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Thank You Kreuzberg Passport-stealing Flight-missing Demon

The large ticket control officer looked down at the passport I had reluctantly handed over to him. My train headed deeper into Kreuzberg pulled away from the grungy station.

Come on, look at that passport. I’m Canadian. We don’t just hop on trains and cross our fingers that we won’t get caught for fare evasion in a new country. I’m not American.

“Oh, wait, are you sure the U-Bahn isn’t part of DB? (I knew it wasn’t) I could have sworn it was. I had no idea my Eurail pass wouldn’t work (I knew it wouldn’t). Can’t you just let this slide? I just arrived to Berlin literally ten minutes ago. (Please don’t make me hate this place before I’ve even stepped foot into it.)”

At the sight of three other people being herded by the other ticket officer towards the ATM, a knot in my stomach grew tighter. They weren’t messing around here. The moment I had gotten on the train at the first stop they were checking tickets and it looked like I wasn’t the only person to be dragged off kicking and screaming.

“That’ll be forty euros.”

You had to be fucking kidding me.

Really?”

Judging by the dry look I received it was pretty clear he had to deal with the hippie, cheap student types that had clogged up the U-Bahn and wasn’t going to be swayed by any “take pity on a poor student” charade.

After bitterly fishing into my wallet and giving him my money, I sat down on the rusting bench ready to hate Berlin.

And I had been so excited. I had even watched documentaries in my senile great-aunt’s kitchen pullout bench back Koln all in preparation for this.

Watch as I whip out a little history summary as proof:

Starting in 1961 due to a refugee overflow from East to West Germany, the soviet East German government moved in the dark of night to begin construction of what would be the first of four walls to restrict their citizens from fleeing. This wall remained a dividing force, caging in half of a modern city until 1989 when German was unified. What remained after the wall was pulled apart by wall peckers and the guards were two areas of Berlin with a very different feel.

I was an idiot, I had decided then, by choosing to stay in the dirty East German area with strict ticket officers.

After a later train, I finally arrived in Kreuzberg and at the Jet Pack Alternative hostel. It was in amongst graffiti on every spray-paintable surface and lovely little deposits of dog shit on the street. Jet Pack had given ample warning, but it was amazing that they had the details down right down to the dog poo.

What they hadn’t warned about was how, despite my less than warm welcome to the grungy ex-East German part of town, Kreuzberg is very, very good at making you stay.

My opinion started to change after having an awesome burger at Burgermiester under the U-Bahn (damn them) railroad on top of padded bars beside a stick-covered glass hut. By the time I strolled along the East Side Gallery as the sun-set and watched two local boys spray paint their own mark onto the iconic wall, I was hooked.

It was that sort of nonchalant counter culture feel that was so incredible. I could roll out of my bed without showering, wear my worn out plaid shirt, slap on a hat and be considered “cool”. As a lazy person, I couldn’t ask for more!

In Kreuzberg, trying to enter clubs is not about how you dress, or how much money you have, but instead what you will “bring to the scene”. According to the Jet Pack Alternative Hostel’s seemingly only female staffer, Lynne, lead singer of Poet in Process, “looking like you rolled out of a dumpster doesn’t hurt”.

When one of the girls Sarah came down dressed up to go to the strip club I hopped onto Lynne’s advice and asked her, “don’t you have anything trashier? Something you haven’t washed?”

Then she shook up her hair and nodded quickly. “Oh! I have a t-shirt I’ve been sleeping in.”

I was already in deep and dolling out advice in a place I had been so ready to hate.

I didn’t have it the worst though.

My bunkmate Callum had a noon flight back to Bath to catch and he was found sleeping on the stoop of the hostel at ten am after attending one of the legendary 24 hour clubs. This wasn’t the first time he’d “extended” his trip. My other bunkmate Christian suddenly lost his passport and had to extend his trip as well.

It felt like there was some sort of nefarious power at work in Kreuzberg that seemed intent on never allowing you to leave.

Thank god I didn’t miss my train to Copenhagen. Thank you Kreuzberg passport-stealing, flight-missing demon.

