Tilly Travels

My Year Abroad in Ontario

Orientation Week

After a giddy 8 hour flight, I finally landed in Toronto Airport, only to find out that I was to queue up for 4 hours to receive my study permit. On seeing the length of the queue, I started to panic about what I might I do with my sanity. Fortunately, I did, however, make a friend embarking on a similar journey to mine. And soon enough, fellow Leeds student Maddie would land to join the party.

Following what felt like a life-time of shit banter and classic British moaning, Maddie and I soon arrived at the Air bnb we’d booked for the night before starting Orientation the following day. Our lodging was room in a little bungalow in the suburbs of Toronto, shared with both the owners and some nannies from all over the world. What a start to our year abroad- not only were we charged $33 to cab 5 mins around the corner, but the shower was broken so we had to pour a jug of cold water over our heads. Not ideal after a 12 hour journey and jet lag, but at least it’s one to tell the kids.

From the moment I stepped onto the beautiful Trent campus, Orientation had begun- the North American version of freshers. First years are known as ‘froshmen’ in Canada (what?!) The week consists of icebreakers, cheer-offs at 8am (yes they’re just as you see in American films), varsity games, college battles, hikes, sports, and college parties which get shut down by 11pm (it’s fun I swear). It was a world away from the club promotions, society bar tabs, and ‘down it freshaar’ moments which happen in the UK. A week that is definitely not for everyone but I’ve been here for a week and I’ve already made some great friends. However, I arrived with nothing sustainable, only clothes and a sleeping bag the study abroad department gave me to put on my bed- again not ideal.

Me and friends at a college party

Things I’ve Learned About Canadians;

1)They love the British accent- people literally stop me on public transport so they can hear me speak- I thought nobody liked us Brits. Apparently I’m classy (definitely not lol). And I find myself saying ‘cuppa’ far too often now.

2) They start uni a year before we do and they have up until December rather than September to be of age. So some people start uni at 17. You have to commend them. I know I wouldn’t have been ready then.

3) They are the friendliest people in the world (the stereotype is true.) In my first week, I have been given; a pillow, a duvet and sheets, a mug, cutlery, plates, and alcohol, without being expected to return the favour.

4) They’re extremely enthusiastic about their colleges- waking up at the crack of dawn for sports and going mental in college battles, chanting the cheers which are specified to each college.

5) If you’re like me and want to live a balanced diet- that’s almost impossible here, especially during ‘O Week’ as it consists of carbs each day per meal. The Canadian cuisine is literally cheesy chips and gravy, fancily known as ‘poutine’. There’s a term ‘freshman fifteen’ which means that everybody puts on 15 pounds during orientation.

6) They take uni seriously. It’s the first week of ‘class,’ I’m sat with my first-year friends and they’re all stressing about their homework. Did we even have homework in our first week?. You also get marked on class participation so that 9am lecture everyone skips back home is definitely gonna be full in Canada. Plus, club culture isn’t as big a thing here- it’s more going to bars or drinking in the common room. I doubt there’ll be many students skipping uni because they’re too hungover. The Canadians certainly make us Brits look like alcoholics- whoops.

7) They call lectures etc ‘class’- they don’t know what I mean by ‘I’m in uni until 4.’ Classes in Canada can also be 3 hours long (trust me it’s a killer) and lectures are the size of my class in school- people actually answer questions and interact with the ‘professors during lectures. Modules are termed ‘courses’.

8) The lingo is actually really different. They don’t know what I mean by washing up liquid- apparently it’s called ‘dish soap’. A bag that isn’t huge is called a purse and a purse is called a wallet, while a rucksack is called a backpack.

9) There aren’t any grocery store variations like Sainsbury’s and Aldi and the one shop is not local. I have to trek all the way downtown to the Walmart (which is amazing) just to get some milk and loo roll. Luckily my friend Kayl drives and is happy to take me (again so friendly!) Plus you can only buy alcohol in a liquor store named the LCBO which is just as far as the Walmart and prices are extortionate. At times like this i really miss the Co-op in Leeds’ SU and Echo Falls.

Peterborough Walmart, Tilly O’Brien

Sonnet Sequence

Addiction for Pain

In the bath she tried to wash him away,

water trickled down the curve of her back,

mascara smudges smeared across her face.

Tears dribbling down turned the water black.

Had to get rid of him; she reeked of sex.

Scrubbing her body, quickly, violently.

So many questions of what to do next.

The only sound was her wailing loudly.

She hopped out the bath and ran to the fridge,

Quickly searching for a bottle of wine

And downed it in one on the floor, naked,

And snorted a thick, powdery line.

But even in when high she still felt so low.

In pain she was addicted to the blow.

Who Can See in the Dark?

“Last night was weird,” he said locking his arm

around her waist, pulling her close to him.

“Don’t worry,” she thought, “I must remain calm.”

The blur of lights made her sight of him dim.

Jungle of colour; only heard his voice

and felt his strong grip across her body.

What did her mum say? “Beware of young boys?”

So with all of her strength, she soon broke free;

Headed through the partiers to the loos,

Bumped a key of the powder they call snow.

Best turn to reclusive drug abuse.

Better to get high than to feel so low.

This is what she did to forget her pain,

turned to substances that damage the brain.

I Remember

I remember looking in the mirror

feeling nothing but immense self-loathing;

my body was an image of terror,

not mine but his, an object, a mere thing.

Flashbacks of his body on mine,

too drunk to say no, too drunk to say yes.

Just a quicky to him, don’t need much time.

Is that what I wanted? Please take a guess.

He took control over my own body.

I need to learn to love myself again

so I can release his grasp and be free

and hope he’ll steer away from other women.

This was a time in early December,

When yes, I was drunk, but I remember

Ode to Me

“I am beautiful, intelligent, strong,”

I say, looking in the mirror of cracks.

I love myself and I did nothing wrong.

It’s all down to him, not me, that’s facts.

I look into the mirror with a smile

because today I look kind of pretty,

probably the best I’ve looked in a while

and I’ve regained control of my body.

But this isn’t the end, I won’t forget

The burning sadness inside of my heart.

There’s still a lot of healing to do yet,

but at least I’m trying, that’s a start,

band so now I am starting to feel free.

This ain’t an ode to you but an ode to me.

Blood Clots and Morphine

“You ready?” the nurse asks after I’ve put my hospital gown on.

        “Yes.”

             But is anyone ever ready for brain surgery? I was only diagnosed two weeks ago. Plus, it’s 6am and I’m tired. At least I’ll get a good sleep now. I haven’t slept since I found out.

             I hop into the bed waiting for me in the corridor. 

            “I’ll help you get these on,” she says handing me a pair of compression socks.

          The nurse helps me pull them up over my knees. They’re so tight, they feel like they’re crushing my bones.

           This isn’t a good look.

            About five nurses now crowd around me. They push me into the “special” lift and explain the procedure to my Mum.

          She looks scared. Must be hard, having a daughter who’s dying.

         The nurses dressed in blue push me through the MRI waiting area. I see families: kids with no hair, kids with broken limbs, kids with enlarged heads. They all look back at me wide-eyed. I close mine, it’s too much for a Thursday morning.

       They bring me into the “loading bay.” I feel like a parcel being shipped, especially when the anaesthetist starts lifting and prodding my limbs. I just lie there like a puppet.

        “So, you going to any festivals this summer?” the same nurse asks me in a thick Liverpool accent.

        Good, I’m human again.

        “Yeah, I’m going to V Fest in a couple of weeks.”

        “That’s if Mr. Mallucci says it’s okay and you’re feeling better,” my Mum says from the other side of my bed.

          I will be okay; I’ve been looking forward to V Fest for months.

          “She’ll be fine,” the nurse reassures her. “She’s brave.”

          My arm is lifted, and a needle is poked into my left hand, injecting anaesthesia fluid which runs coldly through my veins. It stings a little. 

            “I went to Glastonbury last year,” my Mum explains. “I followed a white rabbit to the underground stage to see a private showing of Fatboy Slim. It was great.”

            I think the drugs might be kicking in. White rabbit? The light above me is so bright. The nurse’s head pokes through it, creating shadows across her face. She holds my hand. I imagine the White Rabbit. The nurse’s face becomes the Cheshire cat. It’s spinning. Comes closer. A glowing swirl of purple mixed with flashing bright, white eyes and yellow teeth.

            I turn to my Mum. 

              “I don’t…” I pass out.

***

Thirty-two hours later, I wake back up in my hospital room. My mum is on the couch. God my head hurts. Why does it feel like I have needles crowned round my head? Must be the stitches. And what’s that smell? It smells like what I imagine a dead body rotting in the room for days would smell like. I can’t feel my left side. The room is spinning. My sight’s blurry. Am I drunk? Has this all been some vivid dream and now I’m waking up drunk? Why do I have this bandage on my head? It itches my hair and feels tight, so I pull it off. There’s blood all over my pillow now whoops.

     “She’s awake,” my Mum smiles. “How’re you feeling?”

      “I think I’m going to throw up.”

