Family holidays: London and Edinburgh

London by night
London by night


I’ve been calling the UK my home base for the last year and a half (even though I’ve spent about 6 months away), and since last year’s plan to spend Christmas together with my parents in Switzerland fell through, we decided that this year we were going to spend the holidays together.

When I travel on my own I usually tend to go in various neighbourhoods to see what the local life is like. I do visit the touristy sites too, but my favourite thing is to get lost in different areas, stopping for coffee and doing some people watching. With my parents coming over, it was the perfect opportunity to revisit the numerous attractions in London that I hadn’t taken the time to visit since moving here for the housesits.

Mother and daughter, with lovely Tower Bridge in the background
Mother and daughter, with lovely Tower Bridge in the background

Vibrant London

The morning my parents landed in London, I was ready to go meet them. Or so I thought.

I had bought my bus ticket to the airport, looked up how long it would take me to get from the flat to the station. Even adding a few more minutes to my planning to make sure I would be there when they would land. Little did I know I had forgotten to take some rather important information into account. I had looked at the time to go from the flat to Victoria station. The train station. And I was catching a bus.

Now if you are familiar with London you know that the Victoria bus station is not far from the train station at all. But when you come out the wrong exit, and you only have 10 minutes before the departure of the bus you end up walking really quickly.

I arrived at the station with about 7 minutes to spare, but when I looked on the departure board I couldn’t see which door my bus was leaving from. I thought I would walk around the station and surely I would see it. I made it to the very back of the room and quickly noticed I couldn’t see it anywhere. I came back, starting to think I wouldn’t find it in time and would have to catch the next one. That’s when I knew I had done the exact same mistake as my first time in London, trying to find my bus to Scotland. The bus station is actually divided up into two buildings. And of course, I was in the wrong one. I quickly made my way to the other half of the station, and sure enough, my bus was there. People were slowly getting in so I joined the queue and took a deep breath. I would be on time to greet my parents.

Tower of London
Tower of London

When I arrived at the airport, my mum sent me a message from the other side of customs telling me that the line was really long. I wasn’t going to spend my time waiting by the door so I found a quiet spot, relaxed, and enjoyed some delicious coffee. A while later my mum texted me it was almost their turn to go through customs. Knowing they would be in desperate need for caffeine in order to be somewhat coherent after their red-eye flight and being such a good daughter, I went to buy them some coffees. The queue was quite long and when I finally turned around with the coffees, hurrying to get by the door, suddenly they were right there, in front of me. So much for my great welcome to London I wanted to give them… but at least they didn’t have to wait for coffee!

My parents first view of London: Marble Arch and double-decker buses
My parents’ first view of London: Marble Arch and double-decker buses

After all the morning emotions, we got back to the city to drop the suitcases in our AirBnB flat and get exploring. I knew I wanted my parents to see all the touristy sites, and since we had an underground pass for the day, I decided to start a bit further away and make our way back slowly. I took them to Marble Arch, an area I really like next to Hyde Park. The surprise on my dad’s face to come out of the underground right next to the massive arch, with all the double-decker buses around was amazing. I couldn’t have picked a better place to start.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

For the remaining of our first day in London, we enjoyed a walk through Hyde Park, following the lovely Serpentine lake. The nature break was really needed and it made me realise that as much as I like cities, I do need some large space and some fresh air regularly. Later on, we headed towards Harrods, trying our best to avoid the herds of last-minute Christmas shoppers. We then moved on to Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and obviously Big Ben and Westminster Bridge. I don’t think a first visit to London would be complete without seeing the iconic Big Ben and the London Eye. We ended our first day together by celebrating Christmas Eve back at our flat and enjoy a non-traditional vegan meal.

Really happy yo have found coffee next to St. Pauls Cathedral
Really happy to have found coffee next to St. Paul’s Cathedral

The next day it was Christmas day so all the buses and undergrounds were not working. It was a perfect day to go explore Tower Bridge and the areas around it. We clearly were not the only tourists in this part of the city but it was not as crowded as I had expected it to be. We did some exploring, this time seeing St. Paul’s cathedral and finding a Starbucks that was open for a much-needed coffee break. On the next day, we returned to some of the sights and added a few more like Covent Garden and came back on Millenium Bridge, enjoying the colourful views of London at night. It was already time to pack our stuff and get ready to leave for Scotland.

