, even if there isn’t much waiting for us on the other side. About sending an email, picking up the phone, doing whatever it takes to get us closer to our dreams.

As the protagonist of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World says (yes, apparently Sherlock wasn’t his only creation!):

“…it is only when a man goes out into the world with the thought that there are heroisms all round him, and with the desire all alive in his heart to follow any which may come within sight of him, that he breaks away as I did from the life he knows, and ventures forth into the wonderful mystic twilight land where lie the great adventures and the great rewards.”


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hey, neighbor: ten hours in toronto.

Toronto's famed CN Tower.

As a child, Canada did little to hold my attention. I knew it was there, of course, like a distant relative you hear about from time to time, but my vague knowledge of its presence – this large terra incognita somewhere north of New York and New Hampshire – came only from the footnotes on my calendar (“Boxing Day – Canada,” it might read) or the alternative prices listed in Canadian dollars on the back of my books.

But as is so often the case with me, it takes a personal connection to another country to really pique my interest, to get me seriously invested. Investment in friendships inevitably leads to investment in their backgrounds, in their history…how else did I end up in New Zealand after all? Growing up in Virginia, my interaction with Canadians was practically non-existent, but in the hospitality scene of Queenstown, they were crawling out of the woodwork and for the first time in my life, I wanted to know more – and was ashamed of how much I didn’t know, especially when one of my friends from western Canada told me she had to learn all fifty American states and capitals in elementary school. Could I so much as guess at how many provinces Canada has (ten, plus three territories), let alone name them or even give their capitals?

So when I went to book my flight to London and found Air Canada offering the cheapest fare, I jumped at the chance to visit. A ten-hour layover in Toronto would be short, it would hardly be sufficient, but it would be Canada and – maybe even more noteworthy – another coveted stamp in the passport.

The flight from Richmond to Toronto sounded innocent enough – a mere two hours, the same duration as flights I’ve recently taken to less exotic locales like Nashville or Minneapolis – but our aircraft bordered on the absurd. An 18-seater prop plane bearing two pilots and seven passengers, all of us looking around at each other pre-departure as if to say, are you kidding me? We made it, however, and the scene outside my window looked similar enough except a different flag was being flown and the pilot, who only hours before had announced the temperature in Fahrenheit, now told us it was 18 degrees Celsius outside. Immigration was serious as ever, even given the brevity of my trip. “What do you plan to do during your stay?” the officer asked and I was so close to saying, Seriously? but wisely re-considered. Ten hours hardly seemed like enough time to get into trouble – or worse yet, to make “recourse to public funds” – but I was grilled nonetheless.

Again, even with my limited time there, I arrived with an agenda. The Art Gallery of Ontario had an exhibit on titled “Drama and Desire: Artists and the Theatre” and works by Degas, Delacroix and John Singer Sargent drew me there. A gallery attendant then encouraged me to check out a display of African sculpture and the European collection upstairs, but the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art interested me the most. I’ll be honest, there was a lot of snow. But there was history, too, hiding in all that nature, and I learned of the “Group of Seven,” landscape artists such as Lawren Harris, Frederick Varley, and A. Y. Jackson, who played a crucial role in furthering Canadian art. As one quote read: “As artists, they shared a common belief that Canada had to develop its voice in art before it could truly become a nation.”

Lawren Harris' "Lake and Mountains."

From the museum my time in Toronto sped into a high-powered mission, a crash course in Canadian culture. From the Hockey Hall of Fame (where Asian tourists posed in front of bronze-cast hockey players) to the CN Tower – the world’s tallest building, apparently (why do I find this hard to believe?) – to Tim Horton’s for coffee and a sandwich, I tried to make the most of what little time I had.
But mostly I walked, weaving in and out of the crowded streets and soaking in life as a Torontonian would. Maybe it was the overcast sky, but the city didn’t sparkle – and I liked that. It seemed almost dirty, a little rough around the edges – like it didn’t feel pressured to be so put together. I liked that every restaurant hailed from a different culture and that the faces I passed were of a thousand colors. I remembered something I’d read about Toronto’s burgeoning internationalism and reminded myself to look into it further. What I’d recalled was correct.

The Globalization and World Cities Study Group, based out of Lougborough University’s geography department, created a roster to rank the world’s largest cities into categories of world or “global cities.” Toronto is 14th on the list, not a bad claim-to-fame considering the competition. According to a 2001 report by the Migration Policy Institute, the total population of Toronto is 4,647,960. Total foreign-born population? 2,091,100. Yes, that is just shy of 45% of its population. (To give you a point of comparison, the same report on New York City in 2005 found its foreign-born population at 27.9%.) And an article by Statistics Canada estimates that by 2017, “more than half the population of Toronto would belong to a visible minority group”….making the term “minority” almost irrelevant, right?

And so with all its ever-expanding cosmopolitanism, Toronto seemed to me quite the amalgam. It was hard to hear the accent so similar to mine and not think I was still in the States, and yet the British influence couldn’t be escaped, whether in the spelling, the politics, or the architecture. The tiling in the subway looked strikingly similar to that of the London Underground, the fast-food restaurants were eerily American (but aren’t they always?), and a sign for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s “Aboriginal Service” brought up issues on a whole other level altogether. In many ways, I could’ve been anywhere, and for that reason I held onto things like the unmistakably iconic maple leaf – which popped up everywhere from McDonald’s signs to HGTV adverts – and the fact that the five-dollar bill in my hand pictured a game of ice hockey.