       I’m sweating. My Dad is suddenly beside me with a cardboard bowl but there’s worms wriggling around in it, piling overreach other, a vibrant green colour, cartoon like. Why would he give me this and where did he come from? He moved like Superman. My throat burns. Who took my knickers off?

***

Six hours later I wake up to an echoing. Beep. Beep. Beep.

        There’re two nurses playing with the wires at my ankles.

        “It’s alright, you’re fine. You just move too much. It set the ECMO machine off,” one of the nurses says. “You knocked one of your wires out and you’re losing blood, but we’ll clean it up.”

            So, this is real. My ankle hurts. I hear a baby crying from another room. My mum’s still on the sofa. She looks pale and tired. The nurses mess about at my ankle but I’m too tired to pay attention so lay my head back down.

        The room is dark now, the only light in the room projects from the monitor, throwing purple waves that dance along to the rhythm of the beeping on its black screen. It makes me sleepy.

***

Five hours later, I wake up again. It’s morning now. My vision’s still blurry. I have to squint my eyes to see better. It’s like I’ve got my beer goggles on. Is that a cat at the end of my bed? It is. My mum’s still on the couch but this time there’s a cat in her lap. She doesn’t like cats. Why can I still not feel my left side? What’s that smell? It reeks. It must be Mum.

         “Please put some perfume on, you smell,” I say.

           “Good morning to you, too,” she says, ignoring the black cat climbing her neck.

           “Get rid of the smell,” I beg.

            “Ok… but I don’t know what smell you’re talking about.,” My mum says, spraying herself with deodorant.

             It’s still here. Why can’t she smell it? It’s so musky. Maybe it’s me? I mean I haven’t showered, and my stitches haven’t healed. Could it be my brain? Is it leaking out? Ew I smell of damaged brain. The stitches are like a halo around my head. I think there’s one in my forehead, too.

              “Is that cat not annoying you?” I ask.

               Mum looks back at me with a raised brow.

               A nurse comes in. She has worms coming out of her head and a brown and white tabby cat perched on top. Why’s her hair like that? Is this a circus?

                “Morning beautiful,” she says. “You look better today. “You were clenching your left fist in the night; you couldn’t do that before.”

                  Pink, purple and green worms wriggle around her head- a budget Medusa.

                   “There’s a cat on your head,” I point out.

                     She gives me a confused look.

          “Oh yes, I’ll give it a little stroke, shall I?” she says, reaching up and patting the cat.

          She puts the cat down and fiddles with my wires.

            “I’m just going to check your temperature.”

             She sticks a thermometer in my ear, then wraps a blue sphygmomanometer around my arm to check my blood pressure. It tightens so tightly around my muscles that I feel my skin bulge over the foam. Then, she flashes a torch in my eyes so that my head hurts and little black dots float in the air around me.

                I need a wee.

                “Can I go to the toilet?” I ask.

                “Erm sure, I’ll put you in the chair, the nurse replies.

                  “Can I walk?”

                   “You could try,” she shrugs.

                     She takes my hand and I dangle off the side of the bed, trying not to knock the cat. When my feet reach the floor, I wobble and my ankles curve. I fall back onto the bed. The floor spins. I’m scared.

                  “We’ll just use the chair,” she says.

                    Why can’t I walk? Am I paralysed?

                 She wheels me into the en-suite and lets me look in the mirror for the first time since the operation. I don’t look like me. My hair is knotted into a huge clump. My skin’s turned ghost white. A purple and yellow bruise circles my left eye. My face has bloated like a balloon and my puffed cheeks make my eyes seem smaller than before.

                   “You’ll look normal again soon,” the nurse flashes me an encouraging smile. “If you promise to hold on to the bars, I’ll give you some privacy.”

               “I promise.”

                The nurse leaves.

               I hold onto the metal bars either side of me and push as hard as I can. Weeing’s supposed to come naturally isn’t it? At least that’s what I remember. They say your memory can go funny after brain surgery. I try to wee but I can’t. There’s a bear in red jumper and yellow checker trousers in the corner of the room. It’s staring at me.

                  “Look away!” I hiss.

                    But it doesn’t.

                    It stares at me with its black button eyes.

                     I can’t wee. My body doesn’t work.

                   The nurse soon fetches me out of the bathroom and puts me back in bed.

                    My Dad, aunty and cousin have arrived now, and they look at me, horrified.                 There’s cats crawling all over the room. Some of them are black, some white, some striped.

                   “Did you wee?” the nurse asks.

                  “No, Rupert the Bear was watching,” I say.

                   Now my dad’s throwing balls at me and there’s a blue curtain flapping in my face. My family looks at me and the nurse whispers something to them.

                    I sit, trying to dodge the balls and the curtain. Why is this happening?

                     My Aunty sits at my side, so I turn to her.

                   “You know, I ought to complain about these cats,” I whisper concerningly. “This is supposed to be a hospital not a cat sanctuary. Surely it’s unsanitary.”

                  My aunty takes hold of my hand. “I’ll say something for you,” she reassures me.

                  I knew I could trust her.

                The curtain continues to flap slowly in my face, waving in out like a belly dance. It’s pretty warm in here so I wonder where the wind’s coming from to blow it.

          I try to read a copy of Jane Eyre that my family brought in, but I can’t. My brain is like a huge question mark, my body feels as though it’s rocking back and forth on a boat, and there’s cartoon party poppers bursting out of each word. I didn’t know Bronte had put that in there.

            “We’re going to take you for a post-op scan,” the nurse says.

             Soon a bunch of doctors, all male, come in to lift me into a new bed. I try to lift myself but I’m too weak. Don’t want them to feel how heavy I am. Stress eating. They tell me to let them do it. I obey. I look up to see my cousin standing over me, crying. Why is everyone so sad? Did I do this? I feel like crying too. I But I’ve got to remain strong. Looks like this tabby cat at the end of my bed is coming with.

                 In the MRI room, I’m carried onto the scan bed. The radiologist prepares me and the bed rolls into the white tube. The machine releases a purple glow. A loud growling starts, humming through.

               I’m too tired for this, I’m going to…..

***

I wake up four hours later to see a group of doctors wearing Hannah Montana wigs and dancing round to Best of Both Worlds. Glad somebody’s having fun.

            Finally, my surgeon comes in. I really need to talk to him. His hair’s grown since the last time I saw him. He flaunts long, silky hair which reaches his hips. He perches at the end of the bed with a cat on his lap. The cat camouflages with his hair. I can’t help appreciating how soft his hair looks.

           “You’re probably wondering what’s happened,” he says. “You had a blood clot during surgery, so we had to close up the right side of your brain and start a new operation on the left side. It was aggressive, as bad as being hit by a car, but you’ll be able to walk again. We couldn’t remove the whole tumour, so you’ll have another operation at the end of the summer.”                    

Did I hear that right? Go through this again? Guess I’m not escaping this circus anytime soon. The jungle of cats continues to prowl around the room.

        

Weekend in Ottawa

Ottawa parliament, Tilly O’Brien

As I embarked on my second semester in Canada, I decided more travelling must be done (though corona ruined this, sob). I couldn’t believe how quickly my year abroad was going.

As February reading week approached, I had so many places I wanted to visit, thus decided it was about time I visited Canada’s capital. So I checked into the Ottawa Backpackers Inn for £40 for 2 nights. The Backpackers Inn was one of my favourite hostels, it was filled with travellers alike, situated in the centre of the famous Byward Market, and small enough to get to meet everyone in the hostel. I wasn’t, however, quite as lucky with my 4 hour coach journey which came to £88.86. Why does everyone rave about Greyhound? They are NOT cheap. I miss the National Express.

I was quite shocked about Ottawa, as being a capital city of such a huge country, there actually wasn’t massive amounts to do. But that didn’t stop me from having a wild weekend, exploring some sights, and having a little weekend romance (the dream).

So My hostel was literally like a little house consisting of three floors with a living room, communal kitchen, bedrooms, and two bathrooms. The perfect location to meet my hostel family.

I arrived in Canada’s capital just in time for dinner so freshened up and headed into the famous Byward market; an area filled with stalls, restaurants, bars, and shops. It boasted an array of trees all lit up in the night sky and I managed to nab a photo in front of the Ottawa’s answer to the famous Hollywood sign. Why do I keep finding these things everywhere?

Ottawa Sign, Tilly O’Brien

Deciding what to have for dinner took a while as, in full tourist mode, I kept stopping to take in the city at night. Thus, hungry and in need of a cheap meal, I decided to checkout a cheap fast-food pasta place in the middle of the market where I built my own pasta for $7. It was really good for how cheap it was.

Byward Market at night, Tilly O’Brien

After dinner, I headed further into the market on my very own bar crawl, however, Ottawa was surprisingly dead for a Friday night. But that didn’t stop me from getting a glass of Pinot in the market’s Irish pub (you can always find me in an Irish pub) and a horrible cocktail in Byward Market’s oldest bar. I didn’t realise that by being the oldest bar around meant that it would be filled with the city’s oldest civillians. I was literally the youngest person in there by many years.