Beautiful Edinburgh

Staying in beautifully hilly Edinburgh meant that we had to visit the castle! It was my third or fourth visit, but I still found it quite interesting. And the views of the city are quite nice. We also went to the always busy Princes street to have a look at the Christmas Market.

View from Edinburgh Castle, Arthurs seat and Salisbury Crags in the background
View from Edinburgh Castle, Arthur’s seat and Salisbury Crags in the background

I really enjoy rediscovering some cities I called home for a while with people who see it for the first time as they notice many things that are now normal for me. Being in Edinburgh involved more shopping, and eating out which was quite lovely. Even though we had rented a flat and were able to make our own dinners, relax and talking about our days, it’s always nice to eat out when there’s plenty of options for a vegan traveller. I even had my parents try some Haggis, but of course, we opted for the less-traditional vegan version at Henderson’s!

Like father like daughter
Like father like daughter! On our way up Arthur’s Seat

The next day, we went up Arthur’s Seat. Every time I’ve been there it’s always been so windy and cold, it made me feel like I was back home. While I do like Arthur’s seat, the place that really feels like home to me, is the Salisbury Crags, located right next to it. I love walking along the cliffs, and usually, it’s a little bit quieter since everyone aims for the bigger hill. The views over the city are simply gorgeous.

Calton Hill
Calton Hill

On our last day, we explored Calton Hill, and the surrounding streets, and spent the afternoon shopping for souvenirs. It was quite funny to be doing this as it’s something I haven’t done in a long time. I used to love shopping and bringing souvenirs home, but now that I carry all I own on my back, I rarely buy anything (unless it’s a really cute dress or jewellery). First of all, I don’t want to add weight to my bag and also I don’t have a home to display souvenirs in!

National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh
National Monument of Scotland on Calton Hill, Edinburgh

Lovely family time

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, being back with my parents 24/7 can be challenging. It’s easy to fall back to our old habits and get upset when our parents tell us how to do things. They clearly have our well-being at heart, but sometimes being told how to cook when you’ve been living on your own for years can be slightly infantilising, and frustrating. But luckily, this time around, we were all in a good mood and none of these unnecessary tensions was there. So I enjoyed every single minute spent with my parents. Seeing them discover what has been my new normal for a little while now was great. I started to notice things I had never seen before. All you need sometimes is to see your own city through new glasses, or a new point of view to realise how interesting or pretty it is.

We shared stories, discovered new areas together, laughed, and overall had a great family holiday.

Family selfie on Arthurs Seat. Watery eyes and red faces were due to very cold wind!
Family selfie on Arthur’s Seat. Watery eyes and red faces were due to very cold wind!

Quieter New Year celebrations yet

After dropping my parents at Edinburgh airport on Dec 31, I came back to the city, only to find it filled with way too many people for my liking. I had time before catching the bus to my friend’s place, so I decided to go have coffee. The coffee place I picked is always fairly busy, but on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, it was packed with people already celebrating. I was definitely not in the same mood; it’s getting harder every time to say goodbye to my parents as I never know when I’ll get to see them next. As soon as I finished my coffee I left and decided to go wait at the bus station, a much quieter area in the city on that afternoon as most people were arriving and quickly joining the fun, and very few were leaving.

When I arrived in Dundee at my friend Aurelie’s, I discovered that I was not the only one fighting a cold. So much for our plans to go out! We ended up watching movies and barely made it to midnight. It had to have been the quietest New Years Celebration of my life so far. I must be getting older as I felt really good to get a good night sleep and I started the New Year feeling much better!

I will be in Dundee for the whole of January, so if any of you guys fancy going for a walk, coffee, drink or something, let me know!

Family holidays can be hilarious. Laughing at one of my dad's terrible jokes
Family holidays can be hilarious. Laughing at one of my dad’s terrible jokes

Moving to the UK- A how-to guide

Are you sick of being in Canada? Looking to improve your English? Sample great whiskies on a weekly basis? Or maybe meet a lovely Englishman or Scotswoman? If you are between the ages of 18 to 30, this is for you!

