60 Under 30 #6: England

On May 26th, 1959 the “Empress of England” arrived at the port of Liverpool after travelling across the Atlantic from Montreal. Aboard the ship was my twenty-three year old grandfather James Elliott and his mother Ivy Jordan, travelling to England to visit a family friend living in Folkestone on the south coast for a three and a half week holiday. It was during this trip at a small local pub called the Earl of Clarendon that he would meet his eventual wife and my grandmother, Lois.

Ship log for the Empress of England

The town my grandmother grew up in is a small part of the city of Folkestone known as Sandgate which lies on the south-eastern English coast roughly fifteen miles west of Dover. The year after my grandmother was born, World War II began, which initially resulted in Folkestone being the evacuation destination of thousands of children escaping London, and as the war progressed many of the evacuees and residents were pushed farther west to Wales in an effort to escape the German bombing runs.

My grandmother grew up during the war as a small child, and eventually when the war ended, grew up through the re-build of the town and moved to London. It would be another 20 years following the war before Folkestone would return to the resort town it once was. Examples of the 1950s and 60s era re-build can still be seen along the beach especially towards Sandgate as you walk west. It was during one of her many visits home from the city to see her mother that she would meet my grandfather.

Since I moved to England a year and a half ago, and with my grandmother’s heritage being the reason I was able to live in the UK (I was granted an Ancestry visa given that I have a grandparent born in the United Kingdom), I felt determined to explore the area she was from, where she met my grandfather and where so many important events that eventually led to my existence occurred.

Having decided to make a proper journey of it, my housemate and I set off on a hike along the white cliffs from Dover to Folkestone. After an hour train ride from King’s Cross and a coffee shop barista who looked at us like we were insane when we said what our plan was for the day, we set off.

About half an hour in, we realized that we should have asked the barista why she looked at us why were insane. It turns out that, although possible, when hiking from Dover to Folkestone there isn’t exactly what you would call a defined path. Our initial idea was to follow the coast, however given that the cliffs don’t always include a beach or flat surface at the bottom, that dream was quickly crushed amongst the waves smashing into the cliff faces below. After a brief attempt at following Plan B (also known as foolishly walking along the main road that turned into a major motorway), climbing over what turned out to be not one, but two barbed wire fences and desperately hoping the road we found ourselves on was not some sort of military rifle range, we found what resembled a hiking trail. We got to the top of the hill and was greeted with a spectacular view of the sea, Folkestone in the distance and the cliffs along the way. Screw you Plan A and B, we like Plan C better anyways.

Our final destination off in the distance

We trekked on, enjoying the view along the water, the railway below and waving to the sheep in the pasture as we passed. Ten kilometres in, we reached the outskirts of Folkestone and were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Thoughts of a cold pint, maybe a nice pie and mash carried us the final bit into the city centre where we sat for a quick drink while I looked up the location of the pub.

Now I have greatly underestimated several things before in my life. I foolishly did not listen to people who said just how hard an engineering degree actually would be. I moved to a new country without knowing anyone and somehow was still surprised at the effort required to start a new life. Neither of these come close to comparing to how badly I misjudged just how far it was exactly from the Dover train station to my grandmother’s house in Sandgate. I’ll just Google Maps from Dover to Folkestone I said. It’s England, that’ll be close enough I said. Ryan you are fucking idiot, I said.

I’m pretty sure that the look of horror on my face made my housemate think someone had died. I am normally great at planning things, I know how far I need to go to get from the airport to my hostel, where the main area of the city is and any day trips I’d like to do. Apparently I lose this ability when exploring my own country. I made sure to buy another round of drinks before breaking the news that sadly, we were about halfway there as the pub was located on the far west edge of Sandgate, completely on the opposite end of the city. Ryan, you fucking idiot indeed.