Feeling that my slightly depressing bar crawl was a sign that maybe I should call it a night, I headed back to the hostel. However, I was in luck. Outside I met a group of travellers from the hostel heading to the LCBO (liquor store) to get drinks for a drinking competition between the hostel’s guests and the hostel workers. The group consisted of Tyler (my very own Grease fling), a cool guy called Travis and a lovely girl from France, and they invited me along.

So with a gin and lemonade in hand, me, my new friends and the rest of the hostel began drinking whilst sharing all our travel stories. Tyler, who was stopping in Ottawa on his way home to Winnipeg from 6 months in the army, told me that there aren’t many touristy things to do in Ottawa- it’s basically just a big sesh. That’s why most of the guests in my hostel were there. So, to my excitement, I found Tyler and I $5 tickets for a techno event hosted by Toronto DJs in a club called the Mercury Lounge for the following night.

The rest of the night was a little blurry, I’m not sure who won the competition but I know that my weekend romance and I shared a kiss. We even checked out some of Ottawa’s bars later in the evening. Turns out Ottawa is bopping on a Friday night- just much later than 8pm (I should have known lol).

Parliament Hill and Winterlude

Despite my slight hangover, I awoke at a decent time, had an egg muffin and green tea at the Tim Hortons round the corner from my hostel, and headed out into the city. Canada’s capital shocked me again- turns out everything I wanted to do that day was only an 18 minute walk away from the hostel (winning!). Plus my to-do-list wasn’t very long so I could take my time with it.

Firstly, I headed to see Parliament at Parliament Hill (clever!) whose snowy roof tops glistened in the sun. I must say, I think that Canada’s parliament is slightly fancier than ours in London. It looks like a mix between Hogwarts at Christmas and a fairy-tale castle from Disney. I’m not looking for a job in politics but imagine working here?! I was also pretty taken aback by the picturesque view of the city which Parliament Hill overlooked. The weather was alright too- not too cold despite the snow.

I heard you can get a guided tour of the building for free- I’m not sure you can do that in London. However, with only one day to explore, I gave this a miss and headed to Winterlude.

Ottawa’s parliament, Tilly O’Brien

Before going to Ottawa, everyone advised me to check out the Winterlude as I was in the city just before its end.

Winterlude is a festival spread around the centre of town, possessing little market stalls, food stalls and games. It reminded me of London’s Winter wonderland minus the rides, and was situated in the city centre. The main attraction being an ice-sculpture competition. The area was heaving with people and I can’t lie, I wasn’t overly excited. I think it’s more of a family day out, and for those who have money to spend.

Winterlude ice sculpture, Tilly O’Brien

I did, however, finally try frozen maple syrup. This treacly sweet treat was relentlessly recommended to me by my Canadian friends. Frozen maple syrup is literally as the name says; an ice-lolly stick of maple syrup dipped into snow. It was delicious yet super sweet and became quite sickly after a few licks- though this may be because of my slight hangover. But was definitely worth it for a dollar fifty.

Frozen maple lolly, Tilly O’Brien

The Rideau Canal Skateway

After a quick look around the Winterlude, I still had time to explore the city before dinner, so I decided to take a peek at the Rideau canal skateway; the world’s largest naturally frozen skate rink. I say take a peak because I’m not very good at ice skating. Thus didn’t think it’d be a good idea to skate solo.

Although, for the first time during my solo travels, maps was not my friend. It took me about two hours to take a twenty minute walk (at least I got to see more of the city).

Along the way I passed an indoor mall filled wih the usual shops at home and a tunnel vibrating with music. Inside were three pieces of clear acrhcitecture attached to a metal fence which projected colourful disco lights that bounced along to the music. I was so fascinated as there was no one controlling the system.

The Rideau Canal was huge and filled with skaters. I watched skaters twirl around and dodge other skaters for a while before heading back to freshen up. Luckily this time Maps was on my side so the walk was only twenty minutes.

Saturday Night

Dinner was in a cool restuarant called the Furniture Warehouse as recommended to me by a friend. It was in the centre of Bayward Market, only a short walk away from my hostel and all meals were $5.99 (BARGAIN!!). Cocktails were cheap too. The Furniture Wearehouse’s interior was super quirky with it’s low ceiling, fitting music, and blue glow projecting off of the fairy lights. I ordered a grilled cheese with fries in true North American style and a pink G&T. It was definitely a 10/10 from me.

After dinner, I met up with Tyler at the hostel before heading to our techno event. The venue was so good with two floors, cheap drinks and a big arched window which the club lights danced across. We spent a few hours dancing the night away and even spoke to the DJ at the end.

Beaver’s Tail

The next day was my final day and the coach wasn’t until 7pm, but I’d done pretty much everything I wanted to do in Ottawa the previous day and was feeling tired. The last thing on my list was to try a Canadian Beaver’stail- a delicious pastry cut into the shape of a beaver’s tail (inventive). Wanting to guide me on my Canadian dream, Tyler took me to a Beaver’stail stall in the market and treated me a nutella one for breakfast ( so romantic). There were so many different flavours including a savoury one of cheese and garlic. Luckily the weather was quite nice so the sun warmed our faces as we queued up for the popular delicacy. Upon hearing my accent, a kind elderly couple from the city told me about all the best places to visit in Ontario.

Beavertail, Tilly O’Brien

After our delicious breakfast we headed back to the hostel to chill- the perfect opportunity to catch up some reading (it was reading week after all). So I sat in the comfy hostel living room with my book where I said goodbye to a group of girls from Germany who I’d met on the first night. They were heading to Quebec the day before me so we exchanged numbers, planning to meet up there. I also said goodbye to a friend I’d made who worked in the hostel. He was on a year abroad in the city from Germany also and was getting payed to live in the hostel and hang out with guests. We really were a little family.

Later that day before I had to head home, Tyler very kindly took me for a late lunch in the market where we reminisced on our weekened. We then grabbed my bag from the hostel and kissed goodbye. It really was like a Grease romance. What an end to a wild weekend. At least I had a 4hr coach journey and a day in rez to catch up on sleep before heading to Quebec.

How my year abroad helped me improve my mental health and overcome eating disorders

Me and my girl gang, Tilly O’Brien

Since I was 11, I’ve struggled with my weight and body image issues. People would often make comments about my weight, saying stuff like “you’d be really pretty if you lost weight,” or call me “fat.” From such a young age I’ve tried every diet under the sun. It wasn’t until my A-level year that I lost more than a few pounds and toned up with a new healthy life-style wherein I could still have the odd treat guilt-free.

While I’m not sure that I’ll ever be completely happy with my body, I went to uni feeling so much more confident. And I lost the weight healthily. However, following a traumatizing experience in my first year, I spent that summer and my second year obsessed with weight control. It wasn’t about losing weight anymore but regaining control of my body somehow, and keeping at a desired weight. I workout everyday to the best of my ability and make sure that I never miss a workout. I was and still am obsessed with food… but not in the way you may think. At the beginning of each week I would have every meal and snack planned for the rest of the week. But if I ever ruined this routine; maybe by going out for dinner, or having a glass of wine instead of a gin slim lime and tonic, or even an extra biccy at English tea, I would feel immense guilt. For me, the only way to make up for this guilt was to make myself throw up. Throwing up was easy at home as I have my own bathroom on the top floor, but it was difficult in my second year house. I’d work out whenever the house was empty and schedule in my purge. It would often take up time which ruined my work routine and I’d become frustrated. After a purge, I would frantically clean the toilet to ensure that there was no trace. However, this would make me feel guilty too, I knew how detrimental it is to the body. But what felt worse? Induced vomit or destroying my diet? The latter felt like a bigger issue- I just won’t do it next time (not). This obsession would get in the way of socialising, if an occasion opposed my food plan then I wouldn’t go … unless I knew I could throw up afterwards. The vomiting didn’t help me lose weight but prevented me from gaining it. It also caused me severe self hatred due to the guilt, as did the experience which caused the disorder, and mental health issues. There was something about this eagerness to reject food that made me powerful and in control.

So I didn’t go to Canada with the highest of hopes. I would have a Jack and Jill bathroom with another girl. How would i purge without her knowing? And due to my self-loathing, I honestly felt that my friendship group in Leeds hated me as much as I hated myself and so would push them away by embarrassing myself when drunk. At least I had control over their hatred for me… so I felt. I was so scared of doing the same in Canada and making more people hate me.

But Canada was the perfect place to change this. While my year abroad was incredible both as a once in a lifetime opportunity and as a chance for self growth, it was still a roller-coaster of emotions- I spent half of my first semester depressed. Nonetheless this post is about how the year helped me better myself and why I’d recommend everyone to take a year abroad.

Canadians are the friendliest people

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; I cannot bring to words how friendly Canadians are. They’re just so generous and supportive of everyone. I’ve honestly never felt so loved and welcomed by so many people before. Here’s some of my experiences to prove it;

Finding a girl gang- I met my friend Mel during O week when I asked her for help finding my group. She literally walked me to where I needed to be while keeping the conversation flowing the whole way. She’s since told me that she thought I was cool from then on and knew that I’d be her best friend. She invited me to her house where I met Rebecca and Ellen, introduced me to all their friends, and invited me on all of their girly nights out. I felt so included despite all the girls having been bezzie mates for four years. They even threw me a house party for my 21st and took me out for dinner. How kind?! Girls if you’re reading this- yours is a friendship I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Homecoming party, Tilly O’Brien

One week in first semester, my anxiety kicked in, so I avoided my floor friends for the whole week. Noticing that I was feeling sad, I woke up one morning to find they’d left post-it-notes on my door with a bunch of kind messages. Many of them supported me in my dream to be a writer which really boosted my self-confidence.