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Traveller vs. Tourist – AKA “Your Selfie Stick Makes Me Sick”

After now having backpacked and travelled around for a few months I’ve started to notice a trend with some of the people I have been meeting in the hostels I have stayed at. There seems to be a lot of self-styled pseudo-intellectuals who fashion themselves as the modern Hemmingway and gods gift to world travel.

I first encountered this type when in my first few days I decided to buy one of the selfie sticks that a lot of street sellers were peddling all over Rome. I had met up with an old roommate from Madrid who had purchased one and encouraged me to do the same. It just made sense. I was travelling alone and wasn’t fond of asking people to take photos of me. This way I could take my own photos without bothering other people.

When I placed it on the table to show it, I was already apologetic because I had the inclining that these travellers were instantly going to think worse of me because just a few minutes before they had been touting how they were artists (with rather shitty sketches that they over explained their genius with) and had been to “gems” like Laos years before people knew what it was.

Boy, was I right. Instantly they were on me as if I was an antelope carcass and they were a pack of very hungry hyenas. They literally began to boo and whine pleas to make me put it away. They told me how disappointed they were in me, how shameful it was that I’d ever even considering buying one. I had had potential to be one of them until that moment.

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Here I am with the offending clicker.

I had just been demoted in the eyes of the other backpackers from “traveller” to “tourist”. Even though the words seem synonymous I quickly learned that to many people they aren’t. A tourist is someone who travels to different places to say they had been there (which made “country counting” pretty taboo amongst backpackers too), take cheesy photos, eat at tourist places, and then leave without having really discovered the culture of where they stay.

A traveller on the other hand is someone who takes time to immerse themselves into the cultures they are staying in, eat with the locals, and most importantly goes off the beaten pack in search of authenticity.

Although of course you will get a better understanding of the countries/cultures doing the aforementioned travelling there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing the first. How we decide to experience the world is completely up to the individual, and our comfort level with new situations/experiences varies between people.

The horrified look on the french backpacker, Louis, I hung out with in Bologna was similar when I stated that after expensive pasta was driving me insane I just wanted a cheap salad from McDonalds. There are all these faux pas that you must not break in order to retain your veneer of authenticity.

That’s what it all comes down to. It is the same thing that drives people to embrace counter culture, buy vintage, and listen to obscure music. Some people are obsessed with the notion of being authentic in a world that is largely commercial and “inauthentic”. They want to be able to say that they lived in a realm deeper than the average person, that they are somehow more in touch with the “real world” because they sketched David instead of taking a picture, ate Pho made by an Vietnamese grandmother instead of at a restaurant, and took their selfies without a stick.

Here’s the authentic stamp of approval in your passport from the authentic police.

I was legitimately told by one of the travellers in Rome that he honestly believed himself better as a human being than “tourists” because he was a traveller. He flat out told me he was superior.

And this is just my opinion, but I believe travelling like that, constantly in search of the “real” and “authentic” to be able to give yourself a sense of superiority and pseudo-intellectualism is no better than being “tourist”.

If you travel the world to better understand the people in it and still cannot learn to appreciate the diversity and to embrace the differences in people… then why bother travelling at all?

If you want to take photos with a stick or take artsy black and white photos of church steeples, that’s fine. All that matters is you are curious about the world outside your hometown and respect the people outside and inside of it.

As for me, I’ll keep my selfie stick thank you very much.

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Eating Our Feelings in Ireland

It is officially less than a month away from Christmas and what better way to celebrate than travelling to Christmas Markets in Ireland and eating kangaroo and venison burgers. Nothing says the holiday spirit quite like biting into Rudolph—and while the other reindeers may call him names, I shall only call him one: delicious.

My friend Victoria and I decided to tackle both of our Irish heritage by taking a tour with Bus2Alps. At first we only had plans to go to Dublin and Galway as the tour company’s plan dictates but then decided to fuck plans and go to Belfast as well.

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We started out day one by going on a walking tour after having met our six other roommates in the Generator Hostel. They were all American and female (an eery trend on our trip), who had come from their study abroads on this organized tour because, for this particular type of young woman, they prefer man-bun clad tour guides to listen to them giggle and cart them around long enough at each place to get a selfie there. You know the type.

The caption fits this kind of traveller perfectly.

Due to this I am now able to recreate a Long Island accent and feel a crippling disappointment in American’s education system after being asked, “What state is Toronto in?”, by one Mississippian backpacker.

