Today, I rang in the Chinese New Year eating some of the most delicious homemade Chinese food I have had in my life, and by dancing the Spanish Bachata at a multi-faith privately-owned “communal” house with a chapel in the backyard, owned by an always-smiling Congolese man. Around our table were four Chinese women, two native Englishmen, two students from Spain – one from the north and one from the south – a Romanian journalism student leaving to study in China next week, the owner of the house who has traveled all over the globe, and myself.

It was a riot of a time.

I have no idea what we ate: The Facebook event menu was completely different from what was served today. Regardless, we ate like kings, laughed like jokers, and bonded as people, across cultures, languages, faiths, and interests.

We taught each other the Bachata and the Menrengue, we talked about dialects and languages and cultures.

The wine flowed freely, the food seemed endless, the company was great, and I had the opportunity to learn about others on a more-than-trivial level, also sharing my experiences and chatting about life back home.

Four in the afternoon in England would be midnight in China, so we were probably dancing and tripping and laughing and drinking when the clock struck twelve back east.

Knowing only the bare minimum from what I’ve read online, the year of the snake is meant to be a year of progress, that emphasizes introspection and a focus on detail, as well as practicing the discipline necessary in order to achieve whatever you’d like to achieve.

To my new friends, Gung Hay Fat Choy.

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After having been overseas for a whopping grand-total of three whole weeks – without sniffle-filled calls back home, or the stifling of sorrows with Molson Canadian and grade-A bacon – I’ve settled.

Not “settled” in the sense that I’m resigning myself to some mundane, routine sort of existence: “Settled” in the sense that I’m on both feet, standing tall, fiercely looking out towards an Atlantic horizon (picture me on the coast, because I’m not actually near it), and possibly craving bacon, but definitely not crying about it.

I won’t pretend to get a lot of questions from fans: I won’t pretend to have any fans. But I do get questions, some from people who care about me, some from those who probably couldn’t care less. Here are my answers:

So, what do you think of Preston so far?

I actually think Preston is kind of a lovely little-feeling but not really little town: The brickwork is old and crumbling, the pubs have interesting names, the accents are thick, there is always something to do…

You think Preston is lovely?

Well, ya. I’m in a new country, everything is different.

Preston is boring, I feel sorry for you.

Okay.

What course are you in?

[Editor’s note: The term “course” in England refers to the program or Major you’re in.] I’m studying International Journalism.

What classes are you taking?

International Journalism, which is basically a class in advanced feature writing. I’m also taking Terrorism & Human Rights, and Political Islam & Islamic Movements. They are all great. Especially the fact that they all just happen to fall on Monday and Tuesday.

What do you mean? You only have class two days a week?

Five-day weekends.

So what do you do with all your time?

I explore Preston…

Are you American?

I’m Canadian.

What’s the weather like there?

Preston feels colder to me, being from mild-weathered Vancouver.

Where’s Vancouver?

West Coast, near the U.S. border.

I always thought Canada would be really cold…

It can be further up north, away from the coast, back east.

Do you like hockey?

Yes.

You have nice Wellies.

What’s a Wellie?

Rain boots. Why, what do you call them?

Gumboots…

That’s so American.

So what are you going to do this “weekend”?

Explore Prest-… I’m going to Manchester.

 

PS – Hi Grandma.

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I hadn’t realized I’d been avoiding going grocery shopping until I felt a calming wave of relief wash over me as I hauled my overstuffed reusable bag into my kitchen, with change to spare in my pocket.

I’ve done this countless times back at home, ranging from what I call “extreme” grocery shopping – the bi-annual Costco shop that ensures we’d be okay for months if the world outside were to melt away – to the last-minute “oops-I-forgot-the-yeast” shop, where the amount of time spent searching for what you’re after is 10 times greater in comparison than the size of the item.

I usually find some pleasure in leisurely strolling up and down the aisles, looking for what I need but also keeping my eyes open for things that I may instantly decide I want.

Here in Preston, where I can buy a day’s worth of fresh eats from the local bakery for £2, I have absolutely no interest in dropping $75 on food I would not only need to prepare, but that comes with a consumption time-limit.

Yesterday, however, after leafing through Jamie Oliver’s 30-Minutes Meals, I had developed a hankering for sweet chili rice that just wouldn’t go away.

Off to the store it was.

Time slipped away as I slowly trekked up and down the rows of produce, poultry, and non-perishables, making sure I wasn’t missing any deals, until my blue basket weighed something like 20 pounds.

They make you pack your own bags at Aldi. I also realized after the fact that if you want to put your groceries in bags, you have to hook them off the shelf and buy them before checking-out. I fit the soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, and sesame oil in my purse. The rest, thankfully, all fit in my bag.