Post-it-notes on my door, Tilly O’Brien

My O week friends helped me to adapt to living in a new place. They took me to Walmart to buy all my bedding and living stuff, and told me everything there is to know about living in Canada.

College Party, Tilly O’Brien

Canadians promote kindness. I felt like I didn’t experience any petty bitchiness which I sometimes witness at home. No one ever really had anything bad to say about anyone, so I felt comfortable being the big mess that I am. This doesn’t mean that everyone back home isn’t kind either, I was just too blinded by own self-hatred to allow myself to receive my friends’ kindness.

Trent Bridge, Tilly O’Brien

One day when I was sat on a bus at the bus terminal, I broke down. I honestly felt like I couldn’t carry on anymore. Then a guy walked past, saw me crying, and drew a smiley face on the steamed windows. It really made me smile. Little acts of kindness like this one can help boost your mental health. So, if you’re suffering with mental illness, surround yourself with kind people. And everyone should try to be kind everyday- you never know what someone might be going through and how one little smile might change their life. I know I’m going to try.

Peterborough Bus, Tilly O’Brien

The kindness of Canadians is one that’s indescribable. Obviously everyone back home is amazing too but there was something about Canadians that made me feel so at ease- like my little jigsaw piece finally fit. If you’re someone who suffers with anxiety or lacks in self confidence, but wants to study abroad, I’d definitely recommend looking into studying in Canada. As I look forward to moving back to Leeds and seeing all my old friends, I hope that I bring my new found confidence with me.

Overcoming Bulimia

Of course I can’t speak on behalf of all of Canada, but I really felt as though there was a lot less judgment on people’s appearances then in other parts of the world, especially with regards to weight. This helped me overcome bulimia. Everybody is just so supportive of each other’s appearances and accomplishments. I rarely heard discussions about weight, neither good nor bad, and we’d all gym together. I hope this is an idea that will develop for all women.

As I was in rez, I had to be catered- there were no cooking facilities and a lot of the cafeterias sold fast food. Thus, I knew I had to get over my issues or I’d make myself very ill. I managed to eat fairly healthily but told myself that I’d sometimes have to eat something which didn’t quite suit my diet, but that it was OK. Plus everyone else was in the same boat and they weren’t complaining.

Rez food, Tilly O’Brien

Having a Jack and Jill bathroom meant that it was too hard to tactical chun without my roommate finding out. So I didn’t do it and was forced to learn to live with it.

Sounds cliche but a compliment can go a long way. I dated guys who told me that I was beautiful, One even said that he wanted to help me understand that I deserve to feel good and wanted. Initially I ignored this, but Mel told me that I should listen to them. They wouldn’t say it if they didn’t mean it. So I learnt to not care about my appearance so much.

I found other ways to regain control of my body like masturbating and feeling confident enough to say no to a kiss in the club and tell men not to touch me if I didn’t want them to.

Getting Help

As my year abroad was a once in a lifetime opportunity, (sob) I didn’t want to spend my time feeling sad or worrying about food. So I decided that this year I’d make a change.

I’ve always been sceptical about counselling as I’m not one to talk openly about my feelings or experiences (apart from when I’m drunk) and I’d had one in the past which didn’t help at all. But when I met my therapist in Canada Anita, she literally made me feel as though I am normal and that all my anxieties were merely thoughts and voices in my head as an affect of past experiences. Apparently, I’m a pretty lovable person. I don’t know? We also worked out that I have body dysmorphia, and that whilst it’s OK to want to feel in control of my body and diet, there are healthier ways to do it than induced vomit. Also a slice of pizza every once in a while isn’t going to pile the pounds on- I should just go for a run after if I feel guilty about it. She also told me that by trying to control every aspect of my life won’t prevent bad things from happening, it only prevents me from doing the things I want to do and letting people in. So, I know the thought of talking to a therapist may be scary, but honestly, meeting Anita absolutely changed my life. You just need to find one you trust and one who actually listens to you and doesn’t just throw little techniques on you that we can all learn in A-level psychology.

I also started escitalopram antidepressants and anxiety meds which have helped massively with my mood. I was so scared to start them, but having friends around you, like I did my lovely British friends Jacob, Serena, and Theo, really helps you settle into them. They’d would even remind me to take my “anti d’s” after drinking together. Big love guys- wouldn’t have made it without you.

Theo, Jacob and I at an ice hockey game, Tilly O’Brien

So many people were more open to talking about mental illness too. It turns out that a lot of my friends saw therapists, took medication, had had similar traumatic experiences as me, and suffered with anxiety and depression. And they would all talk so freely about it. Talking is something I’d always been scared to do. But by learning that I’m not alone, I now have the courage to talk and to even write this blog post. I still keep in touch with my friend Katie who invited me back to her home in Toronto for my final weekend. We always check in to see how each other are doing. Talking is key.

Katie and I, Tilly O’Brien

Making friends who just accept me for who I am and all my quirks, like Katie, my floor friends, my girl group, and Theo, Serena, and Jacob, has helped me learn to understand that people can enjoy me company and do want me around.

My floor friends, Tilly O’Brien

I’ve also gained so much confidence by travelling solo. The way I can make my way around huge cities like New York alone, and make friends so easily in hostels and bars has proven to me that I can do more than I think I can, and that I must be a slightly approachable person.

Me and some friends I met travelling in Montreal, Tilly O’Brien

Writing has also helped me. Alongside this blog and various articles, I took a couple of creative writing modules in Canada wherein I used my own emotions to create stories and poetry. It feels good to write my feelings out in the voice of another. In first semester, I wrote a sonnet sequence about the relationship I have with my body and due to the friendliness and closeness of my peers, I even felt comfortable enough to share my work aloud.

My poetry wiriting seminar group, Tilly O’Brien

So, I hope this very personal post has proved to future study abroad students how amazing a year abroad can be for your personal growth. I’ve definitely felt vulnerable writing and sharing it. While I’ve still got a long way to go, I’ve learnt so much about myself, care less about what I eat, and haven’t made myself sick since starting my year abroad except for one little glitch over Christmas. If you’re reading this and you have experienced anything similar, please contact me or someone close to you. And remember that you’re not alone.

Visiting Family at Christmas

Snowy trees, Tilly O’Brien

Getting booted out of rez a few days before my flight home for Christmas meant that it was time to visit some family members I hadn’t met before, and some I had. It’s amazing how much family I have in Canada- clearly I was destined to go there on my year abroad.

Huntsville

The day after my final exam, my third-cousin Erin kindly came to pick me up from Peterborough and take me to her home in Huntsville (again, Canadians are so friendly). We’d conversed a lot on Facebook but this was the first time we’d met, so I was super excited.

By now Canada was very cold and there was lots of snow. It was even snowier up in Huntsville. The drive further North was extremely pretty as we rushed passed fields of now. I’d never seen snow that had been left so untouched before- the only time I’ve seen snow that deep is when I go skiing in Europe and usually it’s marked with footprints, animal prints, and ski/snowboard trails. There was not a blemish in sight. And the sun was out, making the snow sparkle as the strong rays bounced off of its white, fluffy body.

As we drove deeper into the woods the trees were tipped with little snow noses- it seemed like we were driving through Narnia and I felt slightly giddy.

Highway, Tilly O’Brien

Huntsville is so picturesque. I honestly couldn’t imagine it in summer as it embodies Christmas village vibes. Erin told me that there is a Christmas shop in the village which is always open- must be a Christmas town if the shop can keep its business booming all year round. The little village’s paths and roads were covered in snow and the grey, bricked, cottage-like shops looked as though they were wearing snow hats. Everything was so quaint and Georgian looking. I couldn’t believe that people actually live there, it’s like something off of a Hallmark film. The one building that did stand out though was the Tim Hortons. But can you really class any city/town in Canada as Canadian if there isn’t a Timmys?

We spent the first night at Erin and Alana’s which was amazing as I’d heard so much about them both and finally got to know them. And Kristen treated us to candy-cane ice cream which really got me in the mood for Christmas. The peppermint mixed with vanilla was delicious.

Huntsville, Tilly O’Brien

The next morning, Erin and I went for a drive to Stubbs Falls, after a yummy candy-cane hot chocolate from Tims. Just like Costa does, Tims presents a range of christmas treats in December. To get to the Falls, there’s a little foot-path through a forest. Now I really felt like I was in Narnia. The path, however was extremely snowy and it was freezing so after a short walk down, we decided to head home in fear that we may get there and it would be closed.

Stubbs Fall trail, Tilly O’Brien

I did google the Falls though and they look stunning, especially in winter as the a water freezes into an icy masterpiece.

