Newbs in Vancouver

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It’s approaching six weeks since two pasty-faced, jet-lagged Scots landed in Vancouver, blinking against the strip lights in Richmond airport’s baggage carousel. After a brief struggle to the taxi rank with four big bags of both the luggage and under-eye variety, we were on our way to our Airbnb in West Vancouver, where we spent our first 3 weeks in the city.

Every time I’ve moved to a new country, I’ve found it difficult to know how to answer the slow drip of  messages from friends and family members, hungry for feedback on what my Brave New World looks like. I can get trapped in replying perfunctorily, outlining accommodation details or employment progress and neglecting the actually interesting stuff: observations, experiences, one-offs – i.e., the very reasons I moved continent to begin with.

So let me now share some of the main things I’ve noticed since landing in this new, foreign land.

1.Trucks. Are. Life.

For months before we left Edinburgh, Dave used to regularly wax lyrical about his plans for a pick-up. About how we could chuck our skis in the back, throw on some snow tyres and head on up the winding road to Whistler. To be honest, he went on about it so much that by the end I was just as enthusiastic about getting one.

However, I dare say there is a chasm of titanic proportions between our idea of a truck and Canada’s idea of a truck. Because thundering through Vancouver right now is a swarm of monsters masquerading as entirely sensible vehicles, with aggressive sounding names to match their bulk.

The car parking spaces in the supermarket in West Van are about six feet wide, leaving a few marked for use of "Small Cars". And yep, they're still bigger than the standard car parking spaces back in Scotland!

After studying the drivers of these (exquisitely polished, rarely mud-flecked) RAMs, TITANs and GMCs, we’ve started to think that there may be some overcompensation at play. If you know what I mean.

Personally, we've since settled on a 2007 Ford Edge SUV, sourced from a Facebook group (I'm nothing if not resourceful.) You can fold the seats down and comfortably get about 9 sets of skis plus a small hostage in the boot, so Dave's satisfied.

2. Everything. Is. Big.

I know this is a common observation from Brits who land in transatlantic territory, but having walked around for just a week I am very much joining the bandwagon. We’ve already touched on the cars, but it’s the streets, the food, the buildings, the malls, hell I swear even the sky is bigger here.

Vancouver’s unique in that even in its big city buildings have big nature mountains towering over them, a combination which works together to get you feeling really, really small. And it's pretty magnificent.

Case in point: an enormous block of cheese on sale in the local supermarket...

3. People are thee best.

It quickly became apparent that personal connections are paramount in Canada. On our connecting flight from Toronto to Vancouver, we were seated next to a lovely guy called John. Immediately he took an interest in us, our lives and our work. Long story short, a contact he set Dave up with has now landed him a job. How's that for a first impression of Canadians??

When we arrived at our Airbnb, our host Trina couldn't have been more welcoming and helpful either, and has been speaking to her friends about us to see if there's any way she might be able to help us get set up with jobs/an apartment.  She's now even invited us over to her place for Christmas Eve!

In cafes, restaurants and bars, servers take an interest in our accents and ask what brought us to Canada.  There's just a lovely sense of curiosity and helpfulness from people, which I'd heard about from others but was still a lovely boost to my already positive expectations. 

4. Asian culture is huge.

It's estimated that around 20% of the population in greater Vancouver comes from Chinese heritage, while places like Richmond, just south of Vancouver, counts more than half of its inhabitants as Chinese. This means that walking around the city and its suburbs, Chinese restaurants are ten a penny. I'm not a huge fan of Chinese food, but I can imagine the city would be a gastronomical Aladdin's cave for those who relish it!

Saying that, we did go to a Chinese restauant called Dinesty in Downtown Vancouver a few weeks ago, and oh my god I still have dreams about those dumplings. A must visit for anyone looking for gorgeous, authentic Chinese food.  