What I most thankful for, was the price tag.

After buying lemons, apples, and bananas, local Lancashire cheese, Greek-style houmous (British spelling of “hummus”), crumpets, crackers, and crunchy chocolate granola cereal, two mini pizzas, six mini yogurts, a bag of rice, a sprig of green onions, 15 eggs, a jug of milk, and a bottle of wine (“Grove Manor: Fruity Rosé”), take a guess how much it cost me.

iPhone - Groceries

I’m sure my bag weighed more in pounds than what its contents cost in pounds: £15.99.

Going off of today’s exchange rate, that’s $25.06 in Canadian dollars.

According to my sources back home (a.k.a. my dear mother), a bundle of groceries like this could easily cost $75. Of course, price depends in part on size and quality.

Size-wise, well, it’s a lot of food for one person. If I were to go out for a meal and a pint, I would probably only eat once, maybe one-and-a-half times, for that price. And I have yet to find a place that offers half-portions and half-pints for exactly half the price.

Quality-wise, the batch of rice I didn’t botch was pretty fantastic. This morning, my chocolatey cereal – which, if we’re being honest, tasted more like dessert – was amazing. Unfortunately it seems to be a UK-only brand.

Bon appétit!

PS- Hi Grandma, Grandpa & Auntie Eleanore.

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“We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” — TS Eliot

As ignorant, naive, or inexperienced as this is about to read, it has taken me a trip to the other side of the world to begin to recognize and appreciate what makes my home in the Metro Vancouver area unique.

Living in a modern, developed, and Western country, I guess I went about my day-to-day activities believing that the sights, sounds, and smells of everyday life there, would be similar in many ways to daily life in other modernized, developed, Western countries. Really, I was so entrenched in a culture with its own identity crisis that I didn’t observe how home would be different from others’ homes abroad.

I guess it was one of those things that I simply didn’t know I didn’t know. And after being asked, here in England, what Vancouver and Canada are like – and being forced to mull it over – I think I’m starting to find some answers.

But what’s more interesting to me at this moment, is what makes Preston different.

In my meanderings about town, I’ve come to look forward to the unpredictably wobbly cobblestones and concrete slabs that make up streets and sidewalks. I’ve grown accustomed to looking right and then left before crossing the street. (I still struggle with the concept of whether I am supposed to walk on the left when passing people walking towards me, or if that even matters.)

Like my experience in New York, people charge across busy streets despite the red stop light when the coast appears to be relatively clear. When it isn’t, the roads are filled with quiet cars, Fiats and Peugeots, and seldom any SUVs.

Whenever I have ordered a coffee at a diner, it has usually come in the form of a cappuccino or with milk, straight out of an automated machine.

Food and drink go hand-in-hand with travel. Apart from the culturally diverse options nearby – ranging from Moroccan to Indian, Italian to Ecuadorean – the local joints offer the typical English breakfast: Eggs, stewed tomatoes, beans, sausage, bacon, potatoes. The last on that list is a big staple. Today, I walked by a food cart selling fried potatoes, hot dogs, something about crispy peas and a special involving onions.

I opted to try mince meat pies for the first time, bought fresh from a £1 bakery. A big believer in butter tarts, I almost choked on the strength of the clove and cinnamon. After a few bites, I kind of began to like it.

Two more quotes to finish this off, because it’s been that kind of a day:

“A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.” — Moslih Eddin Saadi; “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” — Henry Miller

PS – Hi Grandma.

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Fourteen days ago, my flight landed at London Gatwick, and I spent the next 10 hours lugging my suitcase and bags through terminals and stations on my way to Preston.

It was a big journey, but the great adventure is only beginning.

I spent today wandering around the Preston City Centre, braving the blustering winds that have been sweeping the town for the past few days.

I walked past a car park that has a beautiful statue at its entrance. I passed the used-furniture-store-turned-cafe where customers can enjoy a cappuccino at somebody’s grandmother’s kitchen table, covered in doilies, surrounded by an eclectic array of antique lamps. I moved past the Indian food diner that always seems to be closed.

It’s a cloudy Wednesday afternoon. In a covered area outside Preston City Hall, near the local museum and library, I wandered through an outdoor market selling everything from mattresses to iPhone covers to inexplicably large panties.

I discovered a cozy Italian cafe in the middle of the shopping district that serves a deliciously moist chocolate cake, which I enjoyed after much confusion sorting out whose order belonged to whom.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll retrace my steps and take some more photographs of the city that is slowly, day-by-day, becoming more familiar and more welcoming.

PS – Hi Grandma.

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