After the tour we finished the evening with the Guinness Storehouse. Although it was pretty interesting to learn how beer is made in general, it felt rather masturbatory at times. I mean they had video clips with various hired actors inflating Guinness as the herald of Ireland’s prosperity and giving weird facts about the creator, Arthur Guinness. Did you know that he had twenty one children, ten of which survived to adulthood? I do now thanks to a clip of a random actress dressed up as a nurse. That may just come into use in Jeopardy?

Near the end I was pretty sure Guinness could cure cancer and be used as a penis enlarger. As well, for the love of god, do not touch the barley. Just don’t.

The next day we were dragged from our beds haggard after a night of drinking at the Temple Bar and trying to break into university awards ceremonies to load onto a tour bus for the Cliffs of Moher.

Okay, I’m a sarcastic shit and there is a lot I could say about the Cliffs of Moher, but honestly it was just really beautiful.

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Although, this place did have my “High Place Phenomenon” on red alert as I kept asking Victoria, “HOW MANY PEOPLE DO YOU THINK WERE DUMB ENOUGH TO GO TO THE EDGE?” as I pressed my back to the stone wall and spasmed every time someone even entertained the idea of standing near the edge for a selfie. I was having flashbacks of my second cousin dangling over the ledge of a cliff in Wales looking at the dead sheep at the bottom, reduced to little white flecks from so high up. Those sheep were made for those cliffs and are still dead. What chance do you think you have, oh feeble fingered human!?

My anxiety was calmed as we finished off in Galway and visited the first Christmas market. Corndogs, mulled wine, and fudge was had all around.

The mint and chocolate fudge tasted like Christmas and regret.

The mint and chocolate fudge tasted like Christmas and regret.

Now freed from the lynch mob of knit headband wearing, ugg-clad girls screeching, “PLAY P.S I LOVE YOU OR SO HELP ME GOD” at the poor solo male tour guide, we set our sights on Belfast.

Neither of us really knew what was there except there was some sort of weird connection to Titanic.

I will never get over this marketing slogan.

I will never get over this marketing slogan.

God, am I glad we took the receptionist’s advice at Lagan Backpackers. We didn’t really miss out by not going to it, and swung by to look at the Titanic’s sister ship the Nomadic for free instead. We now had fifteen pounds burning a hole in our pocket and was told by the same charming receptionist that Black Taxi Tours was the way to go. At fifteen pounds per person for an hour and a half… you could not spend your money any wiser in Belfast.

We were greeted by Bobby Walsh, a greyed man whose lack of dental care and bone-crushing game of handshake chicken told us immediately that we’d been given a real Belfaster. I impressed him by knowing that my favourite chef Anthony Bourdain had filmed with them and then immediately put in place when I loudly proclaimed I had British grandparents (hoping, I guess, to show how I had somehow carved out a little place for myself in history).

“Don’t go saying that too loud in these parts, okay?”

Bobby took us to the Catholic side first to show us the murals and the ridiculously large eleven meter wall that still runs through Belfast and is routinely locked at night. As we stared at the murals I pointed up to the names weaved into the mesh. “So… are those names of people who are in jail?”

He nodded but then pulled me closer by the elbow as a few people walked by. “Yes, and the Catholic side wants them out of jail, but honestly these people killed people. They shouldn’t be released.” His voice was conspiratorial and was quickly silenced by the cigarette he smoked during each of our stops.

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The hushed words put a certain tone to the whole tour. Bobby insisted that there wasn’t any trouble between the parts, and that may be exactly true, but there was a tension bubbling beneath the surface. Watching the gates close off two parts of the same town and then heading to the Protestant side and seeing their very vigil-esque murals with snipers and large faces of murders painted as glorified military commanders was unsettling to say the least.


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The fact that only 8% of students are integrated is a testament to the continuous segregation. As a baptized (although now atheist) Protestant myself, and Victoria being a Catholic by baptism, sitting side by side and listening to stories about people from “our sides” fire bombing and shooting each other really put the history in context in a very visceral way.

Belfast wasn’t all tension and religion though, and the parts that were were extremely fascinating. The Crown Bar was beautiful (though overpriced) with real gas lamps and private booths, and we were lucky enough to find another Christmas market, this time right smack in the middle of city hall.