5. They love a bridge.

Road, rail, suspension: you name it, Vancity's got it. Because of the way the city is laid out, with "Downtown" being the epicentre of sky-skimming offices, banks, bars, restaurants and shopping, and everything else kind of satelliting off it, bridges connect the different areas. Travelling from West Van to Downtown you go over the glorious Lions Gate bridge (below), Second Narrows Bridge will take you to East Van and Burrard Street Bridge to reach West End from Downtown. It reminds me of a much more chilled out version of Manhattan. 

6. It feels smaller than it looks (which is good)

In fairness, it is massive but it's largely spread out. The skyscrapers and high rise buildings you'll see in a standard Google search are probably taken in Downtown Vancouver (sandwiched between greater Vancouver and North/West Van.) Downtown is where most of the 'city' is concentrated, but Greater Vancouver is a different story. There are huge parks and nature reserves, smaller communities and an overall quieter, more laidback feel to it.

7. Groceries will bankrupt you

I'm talking 2 CAD (£1.16) for a cucumber. And cheese is tragically, tragically expensive. We "treated" ourselves to a tiny block of cheddar the other day which cost us about £6. SOS.

8. As will your mobile phone

For some reason, most mobile phone providers here only offer about half the amount of data you could get back home, for twice as much money. The cheapest deal I could find was $50 CAD (around £33) for 10MB of data per month, whereas back home I paid £15 per month for 15MB. Oh, and don't leave the province as your provider will essentially stop providing. Weirddddd. 

8. It's the greenest city I've ever been in 

There are massive parks dotted around the city and half an hour from downtown Vancouver are major hikes and trails. The whole city is also overlooked by three mountains (Grouse, Cypress and Seymour) which are a short bus ride from the city.

9. Craft breweries are everywhuuur (and I moved from Edinburgh.)

We're not complaining.

It’s the ruggedly handsome island I’ve always daydreamed about. With a couple of days leave still left to take before Christmas, I decided to fulfil my romantic little reveries and book a long weekend over the sea to Skye.

I’m far from unique in my idealised vision of the island, which explains its brimming population every summer, when domestic and international visitors alike descend upon Skye to see its surrounding beau idéal for themselves.

High season runs from April to October, so our late November/early December trip was very off-peak – something people didn’t hesitate to warn me about before we went. Since my plans consisted of walks and seeing some iconic landscapes- while staying in a self-catered cottage – I wasn’t too bothered about this.

However, people were not over exaggerating when they said the island closes down over winter. Anywhere really outside of Portree or Uig (the main two towns) is completely dead – something we discovered on our last night when we thought we’d venture out for dinner, only to discover the only place open for miles (including back over the bridge to the mainland!) was ‘Taste of India’ in Kyleakin. It was lovely but didn’t necessarily fulfil my vision of a cosy, island restaurant experience!

Unfortunately for us our wee visit coincided with Storm Diana, so a lot of our outdoor adventures were accompanied by wind, rain and hail. To be fair, it’s Scotland in November so it’s to be expected, though obviously a visit during the dryer months might suit people who aren’t necessarily used to such meteorological factors. 

Here are some of the things we got up to during our two full days on Skye…

Fairy Pools

Through my incessant Instagram scrolling (no, you have a problem..) I’d seen so many amazing photographs of the Fairy Pools that I insisted they were the first thing we saw on Skye. Luckily the weather stayed clear enough for long enough that we were able to actually walk around them properly and enjoy them.

Even while experiencing the authentic Scottish weather of four seasons in one day (or rather, hour), these naturally-formed pools and waterfalls are so magical. In between the hail when the sun shone, the water was so clear and turquoise and I felt I could sit and watch them for hours. 

TOP TIP: if you’re visiting here in winter, do not be extremely optimistic like us – wear actual proper hiking boots or wellies. I had normal boots on while Dave had trainers, so we (yes, two man effort) had to squeeze his size 9 feet into my size 6 wellies I’d left stashed in the boot of the car. Prepare yo’ feet, readers. Also, the car park opposite was a fiver to get in to so remember cash!