Photo of a Canadian passport

Visa Application 

Canadians are usually granted 6 months visa-free in the UK on arrival, but as this is a tourist visa, you are not allowed to work. If you want to stay longer and work, it’s worth looking into the different options. If you are between 18 and 30 and would like to work and live there for up to 2 years, this is how to do it. (If you are over 30 but not quite 35, there’s still some places you can move to under a working holiday visa so don’t rule it out!)

First you need to check if you need to apply for a Tier-5 visa (working holiday visa) on https://www.gov.uk/check-uk-visa (Keep in mind that these can change without any notice, so always check with the competent authority). Being from Canada, the procedure was very straight forward. There is a lengthy online form to fill; you can save your progress as you go, which means you can do this in multiple sittings. And if you are anything like me, you will need to go chase down your old passport to remember when you entered the country previously. You will also need your past addresses and a lot of information you might not remember right away, hence the convenience of being able to save your application and return to it!)

After the form is all filled in, you pay the visa fee and book an appointment to have your identity verified and biometrics taken. This, unfortunately, is available only in major cities, so make sure to budget in the money and time to either get to Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Edmonton, Halifax or St.John’s. One more thing to know is that the visa fee is non-refundable whether you get it or not, so make sure to have all your paperwork in order before submitting!

Once your appointment is booked, you need to make sure you bring in all the relevant documents (including the appointment confirmation). You will be sending your passport to New York, so be aware that you will not be able to travel out of the country until you get it back. Sad, right? As part of the documents, you may need to provide a proof of sufficient funds (bring a copy of your bank statement, or have your bank write a letter confirming you do indeed have the required funds). The passport picture needs to be UK size, which is not the same as the regular passport pictures you can get anywhere in Canada. If you bring the wrong picture size, you will have to book another appointment and go back. So plan ahead! In Ottawa, there is a very handy little shop in the Westgate Shopping Centre not too far from the Visa Application Center that can take passport pictures in the required format. I would recommend getting the picture beforehand, as they might not be as nice to you as they were to me in allowing me to come back later.

When you arrive at your appointment (make sure to be there 10-15 minutes before), you will have some more paperwork to fill, so bring a pen with you. You should just bring your paperwork and said pen with you as you have to go through a security check. Not bringing a bag simply makes the process quicker. You will have to leave all your electronics at the reception. An agent will bring you the papers to fill in, and when there are ready for you, someone will come and escort you to a small office, where they will double check all in the information, take another picture of you as well as your fingerprints, before putting all your application paperwork in an envelope and courier it to New York.

If there are any issues they may call you. Otherwise, if all the papers are accurate and included, it is very straight forward. Usually, a decision is made within 10 days. There might be delays obviously depending on the amount of people that apply at the same time as you. Once it is either accepted or rejected, you will receive an email. If accepted, it’s time to get excited and start packing!

Airport chairs in a waiting room

Booking your flight

If you haven’t booked your flight yet, now would be the time to look into it! There are many companies that fly between Canada and the UK so it’s good to shop around. When looking for flights, always keep in mind that in Europe, all the cities are much closer than Canada. For example; if you are looking to go to Scotland, compare the prices to fly into Glasgow, Edinburgh, London or any of the many international airports. You can easily find cheap buses and trains (if you book them ahead of time). Sometimes the price difference is worth it. Researching for flights can sound like a boring part, but if you choose right, when you get there it’s going to be easier. If you are flexible with your departure date, tick the “+/- 3 days” or “flexible date” box. While I do suggest booking a place to sleep for your first night, keep in mind that flexibility when travelling is key to finding great deals, meeting interesting people and having amazing experiences you would not have had if everything was planned to the dot.

Most Europeans airport have buses that go from the airport to the city centre, so it’s worth checking it out. It may take slightly longer than a taxi, but you will more likely save a lot as well. (This doesn’t always apply if you travel with a few friends, so do your homework!)

I rarely have currency before I arrive in a new city because truth be told, ATMs are everywhere. Make sure to tell your bank before you go so your card doesn’t get declined! Most ATMs are part of either PLUS, NYCE, Cirrus or Maestro network, but always check before using the machine that the logo on the back of your bank card is posted somewhere on the ATM. If you can’t see the logo, you will probably be able to get money out but you’ll just get another fee added to your bank’s transaction fees.

