It was nothing like what I expected, but the best things in life never are. I looked around the room for something to hold on to as the mist crept in to cloud my mind.

No dice; just heads bobbing in a sea of people.

No faces; just eyes cutting through the distance between me and my thoughts. The underground room was crowded and space was scarce. There was no room for ideas.

There was no time for excuses either. I downed a drink and grabbed a mic out of sheer chemical confidence. It was time.

Nobody on earth knew where I was in that moment except for the three dozen bodies swaying left to right in lapping waves around the well-loved baby grand. Three dozen locals; the American and the Canadian were nowhere to be found. No consolation from familiar faces. All the better: Consolation wasn’t what I needed. I wanted a way out, and simultaneous shrapnel to the head and heart would have been preferable.

The band began to play the saddest song I’d ever heard. I turned to meet the eyes of the accordion player, realizing for the eleventh time that night that he only played guitar.

When I was young, I never needed anyone. I still didn’t, but I would have liked a drink to remind me; I would have liked a second drink to forget.

I was out of liquor and out of luck. So I worked myself up to whisper All By Myself to a dimly lit piano bar and a crowd of hands with upsettingly full drinks. The hot air from moving bodies rose up to cloud my judgment before sliding out of the basement to shiver like steam from vents on the streets of Sorrento.

I didn’t know better, but if I’d known less, I would have convinced myself someone had replaced my heart with a five-pound fish fighting desperately for life two inches from salty salvation.

That’s Sorrento – the seaside slice of paradise that will drown you with rain and wine if you dare confront it and ask for a place to rest three months before it’s ready to deliver.

In 48 hours I travelled 50 years into the future, only to travel 50 years back with a strong sense of nostalgia and the urge to make the most of everything. I ended up treading water in a sea of possibility. Time stood still; memories changed; I saw the future and I looked pained. So I came back and sang my heart out like everyone was watching: Humble, timid, alone but surrounded.

Consumed, enamoured.

Italy was having its way with me and I was too charmed to stop it: You become where you are when you think no one’s watching.

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iPhone - Chinatown

Picking up where I left off last post, I spent the Sunday after ringing in the Year of the Snake with a trip to Manchester. For someone who had never previously been to a Chinese New Year celebration, I would say I’ve done pretty well this year, tallying one festivity, and doubling that number the next day.

When I first arrived in Preston, I took a taxi from the rail station to my flat, partially because a full day in transit had made my luggage unbearably heavy, partially because I had no idea where I was.

I’ve realized since that the trains are a short 15-minute walk from my place. After a quick 40-minute scenic tour of grassy hills, covered in sheep and black spidery trees, I was in a real city.

I fell in love with Manchester the moment our train entered Victoria Station. Half of the buildings in the city are historic, weathered with age, and architecturally beautiful. The other half are modern, avant-garde compared to Vancouver standards. It’s almost like being in a miniature display one might find in a museum: The contrast inherent to the city is itself a form of art.

Had it not been a miserably cold and wet day, I would have brought along my camera. Unfortunately, I’m still in that new-purchase phase, where I’m extra cautiously trying to avoid subjecting my camera to the tiniest scratch or speck of dirt.

iPhone - Fireworks

But there’s no doubt I’ll be going back.

I took the trip with two new friends who are studying at UCLan for the year, both of whom are from Spain. One had to take photos of the city’s Chinese New Year festivities for a class, so off to Chinatown we went.

We saw dragons, we heard music, we braved the crowds and the rain and eventually took a break to warm up in an English pub. I had the classic fish and chips, which came with the typically British “mushy peas” that, although looking like baby food, tasted not too bad.

After wandering around a bit more, we chatted about the differences between Spain and Canada, about education, and stereotypes, over coffees and cakes until it was time for the fireworks. It was a perfect end to the weekend.

The next day – back to reality. Well, my reality: A class I enjoy that starts at two in the afternoon, and a random eco-friendly rickshaw ride to get me there. Carpe diem.

PS – Hi Grandma.

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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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