The first thing we saw when we arrived was a paella stand that reminded us of our impending Spanish doom. Though once we were into the heart of the market and weaving through the slow trudge of people, we found ourself more food in the form of kangaroo burgers and kettle corn (which is so Christmas-y).

Eventually we had to head back to Dublin to catch our flights home and actually attend classes again. In summary my recommendations for Dublin and Belfast are:

DUBLIN

  • Visit O’Neill’s in Dublin for huge portions of really potato-heavy Irish fare
  • Visit the Temple Bar, no matter how touristy, during the evening when they have live music
  •  Take the trip to the Cliffs of Moher to make yourself feel tiny and insignificant

BELFAST

  • Go have a “proper Irish fry” at Maggie Mays for a few pounds (there are vegetarian options too!)
  • Take the Black Taxi Tour, but make sure you do it with a reputable company since there are many fakes… do your research!
  • Walk down to the SS Nomadic ship and take a look at it or take a cheaper tour, but don’t bother paying the fifteen pounds to visit the Titanic Museum unless you are a huge history buff

 

 

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Update: I’m a useless little shit.

Get ready, it’s the dreaded “update” post.

Rip the bandaid off. Here we go.

As the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Now change hell to “running a blog” and you have my current situation. So let me get my excuses out of the way right off the bat:

  1. I was drinking far too much sangria to write coherently
  2. I was travelling every other weekend
  3. My iPad with all my half written blog posts malfunctioned, I lost them all, and I was too pissy to re-write them
  4. I had exams, tests, and gasp… actual school work (much to my surprise)
  5. I WAS HAVING TOO MUCH DAMN FUN

Wow, a stock photo that accurately represents my feelings regarding my iPad.

The last bullet is the most important because though the malfunction with my iPad frustrated me to no end, I’ve honestly been having so much fun in Madrid that I haven’t really had much time to even think about posting. Hell, I’m leaving to Dublin in a few hours with a trip to Amsterdam/Brussels nipping at the heels of it. It has been a storm of travelling and hanging out with new, pretty rad friends. It is kind of hard to fill myself with copious amounts of self-loathing and suffocating guilt when I’ve been having some of the best months of my life.

Tie me to WordPress you kinky bastard and don’t let my eyes stray, even for a cold, dewy glass of tinto.

Jesus christ shutterstock I was being metaphorical.

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The First Two Weeks – AKA Spanish Cults and Ethinic Segregation

Come to Spain they said, you’ll make loads of Spanish friends they said.

Ha.

I had spent the week at the hostel with my mother (who, by the way, did not end up throwing any tomatoes in La Tomatina) and had finished saying goodbye. I arrived at the residence late on a Sunday and was quickly whisked into the group of international students. Most are from the United States but my roommate is from Argentina and there are some others on the Erasmus program.

Everyone was super nice, and not that creepy “YOU’RE MY BEST FRIEND (until we find people we actually have something in common with)” sort of friendly, but genuinely nice. We were eating large meals with primero and segundo plates together at the cafeteria, going out for croquettes and tapas, and drinking up on the roof of the residence. We even toured in Getafe together and saw the cute as hell floating umbrellas.

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Maybe we should have noticed that we were all put onto the same floor, or that there was a distinctive lack of Spanish students. 

Oh, we were blissfully unaware until the hoard arrived a few days later.

Suddenly it went from a cozy inclusive group with chummy dinners in English to swarms of tanned, skinny Spanish students ignoring our very existence and surrounding our table like a pack of lions around pale, uncultured gazelles.  

Then it got weird. Not only were we on a separate floor from the Spanish students, attended separate dorm meetings, ate at different tables, but according to the Spanish students, the international floor is known as “The Ghetto”. Apparently with all of us exchange students, smelling like hamburgers and sitting on our disposable travel money, congregated together in an area with numerous problems it is similar to a ghetto. Doors that work? Nope. Lights that don’t flicker? Nah. Actual useable WIFI? Hahaha, never.

All this tension and glaring between groups has sparked what I can only call “casual racism”. For example, today I mentioned taking a nap after having only four hours of sleep and the guy beside me scoffed and said, “Don’t take a nap, don’t be lazy like the Spanish.” 