Travel insurance

Travel insurance is a must. This also needs some shopping around to find the right insurance provider and the right coverage for you. Make sure to include emergency medical. You may be ok with not taking insurance on your luggage, and just buying everything should your suitcase not make it with you. But do not take any chances with emergency medical as fees vary greatly from country to country, and should you need to have emergency surgery or any other treatment, it will make a huge dent in your travel budget! Depending on the province or territory you are from, you may be eligible to keep your provincial health insurance. In that instance, you just need to buy additional medical insurance. Once again, this requires research and reading the fine print. A lot of the insurance policies will not cover extreme sports, or what they consider to be extreme so make sure to ask about the exclusions.

Backpack on, ready to enter the departure area at the airport

Packing your bags

The only piece of advice worth mentioning is Pack Light!!! You are very likely to be carrying your stuff on your back, so packing light will make everything easier. From getting in a crowded underground, walking a few kilometers to the hostel, or even just fitting the bags next to your bed will be a lot easier with a smaller bag.

Most first time travellers and even some seasoned travellers (Guilty!) pack a lot of just-in-case stuff. Remember, you will be travelling to cities, where people live, work, wash their clothes and buy stuff. While it may not be the same brand you are used to, shampoo, toothpaste, over the counter medications will be widely available. Don’t bring two years worth of supplies!

One other thing to keep in mind: you will very likely be walking in shops at some point and want to buy the latest fashion or some item of clothing you will fall in love with. Keep some room in your luggage for these; they make the best of souvenirs, because every time you wear them, it’s going to remind you of the city, place, of even friends you were with when you bought it.

It’s funny how you might think that you carry so little compared to some other travellers with huge backpacks and then you meet someone carrying only a day pack. All is a question of perspective, but you can usually tell if this is the first time abroad or if they have been on the roads for years just looking at the luggage size.

Enough with the rambling; here are my essentials for travels in ever changing climates. Feel free to bring less and make it your own of course!

Clothing

3-4 t-shirts

1 nicer shirt (for possible job interviews)

1 pair of jeans

1 nicer black pants (useful for job interviews or to go out)

1 pair of shorts or a skirt

1-2 cute bra, 1 sports bra

5-7 panties

3-4 pairs of socks including 1 warmer set

1 warm sweater

1 raincoat (You may want to consider rain pants if you are going to be hiking in the wilderness of Scotland)

1 cap (to protect from the sun)

1 beanie

1 pair of day walking shoes (easily can be replaced with hiking shoes if that’s what you plan to do)

1 pair of flip-flop (great for walking around hostels, or for the odd warm enough day!)

1 pair of ballerina shoes or something small you can wear when you don’t feel like wearing hiking shoes

Electronics

camera, spare battery, charger

computer and/or phone with charger(s)

travel adapter

Pharmacy

pain medicine like ibuprofen and anything else you use regularly (Anything else you can buy once you are there if needed)

tiny first aid kit including some dressings (band-aid or plaster depending on where you are from), cleansing wipes. You don’t need to carry out a huge first aid kit, as they are widely available should you need something more. And again, there are pharmacies where you can buy anything needed when actually needed!)

condoms, always useful to avoid unplanned surprises!

shampoo, conditioner, soap (bring small size containers as you will be able to buy more as you go. Lush solid shampoos are great as they don’t leak in your bags and they smell so great!)

sunblock

tooth brush, tooth paste, floss

feminine hygiene products (I love my DivaCup and don’t think I will go back to anything else)

make-up, bring the basics only: mascara, eyeliner, lip gloss (or whatever you need to feel comfortable)

jewellery- just 2 sets of earrings are enough. If you are anything like me again, you will want to buy some as you go as souvenirs.