Orillia

Window View, Tilly O’Brien

Next stop was Orillia at Ed and Denise’s house (Denise is my granddad’s sister.) Orillia is similar to Huntsville- quaint and picturesque, and filled with snow. Erin and I stopped in a gorgeous cake shop called Mariposa Market which sold a variety of sweet treats, to pick up dessert. The cakes looked amazing- definitely gives Mary Berry a run for her money. They even sold maple flavoured popcorn which I haven’t tried but have heard is super yummy. And we got to try a free sample of Smarties fudge- I mean indulging in sweet treats is what Christmas is all about, right?

Mariposa Market, Tilly O’Brien

Toronto

For my final day before flying home for the holidays, Erin very kindly drove us to Toronto. The drive took a few hours as the snow was picking up. We stayed in a gorgeous hotel downtown.

This was my third time in Toronto but the first I’d ever seen it in snow. Toronto is slightly warmer than Peterborough and didn’t have any snow the last time I’d visited it in November. It looked so different covered in snow. The bricked houses were framed with scarfs of smooth white.

Toronto, Tilly O’Brien

That evening, we took a trip to the Distillery District as there was a Christmas market on. As with any Christmas markets, it was lovely, all lit up in the evening sky and filled with little wooden stalls selling warm foody treats, malt wine, and trinkets to buy as presents. However it was so cold and windy that we struggled to stay out long. My recommendation would be NOT to go on the Ferris wheel when it’s that cold as it’s even colder up there. Erin and I decided to go on it as something fun to do, however we seemed to be stuck in the air for ages and couldn’t feel our hands nor faces when we were finally let off.

Distillery District, Tilly O’Brien

After a quick smooch around the market, we headed up the CN Tower for dinner where it was much warmer.

Having been up the tower in the day previously, I think I prefer it at night as the lights floating in the black are sky are mesmerising. What’s better is that the restaurant rotates so that you can see the city from every angle without having to move; I still cant believe how huge it is!! Eating at the restaurant is really nice too- boujee for a student, and perfect for a date or a nice meal with a family member. The food was exquisite and the perfect end to my first semester in Canada.

View from the CN Tower, Tilly O’Brien

12 Hours in Boston

Harvard, Tilly O’Brien

The bus from New York to Boston took about 4 hours- plenty of time to rest and revise for my upcoming exams.

I’d booked into the Fenway Inn for the night ($26.10 or £20.86 BARGAIN!!)- another hostel which was in the most perfect location. The hostel was situated in the middle of Boston city, surrounded by restaurants and bars, and close to the famous music school Berkley. As I arrived just in time for lunch, I only had the day to explore. Luckily Boston is very walkable (I was surprised about how small it is), and my friend Zach who I met in Montreal lives there. Better yet, he’s an expert of the city and offered to show me around. Big love Zach.

Fenway, Tilly O’Brien

Wrap up

Boston in December is freezing and pretty snowy, so make sure you wrap up. I wore my big winter jacket, a long-sleeve top, a sweatshirt, and tights underneath my jeans (not a good look.)

Me at Harvard University, Zach Duhamel

Visit Harvard

After a quick lunch at the bus station, I was soo excited to channel my inner Gillmore Girls and visit Harvard University. Harvard is actually in a place called Cambridge which is a very short tram ride outside of Boston city. And like our Cambridge, Harvard is like its very own little town within the university. Flaunting lovely red brick buildings and an array of vintage bookstores and cafes. You literally would never have to leave campus. Definitely worth the extortionate tuition fees.

Luckily for me as we walked around Harvard’s snowy paths, Zach gave me the history of the university. Is it possible to feel more like a uni student at Harvard than I do when I’m at uni?

Harvard University, Tilly O’Brien

See the Boston Commons Lit Up

Travelling by tram into the city, we were followed by hoards of drunk students dressed in sexy Santa outfits on a bar crawl- basically the Otley Run of Harvard.

Boston is pretty similar to any other city, yet being one of the first founded cities in America, there is SO much history behind it which is really interesting. With my limited time in the city, Zach helped me tick-off my to-do-list in speedy time. And we did so all by walking. Our first stop was to the Boston commons which was covered in snow. The Commons is a park like any you’d see in London but as it was December, the trees were all lit up with fairy lights and there was an ice rink filled with youths skating around. The Commons are really pretty to walk through, so if you ever find yourself in Boston, definitely take a look. I’d also recommend going during sunset as if you stand at the top of the park’s hill then you’ll see the most gorgeous view; the big orange sun setting amidst a blur of blue and purple.

Boston Commons, Tilly O’Brien
Tilly O’Brien

Visit Beacon Hill

Beacon Hill is the most expensive residential area in Boston and very picturesque. It’s a short walk away from the Boston Commons. The extremely expensive looking, Georgian houses are lined up down narrow cobbled streets. And as it was Christmas time, each house was in competition to boast the best Christmas wreath. Must be nice being rich. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t dying to live here.

We also went to a little cafe called Tatte which sells an abundant of pastries and sweet treats. I’d give a 10/10 for the brownies we bought. Zach says that they do the best coffee too.

Beacon Hill, Zach Duhamel

Check out Columbus Park

Columbus Park is another pretty park and if you’re in Boston in December, I’d suggest visiting it at night. Like the Commons, Columbus Park’s trees were covered in coloured fairy lights to guide our way. There was also a stunning walk way arched with a glow of purple which projected disco vibes. Although, it wasn’t the best lighting for a cute selfie.

Columbus Park, Tilly O’Brien

Visit De Quincy Market at Night

De Quincy Market was another short walk following Boston’s famous Freedom Walk (basically a path through the city which passes all of the main historical buildings) through the lit up city. And it’s very pretty. The market was super busy- the hub of the city. It was filled with little market stalls and pop-up shops of all the common faves. I saw yet another chrimmy tree to get me excited about heading home in a couple of weeks. There was even a street dance crew, strutting it out in front of the crowds of people, like they do in most major cities.

You should also check out the Haymarket. It’s an indoor farmer’s market seling a variety of fresh foods and handmaid trinkets.

De Quincy Market, Tilly O’Brien
Tilly O’Brien

Head to the North End

After a nosy around the market, and satisfied with all we’d accomplished in such a short amount of time, I let Zach go off to his baseball game- saying goodbye to him amidst hoards of rushing baseball fans. As it was still early evening, I decided to wonder around by myself. Thus, I walked to the North End (recommended by Zach ) which boasts some of Boston’s most historical buildings. It’s pretty too. And there’s something about the the unknown which I love when walking at night, especially alone. So I kept on walking until my tummy started rumbling then hopped on the tram to Fenway and Back Bay where my hostel was.

The North End, Tilly O’Brien

Go to an Irish Pub and Make Friends

After a cheap dinner in a quick sushi bowl restaurant, I decided that I wasn’t prepared to say goodnight to Boston just yet. So of course I headed to an Irish pub for a glass of Pinot. As Boston is a popular destination for Irish migrants, Bepop bar was filled with actual Irish people. And as this was the longest I’d ever been away from home and England, I was feeling nostalgic for the UK. So I just had to make friends with them. What’s better is that my new friend Marc from Cork (an Irish pilot) was mates with the Irish bar man and loved my accent so bought all of my drinks for me. Absolutely buzzing. We had a great time chatting away, reminiscing Ireland and making more friends. We met a girl from Shanghai who lives in New York and she had the best story ever- she took a train from NY to Boston (tickets are really expensive) that morning literally just to buy weed from the “daisy man” (weed is legal in Massachusetts) to take back to New York. However, when she met up with her dealer, she realised that she’d forgotten her ID so he wouldn’t sell to her- good to hear he’s keeping it legal I guess. So in her despair, she hung out in Bepop with us, drinking pints of Guinness before rushing off to catch the last train back to New York. I mean a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. And what a day out huh?

So it’s safe to say that I had one of the best nights ever and headed back to the hostel for a good night’s sleep before a 5.30 wake up to catch my flight back to Toronto- arriving home just in time for the I’m a Celeb final.

While I’d definitely love to revisit Boston, I’m still amazed that I managed to see all of the main sights and tick everything off of my list. I also got to catch up with a friend and had an amazing evening. And spent little to no money whilst there. I arrived home with a big smile on my face.

New York

Brooklyn Bridge, Tilly O’Brien

Booking New York and Boston was a completely spontaneous decision for me. Having already been to New York one summer, I wanted my next visit to be at Christmas. So one afternoon, I decided it was time to get away from small-town Peterborough and visit New York alone just before I went home for Christmas. What’s better is that it was cheaper to get a Megabus from New York straight to Boston and fly back to Toronto from there rather than taking two separate trips. So I booked to stay in Boston for a night.

The flight to New York La Guardia airport came to $374.87 which is £214.95 (pretty decent for flying to New York) and my flight back from Boston cost £65.92!! Both were with Air Canada who often email me with the latest cheap offers. If you find yourself travelling Canada be sure to to subscribe to Air Canada’s mailing list.

The Megabus cost me $12 (£9.61). However, had I booked the trip earlier, tickets sell from as cheap as $5!! Absolute bargain if you ask me.