                                                               The Quiraing

The weather was at its worst when we went to see The Quiraing on the north of the island, so even though we couldn’t do the walk (which is a loop of around 7km), it still looked pretty epic with the low hanging mist and cloud. 

The site is widely compared to Lord of the Rings scenery, and when we visited it definitely had a touch of Mordor. I’d love to come back in Spring/Summer and do the full loop. We only did the first kilometre maybe, but even then I was blown away by it  (metaphorically as well as almost physically.) 

                                                                Portree

We made a little pit stop here on our way back from The Quiraing. We only wandered around the centre a bit but we ate by the fire at The Antlers Bar and Grill (haggis bon bons: the best) we wandered down the main street (mostly gift shops!) and got some cake at Cafe Arriba which is a cute little upstairs cafe overlooking the sea. 

                                                      Eilean Donan castle

OK, so it’s not technically on Skye but it’s close enough…

As far as castles go, Eilean Donan in my (I suspect very mainstream) opinion is the king of them. Standing above the water about a 15 minute drive from the Skye bridge, it was lit up as we passed in the darkness and the sight gave me instant goosebumps. 

The castle itself is closed in the low season but you can still walk around it. I will certainly be back one summer to go inside!  

                                                                       Mhor 84

‘Cos you can’t have a North-West road trip without stopping here! My absolute favourite little spot just off the A84. This time we visited “Store 84” (the shop right next to the restaurant) for the first time, and it was filled with some amazing things so definitely worth popping your head in. 

                                         And finally, where we stayed… 

As an Air Bnb stalwart, we of course stayed in a little Air Bnb cottage. It was in Lower Breakish, which is about 15 minute drive from the bridge. It was right on the sea front and the space was just so gorgeous and secluded.

If you want to be closer to the ‘action’ (which is somewhat limited during winter on Skye but you get my drift) this was quite a long drive from most places (45 minutes to Portree and over an hour to The Quiraing on the north of the island.)

From what I hear from others who have visited, Uig and Portree seem to be the most popular places to stay, as you’re slightly more central/nearer to the big attractions. Since there wasn’t much going on while we were there anyway (and it was also mad weather) we were more than happy to make dinners in our wee cottage, drink mulled wine and sit by the fire! 

Skye, I’ll see you again soon! 

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Despite visiting this wonderful city already aged 18, my memories of it have become somewhat hazy over the years. So when my friend chose Madrid as the setting for her hen do, I was excited to get to explore it again and refresh my memories of a decade earlier.

So even though we were only in the city for one full day, I thought I’d do a little blog post on the highlights of our gals mini break – which both my head and stomach muscles are still recovering from.

Sipping sangria in a sunny square

This was about as much on point as my alliteration efforts. Honestly, I know it’s said often but sometimes the small, simple things really are just the best. Exploring and doing that walking thing is fine and everything but really, sometimes you just cannot beat cold sangria, awesome friends – old and new! – sunshine and people watching in the beautiful Plaza Mayor square.

Traditional tapas

It’s surprisingly difficult sometimes to secure that dreamy recipe of good food, good company and good surroundings. But our second night in Madrid impressively nailed all three. We feasted on tapas delights which included (from what I remember) battered and fried courgette, chorizo of an actual butter-like consistency (don’t ask me the name), ham croquettes, Spanish tortilla, calamari and many many many other dishes.

Despite neither party’s ability to speak the other’s language, the waiters were absolutely hilarious. The manager provided us with fizz and a variety of liqueurs on the house before conducting an impromptu lock-in until after midnight when we moved onto our next venue (see below!).

If you’re ever in Madrid and want great food, friendly staff, authentic Spanish surroundings and – importantly – very reasonable priced and tasty Shiraz, would highly recommend El Anciano Rey de los Vinos.

Rooftop terrace bar

Being from Scotland, rooftop terrace bars will never lose their novelty. Being able to drink outside at night and not shiver your tatas off? Yes please. We headed to El Viajero and drunk gin, talked nonsense, made videos for my friend’s fiance to drunkenly express our gratitude to him for buying us the first round of drinks and generally had an absolutely excellent time. 10/10, would recommend.