We’d come this far, so there was no turning back. Nicely enough it turns out that the entire waterfront in Folkestone was developed into a lovely garden park that transitioned eventually into the stone beaches of Sandgate I mentioned previously. Ellen DeGeneres’ “just keep swimming”, “just keep swimming” echoed in our heads as we marched on, through the greenery and across the pebbles. After what seemed an eternity later, we reached the corner, then the street and finally the pub. 10 minutes after they finished serving food. Ryan, you fucking idiot.

Hunger aside, it was sobering to be in the place that decades previously so much of my family history began. I owe my entire existence as the person I am to the chance of fate that two people met in that pub all those years ago. As I stood in awe of a seemingly ordinary pub, on an ordinary English street next to an ordinary house that my grandmother lived in as a child whilst German fighter planes flew overhead, even taking shots at her on some occasions, the other pub patrons couldn’t help but ask why the place seemed like a Holy Grail to me. After a brief chat, several of them mentioned that the owner of the pub at the time my grandmother lived there had passed away in 1990, only two months after my parents had visited the pub during their trip to England. After possibly the most glorious pint of our lives, and assuring that although we were likely not the brightest individuals that day we would not be walking all the way back to Dover, we made our way home.

Twenty-two kilometres, a March sunburn and blisters, cuts and bruises all over, somehow it all seemed worth it as we walked the distance back to the Folkestone train station and headed back to London. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to explore a foreign country and find your own history along the way.

As I arrived back at my flat in Brixton in South London, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps someday a distant relative of mine could walk down my very street, to find a seemingly ordinary flat amongst hundreds knowing that part of their history was written there and that they too, owed it all to a chance of fate that two people, decades ago, met in a tiny pub in Folkestone.



60 Under 30 #3: Italy

Despite what the name suggests, pizza was not in fact invented in Pisa. Similarly garnished flatbread type dishes have been around since ancient times all throughout the Mediterranean, known to ancient Greeks as plakous, and the still favoured focaccia throughout many parts of ancient Italy and Greece. However, the greasy, tomato and cheese covered dish that has been adapted and recreated in nearly every corner of the globe was in fact invented five hundred kilometres to the south of Pisa, in Napoli during the late 18th century. It was common at the time for travellers visiting the city to venture into the poorer areas of the city in search of a taste of the local delicacy. 

Unfortunately for my travel companion Jonny and I, pizza was not our main concern as we got off the train from Florence to Naples. The day was beginning to wane into the evening, and despite the urge to seek out a slice of margherita that the city was famous for, we decided it best to continue on to Sorrento as quickly as possible. Not two days prior to our arrival in Naples we had listened to the warnings of some of our fellow backpackers at a hostel in Florence proudly state that they had “survived” the commuter train from Naples to Sorrento. At first this did not seem to be a feat worth boasting about until one of the revellers cared to mention that at night, the Stazione Garibaldi is one of the most dangerous places in Europe.  We didn’t exactly feel like experiencing it for ourselves.

After surviving the pick-pocket capital of Europe two weeks earlier in Barcelona, Europe had begun to lull us into a false sense of security. That is, until we stepped onto the graffiti-laden commuter train that was to take us the fifty-some-odd kilometres down the Italian coast to Sorrento. As a traveller, you begin to develop a sort of “oh shit” radar. You know the feeling, wandering into the wrong side of town, people glaring at you like they’d like to relieve you of your belongings and if you are especially unlucky; your kidneys. Let me tell you, five minutes into our little train journey, our “oh shit” radars were blaring like a fire truck on route to a house fire. After forty-five minutes of clutching our backpacks and nervously keeping our backs to the wall of the rickety train carriage, we finally arrived at the deserted Sorrento train station, belongings in hand, and happy to report that our kidneys were still comfortably internal.

Hardly has the word beautiful so utterly failed in in the description of a place as it does when talking about the Amalfi coast. A person could spin round in circles with their camera randomly taking snapshots along the way, and not one of the pictures would turn out badly. The following morning after our harrowing train ride in, we set out for the day from Sorrento along the coast to the next town. Nestled in amongst the mountainous landscape is Positano, with it’s brightly coloured buildings climbing the hillside like steps carved into a mountain path. It’s beauty is all the more appreciated after you survive the half hour long bus ride along a single lane, hairpin turn road from Sorrento. It’s charm was temporarily lost on us as we kissed the pavement, thankful to have our feet firmly planted on the ground without danger of careening over one the roadside cliffs.