How to Explore New York Cheaply and Solo

Although I was becoming addicted to solo-travelling, I’d be lying if I said that the thought of exploring New York alone didn’t scare me a little. But I felt SO safe and practically knew my way around the city by the end of it. I also managed to spend as little money as possible!

Take advantage of the subway: I got a weekend unlimited pass for $11 which was my lifesaver. I definitely exceeded $11 with how often I travelled by train, but this didn’t matter, and I didn’t call a cab once. The system is incredible and takes you everywhere.

Before arriving, I was also slightly worried about having no data and getting lost alone as my cheap Canadian sim only works in WIFI outside of Canada. But this was not an issue at all. Every sub-station had WIFI, even underground, so I could always add my destination into maps, press start and then it would continue following my path as I left the station. I spent a lot of time in the stations. Starbucks’ were great for this too- once you log into one, you’re logged into them all and they’re everywhere.

New York is well signposted too and most cafes, restaurants, bars, and shops have WIFI.

Having done all the major, expensive, touristy stuff the first time I went to New York, I didn’t have to spend any money on anything other than food and drinks. The only experience I payed for was a bike and carriage ride through Central Park which as a solo student, the rider bunked the price down by $200 from $250. He became my personal photographer and taught me a lot about the city.

Cheap and cheerful is best- if you’re looking for a cheap trip in New York, avoid the independent restaurants in Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn, and go to the obvious chains. Having arrived late, I only had three meals during my two days in NY; one of which was a lunch in Subway and another, a lovely Thai meal in a takeout Thai restaurant in Brooklyn on my first night.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Approach someone in a crowded area who looks friendly and ask for directions if needed. I did upon first arriving at La Guardia airport and made friends with a New Yorker called Joe who showed me where to go and let me use his hot-spot. We’re still friends now. And when looking for Brooklyn Bridge, I asked a woman for directions. Not only did she walk me all the way to the bridge but told me that my accent is beautiful (blush.)

Me in Central Park

Staying in Brooklyn

Having previously visited New York with family and stayed in Times Square, I was desperate to see Brooklyn which I hadn’t visited the last time.

I’d recommend staying at Ny Moore hostel which is situated in the heart of New York’s urban utopia, surrounded by bars and cafes, and is a three minute walk away from Morgan Avenue station. For two nights I payed $85 + tax (£68.47) which was the cheapest I could find in the city. The staff were super friendly and helpful, and the decor was incredible; boasting elegant, loft-style rooms and a comfy lounge to chill in.

Brooklyn was just as expected; a bigger version of London (particularly Camden), filled with colourful street art, vegan cafes, street-food vans, bars, and vintage stores. I felt right at home.

Brooklyn, Tilly O’Brien

Brooklyn Bridge

With only two days in New York and arriving at the hostel just after lunch (later than I’d planned due to problems in Toronto- loooong story), I dumped my bags and headed straight to Brooklyn Bridge.

Luckily due it being early afternoon, I arrived at the bridge just in time for the sunset after a fifteen minute journey walking through a homely part of Brooklyn.

The bridge is pretty long and it can take a while to walk down the whole thing- especially if you’re like me and keep stopping to take photos of the famous city ahead. It was stunning, I could see the Manhattan sky scrapers from an angle over-looking the area and trace its outline with my finger. Above me were masses of ropes knotted into squares across both sides. It was like a pirate ship and I could picture Jack Sparrow swinging along them.

Brooklyn Bridge, Tilly O’Brien

The bridge was full of tourists alike and I saw a few weddings. What is it with me and stumbling upon weddings? I mean with the sun setting over the Manhattan skeleton and reflecting off of Brooklyn’s waters which the bridge overshadowed, it certainly was the most perfect spot to kiss the bride.

Me on Brooklyn Bridge

Dumbo

If you’re planning on going to New York then you should go to Dumbo. It’s a part of Brooklyn which projects major student vibes, boasting an array of bars and restaurants down a narrow tiled-floor road. Here, I stopped in a little tapas bar. The interior flaunted a cute condo-style with a delicious menu of cheap, vegan tapas dishes. I was delighted to find that it was happy hour so had a glass of prosecco for $3. And who says that students can’t live the high life?

Dumbo, Tilly O’Brien

Soho

On my way back to the hostel I headed through Soho which was beautifully lit up in the early evening sky. Soho’s narrow cobbled streets flaunted a variety of designer shops I’d never be able to afford to shop in. But it was fun to window shop. My favourite was a furniture store whose window was decorated to fit my now dream bedroom with quirky, condo furniture; exactly how I imagine Brooklyn’s lofts to be designed. Just like the Humphrey loft on Gossip Girl.

Shop in Soho, Tilly O’Brien

Deffo go to Lorimer Street for a Drink (or 5)

After a busy day of travelling and getting many steps in, I planned to head for a few drinks in Brooklyn’s Lorimer Street (recommended by the super friendly hostel receptionist) and go to my first ever drag show. As I freshened up in the room I made friends with Alejandro from Mexico who asked to join me.

As a newly self-proclaimed solo-traveller, I took Alejandro on a 15 minute train ride from Morgan Av to Lorimer Street. Lorimer Street was the perfect place to drink on a Friday night in Brooklyn and reminded me of Bold Street in Liverpool or Leeds’ Call Lane.

Seen as the drag show in Brooklyn’s notorious gay bar the Metropolitan wasn’t starting until midnight, we decided to do our own mini bar crawl as each bar offered free entry.

The first was a bar called Night of Joy which sold cool,exotic cocktails, possessed a vintage interior, and presented a live band. However, it was rather spenny so we only stayed for one.

Next we headed to Pete’s Candy Store- the name intrigued us and Google said that you could get a free pizza token with every drink. So, we headed straight to the bar after a while deciding which cocktail sounded best, then claimed our prizes. And this wasn’t just a crappy slice of pizza but a full mini pizza which we watched the chef cook on the stove. What’s more is that there was karaoke- my favourite kind of night. Of course after a few cocktails, I took this opportunity to channel my inner rapper and take to the stage.

Finally we headed to the Metropolitan, a room projecting a red glow, just in time for the show. The Metropolitan was the cheapest bar yet, selling pink G&T’s and flutes of prosecco for $7 each.

The show was brilliant- everything I’d expected it’d be. For me, the best act was a Beyonce look-a-like. She looked like a better woman than me and her dance moves were amazing. We had so much fun and I met a guy who has worked with J.K Rowling before which was pretty cool (he also complimented my hair).

Metropolitan Bar, Tilly O’Brien

Morning in Central Park

The next day meant an early morning, a strawberry and banana breakfast smoothie from the vegan cafe next to the hostel, and getting in hundreds of thousands steps walking round the heart of the Big Apple.

Firstly, I took a train to Union Square to head to Central Park. Approaching the park there was a cute Christmas market built with wooden cabin stalls selling items from bohemian jewelry to roasted nuts. After a a few minutes of bargaining, I took a morning carriage ride through the park. It looked soo different from when I’d last visited it at summer time, covered in left over melting snow from a few days earlier and orange autumn leaves which literally crunched underneath my feet with every step I took.

On tour, I saw the famous fountain which appears in the opening montage of Friends and during the wedding of Chuck and Blaire in Gossip Girl, a statue of Shakespeare (who was apparently the first British settler in New York) and a mosaic quoting ‘Imagine’ with tiles circling it in honour of John Lennon.

‘Imagine’ circle, Tilly O’Brien

Fifth Avenue

After waking up in the city that never sleeps like Holly Golightly, I carried on my Breakfast at Tiffany’s dream by taking a look around the stunningly turquoise Tiffany’s followed by a walk down Fifth Avenue.

As I peered into the glass cases in Tiffany’s, pretending that I could totally afford anything in there, I saw the most gorgeous pair of dangly earrings- a turquoise stone bedded amidst a circle of diamante crystals. They were 8 grand. A girl can dream. Next to me was a cute, British old couple. The woman tried the same earrings on while her husband told her how beautiful she looked in them. The shop assistant told them the cost and the husband said that as this was an anniversary gift, his wife could have whatever she wanted no matter what the cost. Can I have a man like that please?!

Tiffany’s, Tilly O’Brien

Times Square and Grand Central Station

When visiting New York, you HAVE to go to Times Square- there’s something about the busy atmosphere, hum of people, men shouting to sell tickets to their comedy show, and of course the lights projecting off the various screens. You don’t have to do anything but walk, look, and take it all in.

The walk to Grand Central Station took a while but I had to see it again. The station is one that emits a golden ambiance with its regal interior. In true Gossip Girl style I looked over the grand balcony at the people below. Just Like Serena does in the first episode.

Grand Central Station, Tilly O’Brien

Evening in Times Square and the Rockerfeller Tree

As amazing as Times Square is during the day, as a city that never sleeps, you have to visit Times Square at night- especially at Christmas. On top of the usual mass of light from the televised billboards in Times Square, during December, this famous spot boats a bombardment of Christmas lights which blur your eyes with their warm glow. Before treating myself to a a slightly more fancy dinner at Olive Garden, and after taking a walk through Grand Street (a cool part of Brooklyn filled with bars and Italian restaurants), I was determined to find New York’s biggest Christmas tree. I’d never been to a busier place before and due to the cold evening air I strategically dogged past the mass of tourists until I was hit with a vision of red, pink and purple, soaring high into the sky. The Rockerfeller tree is HUGE. I mean where do you find such a big tree? The place was filled with tourists alike snapping pics of this Christmas dream.