The converted convent

…i.e., our accommodation. Some people hold the view that Air Bnbs/city break accommodation in general isn’t that important but I am v. snobby when it comes to my Air Bnb choices. So you can imagine how relieved/impressed I was that the maid of honour absolutely nailed it with the accom. We stayed in a beautiful two-storey converted convent which was modernised but with traditional features (think sparkly white kitchen ft. original exposed brickwork and heavy ceiling beams.)

And finally… all the cheese.

Ok so this isn’t a PARTICULAR anomaly for me but I do feel that the quality of the Madrid manchego was bloody amazing – to the point that the various blocks of cheese we bought at the local mercado served 8 of us for pre-dinner snacks, after-club munchies and breakfast both days. And there was some left over when we left. Because everyone knows if you’re abroad, “clean eating” can actually gtf.

So even though we arrived Friday evening and left Sunday morning, I felt like even this brief re-encounter with this beautiful city, its beautiful food and all the beautiful girls I was with made it one of the best weekends I’ve had in a ridiculously long time. Gracias, Madrid!

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There have been a few choices I’ve made in my life which, in retrospect, weren’t my wisest. Dying my hair black in secondary school was a big one. Taking a pair of heels with me the first time I went backpacking aged 18 was another (yes, they sat at the bottom of my bag for 4 weeks and no, I did not wear them once.) Going out for “a few” the night before a 5am flight also ranks up there in the Poor Judgement category, among many, many other bad life decisions which aren’t *quite* as suitable for public consumption.

But despite these fairly regular lapses, I’ve made a few conscious decisions which I’ll never regret. Here are a five of the most important ones I’ve made in the past few years.

Chasing travel

After graduating from university, I wasn’t interested in chasing any kind of ‘career’ job. I wanted to work for the sole purpose of earning money so I could go away. And yes, clearing tables and pulling pints while friends and fellow classmates were migrating to the big cities in the pursuit of degree justification was sometimes tough – but I am so, so glad that I stuck to my guns. It was all part of a bigger plan I had for myself.

I lived at home and saved for months before going off on two consecutive ski seasons in Europe and travelling South America. It sounds like a cliche but there’s nothing like throwing yourself out of your comfort zone, meeting different people and being exposed to environments at complete odds to your own to shape your outlook.

Although I’m in less of a flexible position now to travel for as long periods at a time, I try to make up for this by exploring new places as often as possible. I would love next year though to move abroad somewhere for a year or so.

Signing up for my Masters degree

During my last few months of uni, I had such a crappy time that I vowed I’d never take another academic exam again. Which of course is easy to say fresh out of graduation but alas, two years later and no relevant-to-degree job offers in sight, I realised if I ever wanted to earn a decent salary and use my skills at the same time, I’d have to face that return to uni fear.

Despite the fact it set me back all of my savings at the time, and I’ll be paying the debt off for another few years (possibly even decades…), it was a decision that had a hugely positive impact on my life. Yes, I was poor as hell for about 2 years, stressed out much of the time and exhausted from working various jobs to pay my way – but I made some brilliant pals, had some hilarious (er, and educational) experiences – and of course it got me my current job in writing, which was always the end goal.

Saying ‘yes’

I would probably call myself a confident introvert. This means that although I’m outgoing and confident, I really relish time on my own or I feel drained. This meant that a lot of the time when I was younger, I avoided certain social situations because I’d rather hang out in my comfort zone, doing ‘me’ things and ignoring the outside world when I wanted to.

But, like going to the gym, I realised that actually, the thought of the thing is not as bad as the thing itself. In fact, the thing itself can sometimes be really good fun. I think I made excuses for why I couldn’t do things too much of the time, instead of just going for it and taking part in experiences and opportunities that may never come my way again.

As a blogger, I’m invited to loads of different, exciting new things and this has become something I look forward to and embrace rather than finding excuses for. #Whoknew?

