My year in Canada

I caught the travel bug after spending a couple of summers working in the States and so when contemplating what to do with my life after graduating from Edinburgh University in 2009 I decided to take advantage of having no fixed plans and embark upon a gap year.

I had never really considered Canada as a destination until my final year at university when I happened to meet some people who had spent their gap year there and couldn’t stop talking about it. They had found the people some of the friendliest in the world, the country diverse and dramatic, and the cities cosmopolitan and thriving and it was hearing all this that made me want to explore it for myself.

As I couldn’t afford to go away for the year and not work, I looked into getting a working-holiday visa. I had worked and travelled in America for a short stint in 2007 and 2008 through BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) a non-profit student travel club, and found that they also offered a working-holiday visa for Canada which allowed you to stay for a full year. I booked myself onto their Work Canada programme and decided to set off on my travels in September 2009, after spending a couple of months living at home and working to save money.

I settled on Toronto as my destination, a city I was promised, with an eclectic mix of neighbourhoods, numerous events and festivals throughout the year, and most importantly; an impressive array of food on offer! I was booked to fly on 30 September with other BUNAC participants. All summer I had been brimming with excitement, until about a week before I was set to take off and I suddenly got the fear…big time! What was I doing upping sticks and travelling to a country I had never been to before without a job or permanent accommodation arranged? I had booked into a hostel in downtown Toronto for a couple of weeks, but after that I was on my own. Finally my departure day arrived. I arrived anxiously at Heathrow and met up with the others who were on the same flight as me. I had never met them before but was able to spot them easily due to their huge backpacks and worried faces. I soon learned they were just as nervous as me and having each other for company did make the journey a lot less stressful.

Upon arrival in Toronto we boarded the bus that took us downtown and to our hostel. I had set off for Toronto with the intention of finding a permanent address to live first, and then to find a job. Luckily, and in the manner things often work out in hostels, I was placed in a dorm where I met another English girl and an Australian girl, who were also out there on working-holiday visas like me and we clicked right away. We decided we would search for accommodation together and after about a week of hunting we found a lovely house on the east side of the city specifically for students and travellers.

Having sorted out housing so quickly, I could now turn my attention to finding a job. I wasn’t too picky as I was mainly looking for something to pay the bills and enable me to socialise throughout the year. I focused on retail as most of my part time jobs in the past had been in this field and I thought that was where I stood the best chance. After a couple of weeks and a couple of interviews I was offered a job in a bookshop in the north of town, ideal for me as a fanatical reader. There were many Canadians of a similar age also working there, who by the end of the year I considered to be very close friends. So after only three weeks, I found myself not only with a new set of friends, but with a new house and a new job. Now I could concentrate on enjoying Toronto and everything it had to offer.

When I had first arrived in Toronto I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. So many people had told me just what an amazing city it was. I had spent quite a bit of time in New York and was under the impression that Toronto would be fairly similar. I could not have been more wrong. On my first couple of days there it rained constantly and I initially felt like Toronto was just a smaller, greyer version of buzzing New York. I had, as a lot of travellers do, a shaky start, and contemplated using my savings that I had come over with to fly across to Vancouver and try afresh there. However, after talking it over with my fellow travellers, and chatting to locals about the best bits Toronto had to offer, I began to see that the beauty of Toronto is in its many different neighbourhoods and the fact that it is unlike any other place. I soon learned about the quirky streets with cool bars and restaurants, the picturesque harbourfront, the enormous parks… I could go on.

I found what people had told me before I left to be utterly true; Canadians are the friendliest people on earth. After a chance meeting with a woman after about two weeks of being in Toronto, I received a phone call from her in December, a couple of months later, making sure that I had somewhere to go on Christmas Day as I was away from my family. Torontonians are fiercely proud of their city, rightly so, and go out of their way to make sure visitors feel welcome there.

Throughout winter I enjoyed the free ice skating and Christmas concerts and then come February, I along with the rest of Canada, became gripped by the winter Olympics. The night Canada beat America in the final of the ice hockey to take the gold medal is one I will remember forever, with streets right across town having to be closed because of the mass celebrations. Everywhere you looked people were singing and dancing in the streets and you couldn’t help walking about with a massive smile on your face. Come spring and summer, the city really came alive, with the glorious weather and the abundance of summer festivals and events. There was a jazz festival at the beaches, a Greek food festival, a world food marketplace, a gay pride festival, Canada Day celebrations, to name but a few. There was absolutely no chance of being bored there.

So my gap year was an amazing experience for many reasons, the friends I made over there, both fellow travellers and Canadians, living in Toronto and experiencing all the great things the city has to offer and the chance to explore further afield, I had trips to Niagara Falls, Montreal and a weekend in New York. But what was really beneficial about the year was it gave a sense of direction to my life. Before I left I had done some volunteering for the Citizens Advice Bureau and had decided I wanted to work in the public or voluntary sector with people, but that was as far as I had got. I was hoping I would have some kind of epiphany and everything would just fall into place.

When I first arrived in Toronto I decided I would do some more volunteering, to build up some more experience and perhaps give me some concrete ideas what I wanted to do. I started volunteering with a scheme run by social workers which involved visiting an isolated older person each week to keep them company. I was paired with a woman in her mid fifties who suffered from Cerebral Palsy and had no living family left. Each week I would go to her apartment and we would chat for a couple of hours. After a couple of months doing this, combined with the fact I ending up living with a social worker student, I decided that I wanted to pursue becoming a social worker and so applied for universities in England starting in 2010 to do a MA in Social Work. The social workers that I worked with through the visiting scheme helped me with the application process and when I heard I had got a telephone interview with Warwick University, they gave me some useful tips. In May, I was offered a place at Warwick starting in October 2010 which I gladly accepted. It wasn’t an actual epiphany, but close. Canada really was an eye opener for me, and gave me the chance to take my time and properly consider what I wanted to do.

Of course travelling isn’t always a bed of roses. You’ll have days where you really feel homesick and crave some British home comforts or to be back with family or friends, but you learn to accept it is natural when travelling to have fleeting moments like that, and that they will soon pass. Although the current economic climate and job situation is undeniably very worrying, I think travelling, if it is something that interests you, and you are in the position to be able to do, really is important. It allows you to experience a completely new place, give yourself some time to consider what your next step in life will be, and gain a whole new host of friends and places to stay when you go on holiday!

I was very sad to leave Canada, I had completely fallen in love with the country and its people and I found it hard to adjust back into UK life. But now I am really enjoying my course at Warwick, and feel certain I made the right decision in undertaking it. I am going back to Toronto in the Easter Holidays to visit friends for a couple of weeks and then someday I hope to move back out to Toronto on a more permanent basis as I don’t think my experience there will ever leave me.


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