Rockerfeller Tree, Tilly O’Brien

Olive Garden was a short walk away in the heart of Times Square. The wait was meant to be a long one, however due to my being a solo diner, I was seated immediately. Inside was packed and I had a lovely bowl of shrimp pasta with a huge complimentary bowl of salad and a Pornstar Martini, all for $17. Absolute bargain.

Food at Olive Garden, Tilly O’Brien

After an extremely filling dinner, I was in the mood to dance to dance off the calories. I walked around Times Square for ages to spot a bar with dancers. However, surprisingly there weren’t any. So, instead I headed to a 1920’s style whiskey bar. Living the American movie-style dream, I ordered a scotch on the rocks which I must say wasn’t great. The burning sensation caused me to be unable to finish it and it was really expensive too. Thus, despite the bar being packed on this December Saturday night, I started my journey home.

Times Square, Tilly O’Brien

I was, however, in luck. For some reason I couldn’t get my pass to work in the sub station so asked the first guy I saw, saying “my pass isn’t working” in an extremely strong British accent. After jokingly mimicking the way I say “working” the New Yorker showed me how to swipe my pass properly then sparked a conversation. We talked for a while in the station until this guy who introduced himself as Dan asked if I wanted to go for a drink. But I had a better idea. I said that we should go dancing in a club called Copacabana in Times Square, I’d found on Maps. He agreed. Don’t worry he was totally safe, and I was feeling spontaneous. While we waited in the queue to get in, I started talking to this guy who was on a Christmas do with his work mates. “You’re brave being a young woman travelling to New York from England all by yourself,” he told me in the best New York accent. And just like that we were friends. The guy let me and Dan join his work party which meant that we got into the club for free. Winning.

The club was filled with Christmas partiers and we boogied until early morning. Oh what a final night in my favourite city it was. That night I slept in my hostel bed like a baby, ready for my coach journey the following day.

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls, Tilly O’Brien

I know this blog is very late but your girl has been busy busy on her year abroad; submitting assignments, reading, hanging with friends and embarking on adventures. However due to COVID19, I now have time to catch up on sharing my North American experience! Still can’t believe I had to cut it short.

So after a wonderful trip to Montreal, my friend Thomas kindly offered to put me up at his place outside St Catherine (Ontario) and take me to the notorious Niagara Falls. You’ll be thankful to know that this post is much shorter than the looong Montreal two-parter.

The Falls

It was a warm Thursday morning during October reading week when I woke up bursting with excitement to visit my first of the seven wonders of the world- the Eiffel Tower equivalent of Canada. Niagara Falls is an iconic place which I’d heard so much about my whole life- and now I was actually seeing it. In the flesh. Whaat?!

Arriving at the Falls, we first headed to Tim Hortons (of course there was a Timmys- they’re literally everywhere) for a green tea and box of Tim Bits. This was my first time going to Tims (bit late) and I highly recommend getting a 20 box of mixed Tim Bits. They’re little donuts that come in various different flavors including plain sugar, chocolate, jam, birthday cake and many more. They’re sooo good.

Having dreamed about seeing the Falls for so long, I felt slightly nervous, the butterflies in my stomach were raving around. But, I’m not going to lie I was slightly disappointed. I mean I don’t know what I was expecting? A moment of enchantment like when Yoda raises the rocks?

Me infront of the falls, Thomas Kaplaniak

Nevertheless, I still highly recommend seeing the falls as a must-do when visiting Canada. There’s something about the earth-shattering sound of the streaming water that hums through your ears when you stand close to the flowing water. It’s like the sound reflects your whole life crashing down in one moment. And the impact of the fall pummeling into the lake below and exploding up into the air is truly magical.

The area is however, a massive tourist trap and very spenny. As Thomas had visited the Falls so many times, I didn’t want to force him to take the boat underneath the waterfall ($75) or stay to see the casino lit up at night. I guess this might be why I didn’t enjoy it so much. Apparently these are obligatory to your Falls experience. I can’t lie though, the scenery is utterly beautiful and I was dying to get as close as I could.

Niagara Falls, Tilly O’Brien

Tip: Visit the Non-touristy Areas

Not wanting to end our day so soon, but also not wanting to spend any money, Thomas came up with the idea to take a short drive to Niagara’s Botanical gardens.

Whilst the gardens weren’t quite as pretty as the one I’d seen in Montreal, this one was filled with cool plants and wacky trees. Each was provided with its own plaque giving its name and history. It was pretty fun to learn something new.

We also broke into the duck-pond despite the ‘do not enter’ sign which fulfilled our nostalgia for our teen years. Plus we got to see some cute fluffy ducks in their natural habitat.

Niagara Falls Botanical Garden, Tilly O’Brien

Be Prepared to Spend Dollar on Food

Whilst I’d highly recommend grabbing lunch or dinner at Niagara-on-the-lake for its lovely location and winery, it was the most expensive meal I’ve ever had to pay for. So be prepared.

There are plenty of restaurants to choose from and Thomas found a quaint little pub with a beautiful view of the winery and field expanse. Plus the waitress was my age from Leeds, so it was great to chat to her!

I’d say make sure you spend time looking up which restaurant is the best one for you.

To say thank you to Thomas for being my tour-guide and letting me crash at his home, I offered to pay for dinner. The meal came to $85 for a glass of the house white wine (it was from the winery so was exceptionally good), a beer, a pretty standard salad, a bowl of mussels, and a side of fries. Yes, it was definitely part of the Niagara experience, however I did almost shed a tear when the bill arrived. Most expensive date I’ve ever been on, but a lovely end to an exciting day.

Montreal Part Two

Montreal’s Old Town, Tilly O’Brien

Take a Walk to the Top of Mount Royal

At the top of Montreal’s Mount Royal, I was besotted by the immense view which unveiled this vast city. I’ve always been a fan of city views and this one was absolutely breathtaking. The view overlooked acres of Fall trees which flaunted a blemishing of red, green, orange and yellow- the epitome of what I’d imagined Canada to look like in Fall. Beyond the forest was the city which stretched out further than any European city I’ve seen in recent years, with its perfect mixture of old brick buildings and glass skyscrapers. After a few quick photo ops, I stood in silence, taking in the view before embarking on my walk. It was still early afternoon and there were some incredible walks around the mount with a series of different pathways. Thus, I decided to take this journey with no particular destination in mind sans Google Maps, and stuck a good playlist on through my headphones.

View from Mount Royal, Tilly O’Brien

Initially I headed into the woods, passing runners, dog walkers and families. As I walked, I continuously diverted my attention between the forest carpet, covered in twigs and fallen leaves, and the fall coloured trees curving over my head, allowing only a shimmer of sunlight through to guide me along my way.

Trees, Tilly O’Brien

After walking along to five bops, I stumbled across an open patch of grass which glistened in the October sun. It was peaceful. A couple sat in the middle intertwining themselves with her arms and legs wrapped through his. Realising that Canada would soon get really cold, I decided to enjoy the last of the summer warmth, taking in the view from a different angle. I’d never felt so serene. Was this my last chance to relax before the mass of assignments I had coming up, until the end of the semester? It was now that I decided that travelling the world is what I want to do with my life.

After a while, I decided to continue on my mission and began heading down the Mount, following a more straight forward path which allowed me to take in the view from both sides. Along the way, following a hoard of people with the same plans, I came across a large patio possessing an expensive cafe and yet another view wherein tourists hung over the grey walls to take pictures. Of course I had to take this as another photo opp before proceeding my adventure. Once at the bottom, I was hit with a weird sense of relief and joy as I now believed that I’m a pro at travelling solo.

View of Montreal, Tilly O’Brien

Try Poutine

After hours of walking and a total of 36,000 steps, I decided that it was finally time to see what the all the fuss is about and try the famous Canadian cuisine of poutine- I mean I was in its homeland. So following a short bus trip and metro ride, I freshened up in the hostel and headed to Montreal’s most popular poutine restaurant La Banquise which was a couple of train stops away and a short walk through a new part of town.

Unfortunately the queue was a 40 minute wait and I felt silly waiting so long for a meal, but I was there now and I was starving. Plus everyone else was doing it. Clearly this was the hit spot for a Saturday night and there were a couple of girls in front of me singing French songs to keep me occupied. Luckily once nearing the front of the queue, as a solo diner I was ushered in very swiftly.

Inside was heaving with poutine fans. The interior was extremely vibrant, boasting all of the primary colours and playing music fit for a Saturday night. I chose the veggie Mexican poutine which added some guacamole (my fave) sour cream and salsa. It looked like a Mexican sombrero. It was soooo good and totally worth the wait. But I was defeated; unable to finish. Understanding that this was my first poutine, the waiter looked disappointed, shaking his head as he took my half eaten dish away. The couple next to me devoured all of theirs and literally shook hands to congratulate each other on accomplishing this challenging task. To top the evening off, it was pretty cheap too.