Conforming to my inner ‘adult’

The concept of having a steady job, paying a mortgage, maintaining a relationship and still somehow enjoying life used to baffle me. It all sounded so suffocating and restricting – and to be totally honest, occasionally I still feel like that.

But I’ve now come to see that for me, the pros far outweigh the cons. In some ways, having all the things I once thought would suffocate me in fact gives me more freedom than ever. My job gives me a regular salary, which allows me to plan my future better than I ever could before. Owning a house means I can do whatever the hell I want with it, creating an environment that I love (hello neon signs), and being in a relationship with the right person allows me the added confidence of not only accepting myself, but having someone else celebrate exactly who I am too.

And yes, ‘adulting’ can sometimes be shit – I still occasionally crave those heady uni days of random day drinking, slothing in pyjamas dissecting the night before, drinking jagerbombs mid week and living on money you didn’t *really* have.

But nothing beats that feeling of having control of your life, supporting yourself and laying your own path.

Flicking my comfort zone the finger (oo-er)

Three years ago, I applied for an internship in Turin, Italy, working in the Communications department of an EU agency. I applied not really thinking I’d get it, and about 10 days later I’d rented my room in Edinburgh out, said bye to my (at the time) new-ish boyfriend and gone to live in a country where I knew nobody, was living with strangers and didn’t speak the language.

Was it intimidating? Yes. Did I sometimes want to cry? Frequently. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

To be honest, I found the first half of my time there really really tough. I was struggling a lot with low mood and felt completely isolated. I missed my friends and boyfriend at home and felt stressed out by the uni course I was also juggling. Writing a dissertation and studying for exams while working full time is no joke let me tell you – and I was a childless, effectively single woman with no social life at this point so big cheers to the parents out there who somehow manage this!

Anyway, I got through it, and those 3 months remain some of the most important in my life. They showed me the power of determination, motivation, inner strength, independence and the life-affirming rewards you get from stepping completely out of your comfort zone and proving to yourself you can and you will.

 

As far as I’m concerned, making bad decisions is a vital component in being able to recognise the good ones. As long as you’re trying stuff out you’re nailing it. So get going and decide what that future of yours is gonna hold…

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Prague: a city known for its architecture, history, gastronomy and magnetism for British stag dos. The latter being, oddly, the reason I came to this city second time round (the first I was interrailing aged 20 with my best friend – enough said.)

No, I wasn’t on a stag do, the boy was – and since flights were insanely cheap he suggested I join him after the lads had returned (and his broken body remained in a state of beer-induced disrepair.)

So, in negligence of the fact we’re meant to be saving, my inner travelista remains a force to be reckoned with. And off to Praha I flew last Sunday.

I’m not so much of a rigid plan-maker when I go to new cities, I prefer to mostly just wander and see what I can find, though there were some particular sights and activities we were recommended. So I give you a list of highlights from 4 days in the Czech capital…

Charles Bridge

Yes it’s an obvious one, but missing this out on a trip to Prague would be pretty sacrilegious. The bridge itself provides a glimpse into medieval Prague (pre-cartoonists and postcard vendors, obv) and there’s nothing like a bit of history on your holidays to make you feel cultured.

It connects Prague’s old and new towns and is just a lovely space to wander around. Leading onto the Old Town’s gorgeous old cobbled  streets, which are lined with old beer houses, squares and medieval buildings, the piece de resistance is the multitude of bakeries selling Trdelniks – or ‘Chimney Cakes’.

Oh god the Chimney cakes.

Round pastries coated in butter, rolled with cinnamon sugar and almond and filled with nutella, jam, ice cream or fruit, trdelniks are everywhere in Prague and were the sweet lining to my hol.

 

Hemingway Bar

If you want to feel like Daisy Buchanan for the night, this is ya place. I’m a total sucker for anything novelty/vintage/retro – anything that reflects a different time period, basically.