Our first stop of the day in Positano was to be brief, for that day we had something else in mind. Earlier on our trip we had met a traveller who told us of a hike called the Path of the Gods, which traversed the hillside from the town of Amalfi to the East, along 15 kilometres of stunning views back towards Positano. I am always one to listen to recommendations from fellow travellers, no internet review or brochure could ever convince you to do something like the tried and true tale of another backpacker who has done it themselves. A few stops previously in Nice, an Australian traveller we met in our hostel had insisted that of all the experiences not to miss in Italy, this one was top of the list.

After yet another stomach churning bus ride along the coast up through Amalfi, we were let off at a roadside stop with a makeshift sign denoting that the start of the trail lay just up the hill. We traversed through what appeared to be the back gardens of some of the Italian farmers who called the mountainside home until we at last crested over the top of the hill. The view from the start of the trail just about knocked us back down as we finally understood what our friend from down under had meant. As I have said before, the word beautiful just does not do justice to the landscape that unfolds in front of you. Mountains dotted with colourful little houses and sprawling farms that overlook the sapphire sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. The air is as startlingly clear as the water, allowing you to see for miles out into the unending waters, dotted with sailboats and ferries full of sunbathers and fishermen alike.

I have walked fifteen kilometres or more many times in my life. Days spent wandering the spectacular old town of Edinburgh, a particularly miserable journey from Finch to Bloor street in Toronto during the worst rain storm the city has seen in several decades, and numerous other occasions spanning all over Europe and North America. It’s not exactly an impressive feat, but what was impressive to me about this particular day, was that I desperately wanted it to continue. It didn’t matter how far this scenic trail had been, we would have followed it for days if it had gone that far. Around every bend was another breathtaking sight to behold, and slowly as we approached our final destination in Positano, the rainbow coloured town grew bigger and bigger, with the sunshine illuminating it’s quaint beauty with an almost guiding light.

View of Positano from along the Path of the Gods

As we reached the end of our hike, the trail transitioned into a concrete path, winding between beautiful fenced in estates perched on the hillside. The path eventually reached into Positano where we were led down the mountainside via staircases amounting to nearly 1900 steps in total. Midway down we stumbled upon a couple selling freshly squeezed lemonade, made with lemons from the trees growing in their very own back garden. Many would agree that a fresh glass of lemonade after a day spent in the hot sun is as refreshing as it gets, and sitting on the concrete bench in the courtyard, overlooking the sparkling blue water, listening to the many happy sounds from the town below, one would have to agree that in that particular moment, there was indeed nothing better.

60 Under 30 #2: USA

It’s been about four hours since we started our early morning descent at eight thousand feet. A rickety old van loaded up with us and our mountain bikes, slowly climbing the dirt road leading to the trailhead that marked the beginning of the days ride. It’s mid way through our trip to Moab, Utah in the south-western United States. For years, this trip has been at the top of the list for both my father and I. In North America, there is no better place to ride than here, and we have been looking forward to this week since the day our flights were booked nearly a year ago.

The day started with a slow descent through the high altitude and gradually increased in pace as we gained both confidence and adrenaline from the successful traverse of the rocky trails. Every so often we stop to take in the beautiful sights, landscapes similar to that of the Grand Canyon further to the west. Late morning was met with a brief stop for lunch at the start of the cliff-side trail that will make up the majority of the afternoon’s ride. At 16, I am the youngest in the group by nearly two decades, and have been quietly keeping up to my father near the back of the pack. During our lunch, in their typical Australian nature, the two leaders of our group insist that I come to the front with them for the next section of downhill. Nervously I agree, and once we are all packed up, I head out down the trail right behind them.