Other stuff

pack towel or pareo

1 washcloth

sunglasses

glasses, contacts (if you wear them of course!) and the liquid that goes with them

small flashlight (great when you need some light to see where you are going in a dorm without waking everybody up)

reusable water bottle, I like the platypus kind or one you can clip on your bag

a small notebook to write down bus schedule, or any relevant information as you go plus a pen

a diary to keep track of what you do, what you feel and who you meet

sleeping bag liner (I like the silk looking ones as they don’t take much room, and can make you feel more comfortable, in less than average hostels)

travel spork (all-in-one travel spoon fork knife) and foldable bowl (perfect for lunch on the go or to keep leftovers when cooking)

Deciding on where to go and what to see

This is the fun part, even though it can quickly become overwhelming. My advice is this: make a list of all your must-see, ideally in your small notebook. Then pick one place to start with and forget the rest!

After a while on the road, it’s very funny to see how your travel taste change, and how some of your must-sees now became, nice-to-go-if-I-get-around-to-it.

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself trying to find all the information beforehand. One thing worth checking out is if there are any holidays or special events happening when you will be arriving in a city, because sometimes everything will be booked months prior, and you’ll end up stressing out, or forced to change your plans. Once again, being flexible is the way to go in order to appreciate your travels. Delays, overbooking, tiredness are all part of the experience, and learning how to be flexible and adapt quickly is the best gift you can give yourself in order to appreciate your upcoming challenges.

As you travel, you will meet fellow travellers and they will tell you about secret gems in the country you are in. In my experience, those are the best places and experiences. Of course, if you find amazing things to do and places to go, share your insights!

The world is a very big place, and you can’t see everything. And that’s ok! Try not to rush to see all the must-see, a walk around a neighborhood you feel comfortable in can make your day a lot better. It may allow you to meet locals, and have great conversation. Or maybe you’ll discover this little gem of a coffee shop or pub. Allowing the unknown in your life, this is what travelling is about. Learning to live with constant change, exchanging with people from different backgrounds and discovering all the things you have in common, to me, that’s the best part.

Opening a UK bank account

One would think that opening a bank account would be fairly easy, I mean I want to give a bank my money. But because of all the money-laundering, it’s getting more difficult nowadays to open a simple bank account. First of all, you need to book an appointment. Then, you need IDs and proof of address. Quite simple really.

If you’ve lived somewhere for a while, you obviously have bills, a place you call home and can easily prove your address. But when you just moved somewhere and are renting a room, all the utility bills will most likely be under someone else’s name. So how can you prove you live where you say you do without bills? That’s the question I was facing when trying to open a bank account. There used to be some banks that were more opened to providing bank accounts to foreigners, but in the city I moved to, they don’t have a branch.

I had asked my employers to provide me with a letter confirming I would be working there, but because at the time I did not have an address yet, they did not include it on the letter. When I went to the bank with my contract and the letter, I was told both my current address and previous Canadian address needed to be on the letter. So basically, the letter needs to be on letterhead, include the contact numbers, being signed by my employer, include my full name, and complete addresses and the date of my employment. It also needs to be dated less than 3 months old.

Once I got the letter and went back to the bank, it was simple to open the account. If you are like me, though, you might face another challenge. When you open your bank account they send you your bank card and your PIN in two different envelopes. Somehow, my PIN was sent in Scotland and my actual bank card at my dad’s place in Canada. I had to go back into the bank and ask them to resend the card. Overall it was quite a lengthy process and I was very happy once I received my bank card and could finally have access to local currency!

Subscribing to National Insurance Number

It’s called National Insurance Number, but it actually is your personal number used to collect taxes, and eventually to allow you into the Health Care System.

On their website, it says that you need to phone, and they will send you the documents to fill out and return to them. Make sure to double check the spelling on your paperwork once you receive it as my name had changed quite a bit. Once you fill the paper, you mail it back and wait to hear back. It usually takes about 8 weeks, so there is no need to phone them before that. Your employer might be impatiently waiting for your National Insurance Number by then, so as soon as you have it make sure to provide it to them!

Finding a place to live

This could be the hardest thing to do, and it should come fairly quickly after deciding where you want to work. If you are like me, though, you might be very lucky and the guy who hosted you on Couchsurfing might have an extra room available in the flat, next door to your work. If you don’t have such luck, make sure to browse the local classifieds both online and in the paper. Also telling everybody you meet that you are looking for a room or an apartment will also increase your chances of finding something as a lot of the flats or rooms are not advertised.