So when I heard about this little speakeasy tucked among the cobbled streets of the Old Town near the river Vltava, I took little persuading to go in and sample a cocktail or two.

Entering through a thick, velvet curtain, you’re led into a small, candlelit bar. There’s classical music playing and the waiters wear bow ties. The cocktail list is immense, and the drinks are served in a variety of oddball container. I had the “Magic Moment” cocktail of Beefeater gin, mallow and nettle cordial.

“Part of the magic is made by you” the bartender told me (flirt), before presenting me with an odd looking little potion bottle with 2 different openings. You mix the gin and then the cordial and the drink changes colour, which provides a lot of excitement for a simple gal like me – especially after a couple of wines already. It also tasted pretty dang delicious. I could’ve inhaled any of the cocktails on their list – peruse it for yourself here.

Oh and just in case you require any further persuasion, Hemingway Bar has been listed as one of the top 50 best bars in the world. In short, you gots to go.

 

Cafe Imperial

We heard about this art deco place through my dear old dad as a jazzy little spot for lunch or dinner so we thought we’d check it out. With over a century’s history behind it as one of Prague’s best-loved restaurants, I knew we’d be in for a bit of a treat.

I didn’t get any photos of the inside (one food pic on my phone was already pushing the bf’s limits), but the ornate ceiling, golden intricacies of detail and bow-tied waiters (do I have an underlying fetish for this?) made for a very luxurious restaurant experience.

I had a “US Hanger” steak – nope, not entirely sure what it is either, but I can tell you it was unbelievable! Good house red wine too.

 

Lennon wall

Who knew the Czechs held such an affinity with the Beatles’ bespectacled lead singer?  On the other side of the Charles bridge, into the Old Town, there’s a whole graffitied wall which serves both as a shrine to JL and a canvas for the city’s enthusiastic spray-painters.

Random to us, yes, but apparently after his death, the music icon became a pacifist hero for oppressed young Czechs living under communist rule.

It’s a mish-mash of JL imagery and the words he stood for – peace, love… also now ‘beer’, which you can see emblazoned on his forehead – but the common theme that belies it all is one of inspiration and political freedom. It’s a pretty cool place to visit.

It’s also really close to the Trdelnik street I mentioned earlier.

Just saying.

Lokál Dlouhááá

Want to be where the [Czech] people are? Then this is ya boy.

A friend of ours who lived in Prague for 6 months told us about this place and it was just as she described – lively, full of young locals and with a gigantic list of different craft and local beers and wines, I felt like this one one of our more ‘authentic’ Prague experiences.

We got probably the most lethal “Grog” I’d ever tasted – as in, probably could’ve got drunk from the fumes alone – and a pint of raspberry beer which was (dangerously) tasty. There’s an array of local food as well, i.e., potato dumplings and sausages, but we were content with our novelty bevvies.

Great little spot for day or night drinking (I don’t discriminate), and probably your best bet to sample some of what the Prague locals eat and drink.

Beer spa

So it seems the Czechs love beer so much they bathe in it. After a heavy night but with a determined “when in…” attitude, we marched to the nearest available spa. Mainly for the lols, if I’m honest.

And lols it did bring.

We were led into our own private spa room with two deep, wooden baths at one end. These were filled with hot water and a mixture of malt and hops. In the corner there was a little fire and a “traditional hay bed” (no we didn’t really know what that was about either).

When our host eventually left and we had recovered from our laughing fits, climbing into a bubbly bath of beer with access to an unlimited beer tap next to you proved to be one hell of a way to spend an afternoon.

And yes we eyed each other cynically when the host started talking about the benefits of malt and hops on your skin, but I gotta say we were softer than a couple of peachy baby bums after that sesh. With the added benefit of finely sculpted abs from laughing for an hour straight….

 

It’s a city I’ve now experienced in both summer and winter and both times it’s been equally as beautiful – and very good fun. If you visit, there’s no other way for me than an air bnb – we got this beauty for £23 a night. Praha, I’ll be back again some day.

 

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