Excuse me?

We international students bitched about no longer having the cafeteria to ourselves, complained about the laissez-faire approach to life of the Spanish, sneered that their women hike up their shorts until their asses hang out, and threw around words like “they” “those people” and my favourite “it’s how it is in this country”. Hell, I’m not innocent of it either. We say it like after having attended school for 2 weeks here that we are the cultural experts of their country.

It’s us and them, and it’s so fucking preschool.

But it became even more tense when the idea of hazing was introduced to the international students. Suddenly we were the pillars of morality. That would never happen in North America (and it does)! They better not touch us (and they didn’t)! How could they do that to the new students? How cruel. 

I thought it was a joke until I had two girls knocking on my door and asking me how old I was. When I mentioned I was a third year one of them sighed, “Great, so I guess I can’t make you do my dishes then.”

In truth there was hazing, just not towards us past some students trying to swindle dishwashing services out of our floor unsuccessfully.

It occurred out in a dusty dog park beside the Getafe residence. Freshmen students were put into circles in their pyjamas as the ring leaders holding nefarious amounts of alcohol starting picking out people for tasks.

It looked a little like a cult with the perfect boy-girl-boy-girl circles all nervous to be indoctrinated. Break out the cool aid!

Whipped cream nipple licking unfortunately not included in this picture.

Whipped cream nipple licking unfortunately not included in this picture.

But the boy who dragged us there insisted, “They love it.” Even if it felt weirdly morally ambiguous to watch 12-year-old looking girls lick whipped cream off a moaning boy’s nipples.

We did finally meet some Spanish students and while the hazing will never quite make sense (neither will having tomato sauce on rice), at least now Spanish and international students are beginning to feel comfortable enough to sit next to each other.

Provided there are at least two empty seats between them.

 

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Tapas – AKA Toast

With the tales of tapas built by the hipster bars spotting the streets of Toronto promising authentic tapas and sangria, there was a certain image of what tapas included. Imagine, for a moment, piles of roasted ham stabbed by a toothpick just to stay upright, little portions of the main offerings of the menu as taster previews, and stuffed olives fit to burst.

This is the image I, and certainly my mother, had when eating tapas in Madrid. Surely we’d be sitting there eating “authentic” tapas with the ability to return to Toronto and sneer at the Toronto tapas bars run by men with oiled mustaches and tattoos of geometric shapes. ‘This isn’t tapas you uncultured swines‘, we’d sneer haughtily with all the pompousness of a well travelled asshole, ‘I’ve been to Madrid and tasted real tapas!’ Then we would throw in a few random Spanish words for credibility.

Sadly this dream may be down the toilet because for the grandeur that tapas back home had, the tapas here are… well… toast.

I think maybe part of the appeal to the locals is how low brow it is, though I can only assume since I’ve yet to ask because of my appalling Spanish. I kind of get it, and I kind of don’t (the appeal, not the Spanish). In our first tapas meal, although I use the word “tapas” lightly since montadito is a sort of sub-genre of tapas, my mother and I arrived at 100 Montaditos hungry, jet-lagged, and just looking for something that resembled food after the scary pasta on Air Canada. At this point we had no idea what “montadito” even meant but hell it didn’t matter.

100 Montaditos seemed perfect. Young couples speaking Spanish were pouring out with tinto de verano in their hands, and you ordered on pieces of paper. Unpretentious, and oh look there were pictures of nice big sandwiches!

Except they weren’t. I think we should have noticed that no sandwich should cost 1euro and be expected to be large… but we were naive and ordered one each and a third to split because we were feeling positively gluttonous.

They instead were micro-sandwiches. 

What is this? A sandwich for ants?

What is this? A sandwich for ants?

Mind you, despite the size of sandwich, they were pretty good! Especially the one with potato tortilla and garlic mayo. My mother was less impressed, but she also called it the “McDonalds of tapas”. (This one week with her has been filled with so many exasperated sighs that I’m afraid I’ll lose the ability to speak English all together and adopt exasperation as my mother tongue instead.) The tinto de verano may have also just beat sangria…. but just by a fraction.

After a long day of shopping to fit in and no longer look like hideous, Birkenstock wearing tourists, we stopped off at Taberna La Descubierta on calle de Barcelona at the recommendation of Paula, the young Venezuelan ex-pat working the desk at Hostal Gala Madrid.

