It’s strange celebrating a birthday away from home, especially a big one like 21. I don’t think I would have imagined my 21st birthday to be spent eating burgers with another friend’s family in a small town in Canada, but hey, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.
Since the last blog post, life has been a whirlwind of activity: I have visited NYC for the first time with my family, sat the longest bout of “midterms” you will ever hear of, been to Montreal for a second time, experienced the Toronto Christmas Market, become closer friends with a few of the “locals”, attended handfuls of Zumba classes, and discovered the Williams Cafe on campus – a delightful island in a sea of overpriced bad food.
The last two months have not gone without their bumps in the road however, with a few of the group getting bad news, with another dropping out completely and flying home to his family. This was an emotional event for all of us, but upon saying goodbye, it rang true to most of us that given the opportunity to go home we would choose to stay, a realisation that even though other places may seem tempting, right here is the best place for us right now.
That sounds melancholy to think about, but it’s not worth denying the fact that spending months in a foreign country can leave one feeling homesick, and I must say, suffering from serious amounts of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) is a given for anyone on their year abroad. However, you must take the rough with the smooth, and accepting that these feelings are normal is half of the battle. What has really helped is sharing with friends here – you’d be surprised how many people feel the same – regularly skyping with family and friends, restraining from stalking all the facebook photos from back home in Durham, and finally, reminding myself that I am in CANADA on my YEAR ABROAD, to suck it up, and enjoy the experience. Things could be far worse.
Reading Week: Hamilton and NYC
Hamilton and the surrounding areas
My parents arrived on a grey Thursday afternoon, on the day of one of my hardest midterm exams. Their arrival was surprisingly motivating, spurring me to see my exam through, so I could really enjoy their presence. We spent three days in Hamilton, for which they stayed in the Staybridge Suites in town – I wasn’t sure they’d feel too happy sharing my uncomfortable single bed! I’d spent some time gathering a list of things they must see, and we slowly started to tick them off one by one.
They’d hired a car so we swiftly zoomed off up towards the escarpment to visit some of the most famous waterfalls. Unfortunately, as it was the bank holiday weekend (Thanksgiving) we weren’t the only ones with this idea, and we struggled to find a quiet spot that didn’t involve too much trekking. It was lovely to see some of the surrounding area that I couldn’t access so easily, and get off campus for a bit, especially after the monotony of midterms. We stopped off at the Botanical gardens, where I spent a while experimenting with my new camera. There was a brilliant alcove of peace just down some steps in the forrest where we sat for a while, soaking up the colours of the gradually turning leaves.
The next day we took Rhiannon under our wing and spent the day in Toronto. Dad is afraid of heights, so a trip up the CN Tower was off the cards – we decided to spend the day on the sight-seeing bus tour instead. This was fab and I recommend it if you want to get a feel for a new city when you have a limited time frame, it’s been great to discover each part separately later on, and its always satisfying when I can reel off facts about the city with friends.
A short walk down to the Harbourfront saw us a lovely lunch in one of Toronto’s many “Irish” Pubs – the closest you’ll get to a gastro pub this side of the pond. Dad engorged himself on a Peanut Butter and Jelly Donut-Burger which, I must say, looked disgusting. But ever the sweet-toothed man, Dad seemed to enjoy this a little too much.
The evening was spent at The Lockhart, the new-and-already-famous Harry Potter bar, where we enjoyed our magical potions, and revelled in the super-fans company. Never have I seen so many Harry Potter tattoos, there were deathly hallows everywhere!! The cocktail bar itself was quite far out from the centre of town, but accessible by car, and quite small. Nevertheless, I have big hopes for the friendly staff and their venture.
After a lazy morning, we drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a whistle stop tour of one of the nicest local areas. It was obvious from the delightful golf course and large houses that this was a rich area, where the more refined individuals spent their holidays and retirement. The town looked smart and quaint, and I look forward to hopefully returning their soon. (However, we managed to get a parking ticket for parking the wrong way in the street!! Obviously the police have nothing better to do!) We picnicked on the golf course on the Niagara Peninsula, sat on a mound next to the ruins of Fort Mississauga, looking out across Lake Ontario to the shores of the US. Nearby a young group of friends laughed and listened to a man play the banjo.
We then visited the Between the Lines Winery, one of the many vineyards in this area. This was one of the smallest and newest wineries and we got a very personal tour of their grounds. Mum and Dad loved this – they are big fans of wine and relished on the opportunity to find out about the grape growing industry and the local area. Ontario is famous for its Ice Wine which has a very weather dependent production process, due to it being made with frozen grapes: a bottle of which my parents treated me to to bring back to share with friends.
Eventually the time came for us to leave for the airport and begin the short flight to JFK Airport, NYC.
New York City
Landing in JFK provided the family with a little drama, as we had arranged to meet my sister at the arrivals lounge (she was arriving from the UK an hour earlier) and travel to our booked Air BnB together. However, she was at a different terminal and uncontactable by phone, as none of us seemed able to access the wifi. On top of this, we were being hassled to take a taxi into the city by a man in a suit who owned a black cab. As we’d been warned against these drivers and to exclusively travel with yellow cabs, I felt uncomfortable with the decision to drive with him. Fortunately, he turned out to be a reasonable man and only charged us US$80 for the trip, including picking up my sister from the other terminal.
