There is nothing more festive, nothing, I tell you, (at least, in terms of my track record of festive experiences anyway) than buttoning up in a knee-length sleeping bag coat, donning mittens, plugging in your iPod and stepping out of the fire escape of a stuffy, artificially-lit apartment building to the blinding white of a world blanketed in fresh snow – Michael Bublé crooning through your headphones that it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
It was 9:20am on a Monday morning and I swear I’ve never smiled so hard to myself in my life.
It’s finally happened. Snow has hit Ottawa in full-force, and with that winter feels like it’s has officially begun. I remember in emails to previous year-abroaders from Exeter who had spent their year in Canada’s capital that one my questions focused around the highlights and lowlights of their year. The replies I got back focused on travelling, on being immersed in a new culture, meeting new people etc, etc. One response however, was clear – “the day the snow came.”
I was a bit scathing at the time (it’s snow? And also we’re not actually 5 years old anymore) but the cynic in me died a very certain death last Sunday when Emily and I met up to walk into town to study and ended up battling through a veritable blizzard. There was a noticeable lack of other people around (for good reason) and though our hands and noses were numb and our phones died 10 minutes into photo-taking from cold, we loved every second of it.
Fellow British year abroaders have so far been less than keen, which has made me a tad frustrated at this national insistence on being pessimistic that we seem to take a grimly determined pride in. That being said the Canadians aren’t much better. “Just you wait,” my teammates have warned me somberly, “you won’t love it this much in February.” And maybe they’re right. Maybe, after experiencing the most snow I’ve seen in at least 4-5 years for several months on end, I’ll be tired of it. But maybe I won’t be. Maybe I’ll fully embrace the Snow Life for this season before pootling back across the pond for another decade of rainy Decembers and mild festive holidays. For now, it’s not February. It’s late November, there’s snow on the ground, Christmas songs playing in the shops, lights going up everywhere and I’m seeing my family in less than a month. If there was an inverse condition to Seasonal Affective Disorder I think I’d probably be experiencing it.
Fortunately I have Emily on side to tolerate me throwing snowballs at her and gleefully tromping over fresh snow in the park. I say tolerate – she’s a fully active participant in this excitement. I feel I should at some point actually write an ‘Ode to Emily’ blog post, as she really is due one. Not just for being similarly enthused by the weather and festive spirit, but for the past several months, which have not been the easiest for me by a long shot. She has been a consistent presence and wonderful support, all the while sending me links to exciting/adorable events in and around Ottawa, joining me for cosy film nights in and making sure I remember our Thursday Platonic Date Nights. She is, quite frankly, a wonderful person, and I am eternally grateful for her level-headed, humourous and witty company in my day-to-day life here in Canada.
Speaking of Emily brings me onto the second point of this blog post, however. Without doubt the hardest part of this year so far has been the social side of things, which, being fairly comfortable with talking to new people, surprised me a little. I didn’t think making regular friends who I meet up and do fun things with would be a challenge, but it has been. Canadian students are busy folk, stressed with far more regular deadlines then back home in the UK, and already set up with friendship groups and routines. Fortunately, I have had Emily on side dealing with the same difficulties, and as luck would have it we have been great company for each other as we share very similar interests. Both vegetarians, both history students, both fans of museums and galleries and afternoon tea and long walks around town as an excuse for Deep Chats – we are very compatible as travel buddies and just as friends. Emily is great at getting the ball rolling for sorting events and trips, and I’m luckily her first port of call. We’ve hosted a mini-Bonfire night with the other international students and homemade mulled wine; we’ve been on long weekends away to Montreal and Québec City; even just the other weekend we visited Laurier House on a free open day, previous home to two of Canada’s most famous Prime Ministers and also just a 5 minute stroll from my flat.
As a result we’ve spent probably a staggeringly large amount of time together these past few months. If I go 24-36 hours without seeing her it feels like it’s been a while. We feature in each others’ profile pictures and Instagrams constantly. As Emily noted of her year abroad Facebook album recently, “it’s basically an ode to your face.” We’ve joked that asides from any making-out or hand-holding we’re basically a couple at this point.
Having Emily as my main friend however does have it’s drawbacks. Mainly, what to do when she’s not around. This weekend is a prime example – Emily is in Alabama celebrating American thanksgiving and seeing her Mum. I am here in snowy Ottawa, ‘alone’ for 5 whole days for the first time in a long time.
Now already that’s not strictly true. I spent a great afternoon with two of my fellow injured teammates visiting the cinema (we didn’t see a film as they were all in 3D but we did play arcade basketball free-throws so it was a win really) before going to back to one of the girl’s apartments for pizza and to watch via a live feed the rest of the team play. The other weekend, I actually went out on the town (shocking I know) with some of the lovely German girls I met on the camping trip. On Wednesday night, my roommate Natalie roped me into watching Buffy and doing a deep face-cleansing routine with her. It’s not like I’m sitting in a corner crying every second Emily isn’t here, but it is strange not having her around to make weekend and study plans with.