Poutine, Tilly O’Brien

In a food coma and tired from the long day, I decided not to go out with my new American friends so stayed in the hostel bar, taking advantage of the special deal on $5 pink G&T’s. Noticing me drinking by myself and probably pitying me, a couple of Montreal locals asked me to join them in a game of beer pong. I partnered with one of the French speaking men and the other played solo.But he absolutely thrashed my hunky team mate and I.

Go for Brunch and Visit the Old Town

So the following day meant it was time to visit Old Montreal and check out the Notre Dame Basillica. But not before a short walk to Le Passe Compose for brunch.

Arriving at Le Passe Compose, I was hit with yet another huge queue. However, as a solo diner I was quickly led to the front of the line like a celeb and seated at the bar. After a while deciding whether to eat in full Quebecois style, I chose to go Spanish instead, choosing a colourful Spanish omelette sans meat with a side of fresh fruit and a laavely glass of sangria (another fave of mine.) The food was delish and left me feeling full, but the bill wasn’t so pretty ( got to treat yourself sometimes though, eh?) I left brunch, ready to start my next adventure with another full tummy and a now empty pocket.

Brunch, Tilly O’Brien

Again my unlimited sub pass came in handy as I hopped on the Orange line to the Old Town. Stepping off the train, I felt like I was back interrailing through Europe as the cobbled streets and grey brick buildings projected major European Vibes. However, the Fall trees (clearly my new obsession) kept this vibrant area Canadian. The streets were narrow and wonky (very un-Canadian) but I was in love.

The square owning the basilica was extremely busy and I watched a wedding. A young bride in a beautiful puffy white gown walked out of the basilica along to an accordion player playing Gary Jules’ Mad World. The grey floor tiles were patterned with yellow leaves and I stood in awe (definitely getting married here.)

The Notre Dame Basillica, Tilly O’Brien

After the wedding ceremony I decided it was time for a hot chocolate break so headed into this gorgeous Harry Potter-esque cafe I’d had my eye on. Inside was like a wacky bookstore down Diagon alley, however filled with sweet treats which burst with an array of colour. Thankfully, I managed to finally nab a couple of maple leaf shaped jars of maple syrup to bring at home as Christmas prezzies- you’re welcome Nanna. And they were only $5 each!!

Cafe, Tilly O’Brien
Photo taken by Tilly O’Brien

Check out St Laurent and the Plateau

That evening, after getting in another 30,000 steps, walking back and forth past the Montreal wheel (I got lost), I met up with my pal Sabine in a new more quirky/urban part of Montreal. This took another train ride (on the green line) and short walk down the popular Rue St Catherine (a really long road outside my hostel filled with shops, restaurants and bars/clubs.)

I met Sabine at St Laurent station and we decided to have a drink and tapas in this cool Gatsby-style bar with wine glasses hanging off of the bar’s canopy. The only issue was that the menu was only in French but luckily Sabine is French fluent.

Bar, Tilly O’Brien

After, we took a short walk West from the station to an artsy parea called the plateau. It was filled with colourful architecture, cool street art and shadow mirrors. We walked around for ages, enjoying this more modern part of town which massively opposed the Old Town I’d been exploring all day.

Me at the Plateau, Sabine Dixon

The following morning, I had a few hours to kill before my long journey home. Thus, I decided go on one last walk through Montreal with no particular destination in mind. I walked for hours with my headphones in, taking in the Georgian-like architecture. What stood out to me the most was a group of houses framed with varying colours including sea blue, red, lavender, and yellow, arched with Fall trees. It was a joyful few hours and a lovely end to my first ever solo trip.

Montreal, Tilly O’Brien

Solo Trip To Montreal Part One

Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, Tilly O’Brien

As much as I love travelling with friends, the thought of solo travelling is one that has always excited me; the movie romantic image of meeting new people in the hostel bar, sitting solo in a restaurant of my choice, and exploring the world without having to rely on anyone else. So choosing to go to Montreal by myself was a quick and easy decision, especially when I booked myself into one of the world’s best hostels (voted by Hostel World) for £53 for 3 nights! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly nervous, especially as my family thought I was crazy. What if I get lost? What if I lose everything? Or meet dodgy people? Miss my bus? As the trip was approaching, these were questions that consumed my thoughts. However, my biggest worry was ‘What am I going to do on an 8 hour coach journey without a friend to talk to and limited data?’ ( I guess it’s called reading week for a reason). I could have flown back to England in that time!

However, despite the pile of books I decided to stuff in my rucksack, I managed to make a friend called Sabine, who is also from Trent and was ready to embark on this extremely long coach journey with me. What’s better is that Sabine is a Montreal expert and was willing to meet up with me while there. The majority of the journey was spent talking about our love for travelling and our excitement for our trips, and the journey actually flew by as soon we were rolling into the coach station, passing a mass of city lights. I hadn’t realised until this moment how much I missed being in a city.

Walking out of the coach station, I felt as though I was in France due to the hum of people speaking in French. It was so hard to comprehend that I was in Canada hearing the language of a country I’ve visited so many times in my life and I was slightly nostalgic for Europe. Luckily, my hostel was only a 10 minute walk from the coach station and an easy search on Google Maps (thank God for technology).

As I walked, I felt a warm buzz shimmer through my body at the familiarity of bright lights in the night sky and bustle of people preparing for their Friday night antics. Immediately, I felt that this was a trip that would resonate strongly in my life.

On entering Montreal M Hostel, I was welcomed by an extremely friendly Australian lady who gave me a tour. The hostel is ideal for youths like me with its retro-style bar and rooftop terrace and jacuzzi. My room was one that was shared between 14 people with our own en suite, and I felt perfectly safe. The modern styled room consisted of bunk-beds which looked more like little pods with built in drawers to lock our stuff in, curtains per bed, individual lights for each bed, shelves and plugs- my very own human sized cubby hole.

Once I’d freshened up and unpacked it was time to explore the city and grab dinner. As a newly self-proclaimed explorer, I decided to ignore the hostel’s recommendation to eat at the the Vietnamese cafe across the road and venture into the city with no particular destination in mind; sans Google Maps. The plan was to just walk and hopefully stumble across a place that tickled my fancy; the only problem with this was that none of the restaurants showed prices on their sample menus, so the food was to be the decider.

As I walked down Rue St Catherines, I was enamored by a little square near Bare M metro station whose trees were covered in fairy-lights like a scene from a North American prom. Along the way I passed restaurants and cafes of all cuisines: Mexican, French, Irish, Thai and many more, but it was a quaint, little Italian restaurant sandwiched in-between larger restaurants which caught my eye.

Rue St Catherine, Tilly O’Brien

As a solo diner, I was welcomed in with immense warmth and sat on a little table opposite the TV. The waiter couldn’t have been kinder, asking me about my travels and plans, and promising to help me find my way should I need it. And so with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and a hearty bowl of spaghetti vongole, I couldn’t have been more contempt and excited about my trip. To boost my mood further, the TV presented Britain’s Got Talent in French and I couldn’t help but laugh at hearing the famously British Simon Cowell praising contestants in French. As I was leaving, I had a lovely conversation with Vincent the manager; a little Italian man who praised my very minimal skill in speaking Italian and offered me a job at the restaurant should I choose to live in Montreal- he even gave me his business card.

What a great start to the trip; now was time to take a peak at the hostel bar before hitting the club with my new friend Sabine. The bar, situated in the basement of the hostel was heaving with fellow travelers fighting to get to the bar and playing pool while bragging about all of the countries they’ve visited. I must say the wine, though cheap, was not good, but I soon made an American friend to converse with.

With a glass of wine down my neck, it was time to meet Sabine and head to the club, and I was grateful to use Uber again; Peterborough does not have Uber and its taxi services are extortionately priced. The club was actually a cafe by day turned club at night and I was so excited to finally dance to house music which is neglected in the Peterborough bars. We stayed out dancing until 4am.

The next day was an early morning, despite my slight hangover and few hours sleep but I was up and raring to explore this exciting city. BUt mot without a free breakfast of Raisin Bran and apple juice and a plan to head to the Botanical Gardens with my American friends Zach, Darien and Julie.

The journey to the gardens was a simple metro journey, much easier than London’s tube system. With a cheap commission of $15 for students, I was truly overwhelmed with the burst of colour varying across the fields of plants. I’ve never seen a more beautiful sight and I was besotted by the luminous orange, red and yellow trees, the lego figurines, the Chinese themed architecture and the variety of weird and wonderful plants stretching across the glass buildings; varying from mini banana trees, torice plants to large triangular shaped leaves.

Montreal’s Botanical Gardens, Tilly O’Brien

After a good few hours venturing through Montreal’s version of China and Japan, I decided to leave my friends and head to Mount Royal. A journey which meant I was to use the metro again and walk through what appeared to be central or downtown Montreal, flaunting an array of designer shops which I’d never be able to afford to saop in. As I walked (and walked) I felt at home amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, and hopped on the bus to the viewing point of the mount.

Montreal, Tilly O’Brien
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