We ventured to collect a key and eventually arrived at the apartment for the week. It was great to see my sister again, although the real excitement came with the arrival of my brother and his girlfriend, who live in Scotland. It is very rare we all get together as a five so this meant a lot, and made me feel comforted and somewhat at home, even though we were 2500 miles from Nottingham. They were staying in an apartment nearby and we met them the next day.
Our host had been very generous leaving chocolates, wine, and recommendations for the local area. We walked around that evening, and bought dinner from an organic deli not too far away. It was so nice to have good quality home-cooked food after so long away.
The following morning we met my brother and his girlfriend for the first time at the 911 memorial – an emotional time for everyone!
Never have I visited a more emotional museum, and being on the ground where the towers used to stand made the whole disaster seem even more real. The ghostly sculpture of the new building is supposed to depict the scene of devastation that was left that day, where the steel structure of the original buildings lay splayed out at dramatic diagonals, bent and distorted out of shape. We spent hours inside, which left us emotionally drained and a little bit glad that we could all be together and would continue to be for the foreseeable future. Every time I watch the opening credits to Friends now the twin towers image haunts me even more deeply.
Seeing as we were in the area, we spent that afternoon visiting Times Square, where the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different. I enjoyed the comical nature of the tourist attractions there: women and men scantily dressed in outfits that didn’t leave much to the imagination, and rather creepy characters from films wandering around the street. Anna and Elsa from Frozen loomed upon me with wildly distorted large heads with plastic smiles, awestruck I found myself jumping out of my skin at Spiderman who had managed to sneak up next to me whilst I was looking in the other direction. He really does move silently. However, after a while the tireless tourism leeches started to get annoying, and we decided to visit some of the local shops. Dad decided to try and find a Blue Jays cap but could only find a snapback which, quite frankly, looked ridiculous.
At this point I decided to leave to meet my roommate Amy who also happened to be in NYC to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime: a brilliant play about a boy with autism. For Amy, this play touched home a little because she looks after a child with autism back home, and wants to work in this area for her career. I also took a lot out of the play, finding myself disorientated during a London Tube scene, having to remind myself where I really was. This experience just shows how fantastic the staging effects were in the theatre, a truly awe-inspiring and thought provoking show. We then rejoined with two other exchange friends and ate the best Japanese meal I have ever had. A solo taxi-ride back to the apartment made me feel like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.
The next morning my sister marched us off in the search of Katz Deli, a popular tourist spot in the Lower East Side where they served the BEST pastrami sandwiches – the meat was 3 times thicker than the bread that surrounded it, and we left feeling both full, and one step closer towards heat disease. I must say this shop put Montreal’s smoked meat to shame. A must-do if you are in NYC for any period of time.
We took our leftovers and tubed it to Central Perk, where I enjoyed relating the views to scenes in famous films, and episodes of Gossip Girl. My sister, brother, his girlfriend, and I rented out “Boris Bikes” (I know them by no other name) and cycled around the park, which was another highlight and a recommendation to anyone visiting on a budget. The family enjoyed Strawberry Fields – a section of the park dedicated to John Lennon, situated only metres from the place of his assassination. We tried to find the exact spot, but it seemed the hotel weren’t too keen to advertise it. In the park we made a sign to say Happy Birthday to my young cousin.
New York is famous for it’s Metropolitan Opera, one of the best venues for the art in the world. As mum and dad are big fans of the singing-acting combo (personally prefer a good musical myself) we were sure to fit a cheeky viewing into the schedule. The building itself was stunningly beautiful; a grand staircase framed the most amazing chandelier I have ever seen. It looked like golden fireworks frozen in the moment.
I was also surprised to see so many groups of young people, I’m talking pre-20s here, attending the performance. It may be true that the opera has become a fashionable pass-time with the youngsters of the US, which I found reassuring. Finally, some students that were more concerned about culture and art than getting boozy in the next glamorous club. Quickly it became apparent that maybe I should have dressed a little nicer considering the respectable young gentlemen present.
Coincidentally, my Godfather was also in the area visiting his daughter who had just married and moved to the city. He and my Dad are old friends from university, and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch in a small Italian restaurant hidden away in a back street. My sister and I engaged in our usual food sharing technique, where we would each eat half our meals and swap plates. I must highly recommend this to any foodies, especially those who have difficulty choosing from vast menus.
We walked to the young married couple’s home via the High Line, one of the newest additions to the city, and one of my favourites. There we ate cake and watched rugby, whilst passing around the wedding album. For me, this was lovely – a little taste of home, proving home is a feeling, not a place.
When it came to the time to leave there were a few damp eyes, and it was the first time I had to catch a flight completely on my own, including the travel to the airport. Arriving back at campus I felt like I had barely been gone a minute, left with happy memories of brilliant food and loving smiles.