Alright, real tapas at last. Bring on the undeserved foodie ego. The place had bright colours filling in where there lacked bricks and the bar was lined with local wines. It was dark, cozy, and all locals to the point after my mother successfully pronounced “caipirinha” the man stopped part way through giving us the one and only English menu and instead gave us the Spanish. We were not tourists, no, we were tapas experts with (Toronto) tapa experience, no English menu for us!

We ordered ourself some calamares a la romana along with a table tapas. I was (am) still having a hard time breaking my vegetarianism, especially with the Jamón ibérico leg sitting with a hoof pointed out straight like a ballet dancer right at my head, but regardless I looked on with some interest at the real tapas experience.

We ate the calamari with lemon and then waited as the tapas arrived. Except when our waitress laid them down on the wooden table I could see the moment my mother’s face fell in disappointment.

Toast. More bread.

Each and every tapas sat on a piece of baguette toasted with olive oil. Even the ham and cheese were spread out extremely thinly. The cheese was semi-hard, sharp and delicious, and sure, even I appreciated how smooth the chorizo was but god damn so much bread.

Atkins would hate this plate of tapas.

Atkins would hate this plate of tapas.

“How do they even stay thin here?” My mother asked as she munched on another piece of bread. “It’s all bread! There’s not a vegetable in sight and they are all skinny.”

It must be all the walking?

Now full of carbs, we walked back through Puerta del Sol, past the immigrants illegally selling knock-offs and pulling the strings of their stores into bags to run from the police, and the chirps of the men selling LED twirling copters. We bought alright lemon gelato from Palazzo along the road and walked back both a little disappointed.

This is not tapas everywhere, and I’m almost certain this is just two coincidences and that tapas in Madrid are different elsewhere. Or maybe that is just how “real” tapas are and I’m truly the uncultured swine who knows no better (this is admittedly most likely). Either way, I don’t want to eat another piece of bread for a few weeks. The sight of a freshly baked loaf alone makes me feel bloated.

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And we’re off – a pretentious reflection from inside a horrible Air Canada Rouge plane at 3 am

Countdown to lift-off: 0 days

As I write this I am sitting in a plane that belongs in a museum nestled beside fertility jars and terrible educational taxidermy displays rather than in the air. No touch screen entertainment system? No inflight movie screens? For a seven hour international flight no less. This may be the first place where someone reads Air Canada’s enRoute cover to cover and clings to every word of the feature piece on Eugene Bouchard with the tagline “the Canadian tennis champ on poutine, diamonds and infinity pools”.

This is of course all hyperbole, but it did allow for the absorption of the scenery as we took off instead of flicking through the screen trying to find out if they had “Guardians of the Galaxy” yet.

I watched as my home was yanked out under from my feet and the land I have known all my life grew small enough that the lights of the cars appeared to be working to pump golden blood through the freeway veins of Toronto. The veins ran through the dark and feed into the glowing, pulsing organs of activity that I used to be a part of.

Canada is the body I understand. I know it’s aesthetic; from the poutine that Eugene Bouchard’s mother picks up at Montreal’s Gibeau Orange Julep, to the need to apologize for someone else bumping into you. I know not to eat the devil spawn they call Coffee Crisp, to not question what precisely constitutes “all dressed”, and that despite French being on every product and sign, I will still be unable to understand it when trapped in a one way street in the suburbs of Quebec City.

In Canada I get the clusters of light the stream of cars pump into. I understand it. And as I say goodbye to all I understand, I leave with the same trepidation, nervousness, and excitement that comes with exploring a new partner for the first time.

Madrid will be the new place I crawl into the skin of, the place I seek the new map of golden veins, the hubs of life I attempt to insert myself into. I’ll get to understand it’s likes and dislikes, it’s favourite food, lifestyle, and sense of humour. It’s dating someone new with all that entails.

Sure I’ll miss Canada, I’ll miss the familiar and routine, despite it being less sexy, but it’s time for a break and to see other people.

After all, if everyone stayed together for the sake of the familiarity there would be way less divorces. And like the next white suburban upper middle class pseudo-intellectual, I do appreciate a good divorce.