Finding a job

There are many ways to do this. I was quite lucky with my first job assignment, as I sent my resume before moving to the UK, and was called in for an interview, which led to me being offered the job. I was looking for temporary work and this was what was on the offer. It was mostly a question of skills and timing.

The best way to find a job is probably to talk to people, use the jobs centers and job boards. The process is the same as in Canada. You send your resume, get called in for an interview, wow them with your skills and personality, and get the job. Or not.

Meeting new friends

Go out! Don’t stay indoor in your apartment because your future friends won’t be able to find you! There might be CouchSurfing groups, meetups, etc. Look into that. Talk to your colleagues. If they invite you out, go! Now is not the time to be shy, or picky!

Keep an open mind, take a deep breath when things are not going the way you want them to and be flexible! Enjoy every minute of your experience, both the good and the difficult as you will remember your experience of living abroad for the rest of your life.

Are you ready to take the next step in your life?

My arrival to the UK

Just before going through security
Just before going through security

After spending a year almost to the day back in Canada, it was time for me to move on. This time on my own. I received my visa and booked my flights. New adventures awaited me! My favourite thing in life is never knowing what the future holds. Most people find it scary. To be honest so do I from time to time. But I mostly like knowing that everything is possible and that I’ll make sure to get the most out of every situation.

My parents came to the airport in Quebec City, and I was so focused on my new adventure, that I even forgot to turn around and wave goodbye as I walked through security. The short flight from Quebec to Montreal was quite a rocky ride and when we landed we got stuck for about 30 minutes on the runway because of a thunderstorm. My connecting flight was delayed as well and when they called for our flight, everybody was packed around the gate anxious to miss their plane or lose their spot if they were not right in front of the gate… The staff tried their best to be quick, but with the number of travellers not listening the whole process of getting on the plane was very slow and inefficient.

Last picture with my parents for a while
Last picture with my parents for a while

It’s not easy leaving everything and everyone behind. I almost felt bad for not feeling that sad about my decision yet. I thought I would cry in the plane, but no tears were shed yet. It took me up until my 1st flight to start realizing what I have decided to do. But as soon as the stress came out, it vanished almost entirely. It is different through to wait in an airport by myself. I haven’t done that since my first trip, but it is all coming back to me. I know I have to trust myself and my instincts. I do feel it might take me a while to get accustomed to having nobody to share the discoveries or experiences with. When I feel like that, I have to remind myself that being alone is my choice and if I don’t want to be alone anymore, I just have to strike up a conversation. And if it sounds overly simple, it’s because it is! Most people are happy to have a chat, be it either in hostels, restaurants, trains and even park benches.

My longer flight across the pond and my arrival in the UK were pretty smooth. The lady at the customs desk seemed a little rough on the edges, so as usual I saw this as a challenge to make her smile. She asked me the regular questions; where I was from, what my plan was for the UK and I told her about my job interview in Perth. She wished me luck and stamped my visa. I told her to have a nice day, and with a bright smile she let me go. Mission accomplished!

After the custom, I grabbed my bag, bought a coffee and tried to figure out what kind of underground ticket I should buy. With the many options such as Oyster Pass, daily pass or single ticket, it can quickly become confusing and overwhelming. I finally opted for the Oyster Card, putting the minimum in £5+£5 deposit. I got off at Hammersmith stop and easily found the hostel right on the other side of the street.

Check-in was only at 2 pm so I put my bag in a locker and went for a walk. I found a Whole Food store where I bought hummus, crackers, and peanut butter. Right after the supermarket, I found Hyde Park. I sat on a bench and did some people watching. Two ladies from Koweit sat beside me and we had a nice chat. There were a lot of Londoners in Hyde Park on a sunny spring Sunday. Lots of families with young children picnicking.

After enjoying Hyde Park for a while, I went for a walk towards Victoria Station. Back at the hostel, I looked at the menu at the bar, and couldn’t find a vegetarian option except nachos. I did a quick Google search and found an Indian restaurant with vegan meals. I hungrily walked over there, making quite an entrance when pulling the clearly-marked push door. The food was good but I was starting to feel quite lonely, so remembering my new resolution, I went back to the hostel with my leftovers and struck up a conversation with the Aussie and Irish guys from my dorm. And this was the end of my first day on English soil.