Start of our descent at 8000 feet

The wind is rushing past me so quickly that my peripheral vision is nothing but a blur. I am focused on what’s ahead, with only a few meters of path visible behind the two adrenaline-crazed Australians I am following. In the few split seconds I allow for myself to break focus I can see that on either side of the trail is a few short feet of untamed brush, following by what must be at least a thousand foot drop. Each glimpse reminds me of the importance of keeping my eyes on what’s ahead. Despite the harrowing nature of the current nerve-wracking downhill I am facing, the surrounding beauty of the southern Utah badlands is not entirely lost on me. To either side, the vast expanses of canyons can be seen with flowing rivers, cacti and the red sandstone arches that this area is so famously known for.

Normally adrenaline seeking is not exactly in my wheelhouse, but a place like Moab brings it out in people. It also brings those types of people into it. Moab is a small town, about a four hour drive south of Salt Lake City, which is also the nearest major airport. The drive starts out surrounded by the snow capped Rocky Mountains and transitions into a desert scene straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon. It can be quite startling to fall asleep in the middle of a blizzard and wake up passing by cacti and dustbowls on the highway.

My focus is once again broken when I realize that both riders I have been following have suddenly vaulted into the air and then dropped out of sight. Realizing quickly that there must be a drop up ahead, I have no choice but to commit and hope I can pull out the landing. According to my speedometer I hit the drop at around sixty kilometres per hour, launching into the air. The brief few seconds slow down to feel like hours and for that brief time I feel like I am flying, the view of the surrounding landscape even more beautiful as I soar through the air, coming to a slightly bumpy but stable landing several metres down the trail. I pull up next to the Aussies as my dad catches up, having seen the drop in time to avoid it. The force of the impact causes my rear tire to deflate, and as we stop to repair it, we examine the drop and estimate it’s height to be at least six feet. No wonder it felt like flying. I chalk this one up as the first of many times I have nearly died at the hands of an Australian.

My father and I overlooking the cliff side on the edge of the trail

As you wind into town from the North, crossing over the Colorado River, numerous campgrounds start to appear filled with cabins, tents and camper trailers. The town has a few small motels, but most visitors tend to “commune with nature” by tenting or renting one of the small cabins my father and I had opted to take up as our home for the week. By the second night I had wished I had brought a tent to sleep in as my father’s legendarily loud snoring was at it’s all time best. In the cabin next to us are my Dad’s friends Neil and Pritchie, who had invited us along on their annual pilgrimage to the red rocks. Due to the generational gap between us all, I had been given the nickname “Spongebob” early on, as that was dubbed to be something I could relate to. I returned the favour by taking every opportunity to remind our companions of my youth by racing past them on the trail every chance I got, often with a grab of the brake on their handlebars as I sped past.

Moab itself sits in the bottom of a canyon surrounded by burnt red rock walls and with numerous flowing rivers winding their way through the quiet town. It is no coincidence that with such a backdrop, the majority of people who make the pilgrimage to Moab are adventure seekers. Rock climbers, white water rafters, hikers and mountain bikers can be found aplenty, as well as numerous shops selling and renting the gear to go with them. The beautiful little town manages to find a way to keep itself away from the fast food chains and commercial shops that dot so much of the United States. Restaurants are family owned, each with their own specialty. Much to my chagrin, having to share a small cabin with him, my father opted for a delightfully authentic Mexican joint called La Hacienda on our first night. Despite the noxious gasses that would no doubt pollute our small but functional homestead later that evening, we gorged ourselves on platters of enchiladas, tacos and burritos. The food was so good that we would return yet again later in the trip for a repeat indulgence.

I have travelled to many places in the USA, each with their own fond memories, but Moab will always stand out to me as different. Many travellers who make the trip to the US and visit the cities often comment on how big, busy and loud it is. The same could be said about many of the people who live there. What makes Moab stand apart for me is that in a country where cities like New York and Los Angeles dominate the tourism market, there is this little town in the middle of nowhere that attracts people from all over the world without the tacky traps and gimmicks that so often comes with the tourism industry. Moab sits in the middle of the desert, offering up its natural beauty and providing the basic necessities to enjoy it. It knows what it has to offer and if you’ve come to enjoy it, it’ll welcome you with open arms. Just make sure you keep you eyes on the trail ahead.