Only in Canada, eh?

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it’s good to be back.

A fitting American Express ad in the Toronto airport.

It had been a long flight. Of course, the six and a half hours from Toronto to Heathrow pale in comparison to past flights to and from New Zealand, but what I hadn’t realized was how lucky I’d gotten on them – on my ten-hour flight from LA to Fiji, I had a row of five seats to myself, something that makes an overnight flight seem remarkably like just another night’s sleep.

The full flight on Air Canada was a whole different story and as I went to board my National Express coach from Heathrow to Victoria station, I was well looking forward to at least one hour of sleep. But when the jostling of the bus woke me at one point from dozing, a street sign for Kensington caught my attention and shook me further from any sleep-induced stupor: Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington.

Kensington – only a stone’s throw from Chelsea, my beloved neighborhood from two years ago. The bus made its way through Earl’s Court and I immediately recognized the streets we passed along, the Tube station and the NatWest bank and the As Greek As It Gets restaurant I always thought of trying. We were soon crossing King’s Road and the Somerfield’s supermarket and just when I thought the nostalgia couldn’t grow any stronger, the driver turned left along the Thames and there it was: my flat, the very door leading into our building just a few steps away. Suddenly it was the 16th of August, 2008, and Kim, Emily and myself were being driven down Blantyre Street by a crazy Scotsman named Matt McAlister and shown up to the fourth floor of a brick tower called World’s End Estate and handing over an obscene amount of money to secure a flat we’d then share for the next six months. It all came rushing back, all the old streets, all our old haunts – and all this after no night’s sleep!

When I booked my coach, I hadn’t realized a harmless five-pound ticket would include a trip down memory lane. In the taxi from Victoria to my hostel in Swiss Cottage, I tried to pin down what exactly I was feeling. It kept bugging me, not being able to name this “I’m happy to be here but still feel a bit off” emotion, until I realized: this is the feeling of coming home. Of being gone and returning after a long absence only to find so much unchanged. The taxi driver asked if I’d been here before.

“Yes,” I said, telling him when and why. “It looks the same, too,” I added, as we circled around an entrance to Hyde Park.

“Never changes much,” he said, a little too morosely for my liking.

Even my loyalty card for Boots pharmacy still works – of course the address on file is wrong, but when the sales attendant asked if I had a card, I could look in my wallet and say that yes, as a matter of fact, I do.

The funny thing is feeling this way in a place like London, somewhere explicitly not my hometown. What’s even more bizarre is the speed of the transition back. As I walked the streets of Swiss Cottage yesterday afternoon, getting a phone from Carphone Warehouse and signing up for the same TalkMobile pay-as-you-go plan I’d used before, I said to myself, “This is all too quick.” One minute I’m with my family in the suburbs of Suffolk, Virginia, the next I’m in London again, seemingly picking up everything where I left off. Everything the great travel writers lament about air travel came to mind – the artificial swiftness of it, the way it fails to afford you any serious amount of time to process your journey.

Appropriately named store in Toronto.

On the plane next to me, a red-headed American student named Melinda told me she’s coming to London to study abroad. It’s her first time out of the country and she asked me if I’ve travelled much. Two years earlier, I would’ve been in the same seat as her but this time, surreally enough, things are a little different. She told me she was planning on taking a taxi to her program in northeast London, but I advised her against it, explaining the Tube and its glorious cost-effectiveness.

As we left the plane and walked through Terminal 3, I looked around and saw her keeping up with me. “Sorry, she said, “I’m just following you, I have no idea where I’m going.” I smiled and told her it wasn’t a problem. We queued up at Immigration together and talked about her plans to travel throughout the semester. It’s tempting to say too much in such situations – everyone deserves a chance to find things out on their own – so I told her only things I wished people had told me sooner – the one-pound seats on MegaBus if you book early enough, the hidden costs that make RyanAir’s unbelievable fares a little more believable. “Thank you so much,” she said as we parted ways later on, “You were such a helpful friend to meet!”

This morning, after a lovely (and might I add, free!) breakfast in the hostel, a full email inbox was there to greet me. Not only well-wishes from home but also notes from friends here in London – “old” friends from my last time here, from “new-old” friends – people I knew in New Zealand who are crazily now here – and even new friends, people I’ve “met” this summer via email through Kingston’s student-to-student noticeboard but can now meet in person. So despite the strangeness of returning to a place in which I’ve already spent a significant amount of time, I am grateful as ever for the network of people I’ve met – and I use that word implying none of the awful corporate connotations associated with it. Perhaps “web” is more fitting, stressing instead the idea of connections following you wherever you are, expanding more and more the further you go.

And now with two weeks in front of me before work and school start, I’m not sure what exactly I’ll do with myself – but I suppose there are worse places to have too much time on one’s hands, right? What I do know is that the panic of last week (don’t worry, there’s a post coming soon on this) is now replaced by peace.

A quiet, confident peace that says this, my friend, is right where you’re meant to be…

Exploring the lovely sidestreets of Swiss Cottage.

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