Part of that is because this particular weekend, with Emily away, my teammates are also either away playing or home for the weekend and the German girls on a trip out of town. The possibility of spending a day completely alone looms large. And that’s a bit of a scary prospect. I’ve got into the habit of really not enjoying being alone. Chill time is nice sure, but if possible I like to make sure I’m ‘booked up’ with social meetings. The day feels less substantial when I don’t have other people to structure it around, when there’s no one to ‘judge’ what I’m doing. I can quite easily, and have in the past, wake up at 8 but not leave my bed till gone midday, rolling around watching Louis Theroux documentaries on Mormons and checking social media compulsively over and over. These days always leave me with a feeling of deep regret and guilt. Alone, I can also stew in my own thoughts, and in these past few months they haven’t been the cheeriest. It’s overall not a fun experience.
But I’ve realised it doesn’t have to be like that.
In the past couple of days I’ve spent quite a lot of time alone. In fact, I went on two solo outings that I’d never have thought to do alone unless circumstance dictated it. Thursday evening I went into town to a bar to see the Paper Kites play. I’ve been a fan for a while now, having completely fallen in love with their song ‘Bloom’. Emily told me there were tickets going and I snapped one up, assuming I’d be able to persuade someone to join me nearer the time. As it was, I couldn’t, so on my own I went.
It definitely felt strange, queueing on Rideau Street surrounded by couples and groups of friends, but in the concert when the music started that melted away. No-one was really talking to each other, they were enjoying the show. And in fact, it was oddly freeing. I didn’t have to monitor my dancing or singing to save my companion embarrassment; I didn’t have to join anyone on bathroom or bar trips; I could stay for the encore even though it was getting really late, and I didn’t have to fill song breaks with conversation or witty, funny comments. I could just sit and listen. And when the lead singer asked for the lights to be turned off and for everyone to put their phones away so he could play ‘Bloom’ to us in the dark, it felt almost spiritual. In that moment, we were all alone. All we could do was focus on the one thing the entire room had in common – the music that was playing.
Friday morning I was out in the snow again at 9:30, on my way to a field trip at the National Gallery. Our Indigenous class had had a guest lecturer in the class before to speak about Alex Janvier, an Alberta native who is widely regarded as one of the most significant artists in contemporary Canada. There was a special exhibition on at the gallery that had opened the day before and we were going to be among the first to see it.
This is a class Emily and I share. We debate the readings together and rant over Facebook message about the Professor’s various problematic comments. But here I was in that same group of people without my buddy. But it was fine. I didn’t need to keep tabs on where Emily was or what she was looking at, and though I didn’t have anyone to chat the art through with, it meant I was having to do the talking myself, internally. I skipped the first room and went right to the final paintings to escape the crowds, and walked the whole exhibition backwards. I looked and looked and spoke to a couple of kindly old ladies and an exhibition security guard and nobody else for a whole hour. I went back and forth and went to see my favourite pieces a second, a third time. I browsed the gift shop and picked up some postcards. And all in all it was an entirely lovely, lonely, experience.
In a lot of ways I feel very aware of my age at the moment. I’m 20 – on that weird cusp between teenage years and the landmark of traditional ‘adulthood’, 21. I might still be ‘young’ by most standards, but I’m also living in a foreign country, 3,000 miles away from home and family. I cook for myself, I do my own washing, I make sure I go to classes, I’m learning all the time, both academically and on the court, I pay my phone bill (shit, that reminds me actually) and I have enough debt to keep me going for the next several decades – I am in most senses of the word, already an adult. And adults can’t get away with watching documentaries on Mormons till midday on Saturdays. I have responsibilities, but being single and 20 the most important of these currently is the responsibility I have to myself. For all that has changed about this year and the people around me, the one constant has been, and remains, myself. I am still here, just as I was in Exeter, just as I was in Loughborough, just as I’ve always been. I feel I know myself quite well at this point, but for some reason I’m still coming to terms with the idea of spending time with just me, myself and I.
I used to be quite good at it. I’d actually seek it out; power ahead on family walks so I could be alone. I loved making up stories in my head, and I had to be somewhere quiet and solitary to do that. In recent years I think I’ve become more dependent on being surrounded by people. Having people who want to spend time with me makes me feel validated, like it does for all of us. We are naturally social beings, we enjoy being invited to things. It’s reassuring to know other people think we’re a fun person to be around, that we’re liked, that our company is enjoyed. And although that’s been great and I’ve loved the social connections I’ve made at university, I think it’s been at a determinent to the relationship I have with myself. My good friend Ellie came to Exeter on her semester abroad from America, and she mentioned a while back how much time she spent alone during her time in the UK, working in coffee shops in the middle of town. At the time that sounded tragic to me – she’s a gorgeous, hilarious, lovely person, how come people weren’t inviting her out every weekend? – but I’m realising it wasn’t tragic at all. She spent time alone because that’s the inevitable nature of year abroads, but also because being on your own is the inevitable nature of life sometimes, and it’s totally okay to spend time with just yourself. And I think I’m beginning to appreciate that.
So here’s to wandering around art galleries at your own speed and dancing like there’s no-one watching because no-one who you’re ever going to see again is. Here’s to making small-talk with strangers just because, and here’s to being alone and thinking about life and the universe without that being a bad, lonely or scary thing. (And here’s to the occasional lazy morning of Mormon documentaries too, because although an adult I may be I’m still only human after all.)