30 Days

A month is a strange amount of time. On the scale of your life, one month seems insignificant. For example if you live to say, 90 years old, one month is less than one tenth of a percent of your lifetime. It is a blip on the radar.

A lot can also happen in thirty days. For example, from experience, you can:

  • Move to a new country
  • Open a bank account
  • Find a place to live
  • Find a new job

Time is certainly relative. In my head, the past month seems like an eternity that flew by in a blink of an eye. In my first post a little over 3 weeks ago, I was discussing the little victories, and the mountains I had to climb still. Now I wouldn’t exactly say I’ve reached my Everest quite yet, but the air is certainly thinner up here, and definitely a lot clearer.

I have actually remarked to several people that things have been going well enough that I am, being the eternal optimist, sort of waiting for something to go wrong. It sounds bad but if you went back and told 6 month ago Ryan that within thirty days of landing he would have a new place to live and have signed a new job, he probably would have laughed in your face.

I’d love to say that it was all a part of the plan, and that I executed it to perfection. In reality, I’d probably comment on it a bit more like a hockey player does in the post-game interview. I was really fortunate to get the win out there, I tried really hard and just hoped for the best and was lucky enough to come out with the W. I couldn’t have done it without my fantastic family and friends (both home and abroad), they were the real MVP’s out there.

Now the fun can begin. My stress level is at the lowest point it has been in nearly half a year. I know where my next paycheque is coming from, and I even have friends! Imagine that, I managed to make friends. Who knew.

I can already feel myself falling in love with this city. I spent the better part of my free time exploring small record shops in Soho, the music shops of Tin Pan Alley, Blues bars in Shoreditch and everywhere in between. I have barely scratched the surface on one of the most amazing cities in the world, but I have certainly begun to feel its charm.

Thirty days is by far the longest I have ever spent consecutively in a country that is not Canada. I actually had to think long and hard about that to make sure it was true, but even while travelling, the most I have ever spent in another country is a fortnight.

Surprisingly, though I do miss my friends and family, I haven’t really had much in the way of homesickness. I watched a video today where dozens of people in New York city wrote on a chalkboard what their biggest regret was. I would say about 90% of people wrote about something they wish they had done, and didn’t. The way I see it, fear is going to ultimately decide what you do, but what you can do is choose which fear scares you most. Are you more afraid of taking a risk than you are of regretting not taking it 5, 10, 20 years down the road? I’d be willing to bet that on most people’s deathbeds, if you asked what they regretted most, it would certainly be something they wished they’d done and didn’t, and not something they did. And that, quite frankly, petrifies me.

In the end, you will add up those less than a tenth of a percents into a big old pile, and only you can decide which ones inspired you, which ones took your breathe away and which ones changed your life.

This past one, well it certainly did all three.





Crossing One off the Bucket List

8 years ago, in the back of my chemistry notebook I scrawled down an ambitiously long list of the things I wanted to do in my life.

Today I get to cross one of that list.

Living in another country had always been something I had thought about since I started travelling. The idea of forgetting the comforts of home and heading out to see how they do it somewhere else both terrified me and excited me. I wish I could catalogue the reactions I get when I explain myself for why I moved here. So far it has ranged from:

“Oh you want to travel, that’s cool”.
“Jesus christ, that takes a lot of balls, why on Earth did you quit your job?”

I guess the latter of those reactions never really occurred to me. I haven’t really thought of this whole adventure as being ballsy at all. To me it would’ve been more of a risk to not go because I would’ve been terrified that I would’ve regretted it. The one thing that took all fear away when I made the decision to make the jump, was that no matter what happens, it’s an experience. If I don’t like it, I can always go home. The real fear would be in not going, waking up one day when I’m 35 and wishing I’d done it when I had the chance.

In terms of my list, this is a big one. Re-reading the items, some of which is nearly a decade old, this one is more than just a destination. Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, visiting Antarctica or hiking Mt Kilimanjaro are somewhat ambitious, but they don’t seem nearly as daunting as starting a whole new life. Give me hiking boots and a backpack and I’ll set out fearlessly. Ask me to make a who new group of friends in a foreign country where I barely know anyone? Someone pass the scotch please because this is going to be a tough one. How people move to a new country that is an entire different language is beyond me altogether.

I’m already beginning to experience a bit of a struggle. Not in actual difficulty, but I find it to be a bit of a struggle between adopting the way the UK does it, and maintaining my Canadian identity. I know what you’re thinking, it’s only been three weeks, but you’d be surprised how many new things can happen in 20-some-odd days. It helps to have a large community of expat Canadians here. Every once in a while I can meet up with some of them, go all “super Canadian” like Robin in How I Met Your Mother, and then get back to trying to understand the rules of cricket (seriously, if someone has a “Cricket for Dummies” book, send it my way)

So here I am. My name is on a lease, I’ve got three pretty cool British housemates and for the next year of my life, this house is my home. I’d also appreciate it if someone could please explain the rules of snooker to me, because I spent an hour and a half watching it last night and I don’t have a clue. I do however think I can turn it into a drinking game, so I might just survive yet. I’ve yet to introduce any of them to a proper hockey game but they will all be Leaf fans by the end of this year, I promise you that.

Hopefully soon I will be getting back to my travel writing, as soon as a job is signed I am hoping to get away for a week or two and get back to my happy place, whichever city that may be this time. Until then, one item down, several thousand to go.

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list”.






The Little Victories

6 days ago, I set out on the biggest adventure of my life so far. In the previous weeks, I obtained a 5 year visa, I quit my job, gave up my great apartment in Toronto, said goodbye to my friends and family and booked a flight.

I have travelled all over Europe, even been to London prior to this, but this time it certainly feels different. When you only have a few days in a city, you rush to soak up as much as you can before you move on to the next adventure, not really absorbing much of the culture, or really adapting at all. So what do you do when there is no end in sight?

You focus on the little victories.

So far, I am literally celebrating the littlest of victories. We aren’t talking anything major, we are talking “remembered to look the correct way when crossing the street” victories. This list also includes:

  • Remembered to call the trunk the “boot” so my cousin’s 5 year old son wouldn’t make fun of me, again
  • Sorting out how to work the lock on the flat
  • Taking the tube alone and getting off at the correct stop

Ordinarily in my life this list would never have even crossed my mind. They were all pre-programmed and I was on auto-pilot. Well guess what, Ryan’s brain, there’s a software update and it’s time to figure out how to be in manual for a while.

I imagine these little victories won’t soon go away. Nevertheless they help to give the strength to go after the bigger victories. Thankfully, my visa did not require me to have a job to get here. That also means, I don’t have a job over here. Something I would’ve considered a large victory back home, is now downright scary. What if I’m not qualified, what if no one is hiring, what if they make fun of me. Okay that last one might have been a tad dramatic. If you dwell on it, it will consume you. Thus you have the importance of the little victories. They can sustain you while the big ones are beating you down.

Regardless of any kind of adversity, there are certainly things to be thankful for. Namely, in this case, I am overwhelmingly thankful that my passport has the word “CANADA” on it. There is a group online of Canadians in the UK, and I posted to introduce myself. Within a few hours, I had numerous well wishes from Canadians all over the UK welcoming me, offering to meet for a pint and advice about everything from finding a flat to places where Canadians tend to meet up. Other countries may make fun of us for how nice we are, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

All things considered, this is barely the first step on a long, long journey. There’s lots to achieve, and even more to experience living abroad. I can’t wait to get started, but for now the important thing is to remember that no matter what ups and downs may come, life is still good, eh.