Originally featured on Exit Left Magazine.
The question I am asked most since returning from my year in England is, ‘How was it?’
‘It was the best year of my life’ I say. It’s the only answer I ever give.
This is inevitably followed by the question ‘Why?’; a single word asking me to condense a year’s worth of life into a simple answer that can somehow justify my claim. I’ve never been able to give a satisfying answer to them or to myself. It’s not like I can just list all of the things I loved most: family film nights in A4, Rasda with the Rats and collapsing into bushes, paranoid night walks up Eliot footpath, trips to London and beers with my brother in pubs older than Canada, all night write-a-thons, doing nothing in the SMC, Labeless Tuesdays followed by an ice cream Mars Bar, initiations with the Knights, a road trip to Cornwall, the Curzon, the lights and festive stands in town during the holiday season, a pig fucker, Primark… especially Primark. I could go on, but I would feel foolish. Only a few people would understand or care about any of it. It’s too sentimental. Too subjective. Too ‘you had to be there’, which no one can hope to draw any enjoyment or meaning from. So here are some broader reasons that I hope will justify why my year abroad was the best year of my life.
The first reason for why I loved my year abroad so much is that I was terrified to go. It was, if not still is, the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make. To leave behind the familiarity of home for the unknown is not a choice to make lightly. I went back and forth on the decision hourly in the months before my departure, mostly claiming financial reasons as my main deterrent from going to England. Though money played a major role in my decision, there were bigger fears at work.
My father told me that, as a child, he was scared of flying, so to get over his fears, he got his pilot’s license. Even now that I’m older and warier of tales like these, I’ve never bothered looking into the validity of this story because the lesson is far more valuable than the truth. Don’t let fear run your life. One night during my internal battles of to go or not to go, I thought of this story and realized the decision was already made. I was terrified to do it, so I had to do it. Even if the year was more disappointment than enjoyment, I could still be proud of myself for making the choice and not having to wonder ‘What if?’ for the rest of my life.
My fear stemmed not only from financial worries, but the thought of being alone for a year, as well as how my leaving would effect those at home. Not the type to quickly make friends, I’ve always feared loneliness above most things. I’ve mostly had the same friend group since primary school. Before leaving Toronto, I began feeling less and less like I belonged. I’m not sure how to explain it. All of my friends had other friends outside of our clique, and were beginning, or already in, careers and long term relationships. They seemed to have life figured out. It put me in a bit of a panic that I should be more self-realized.
At the time, I thought my year abroad would be a transformative adventure, like in a film, and, after the year long montage set to powerful upbeat music, I would arrive in Toronto, unrecognizable from the uncharacteristic wallflower I once was. Mature. Cultured. Sexy. But in retrospect, I wasn’t just leaving to become a better me, I was also running away from the old me. The old me was scared of the looming lifelong nine to five. Scared of any sort of commitment. Scared of being alone in England, or being forgotten at home. In some ways, I’m still scared of all those things. However, the distance I created from escaping my life for a year allowed me to view it in a different perspective and grow.
Friendship in England, however, came quickly. Almost instantly. My five flatmates, from around the globe, were some of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. We would go out, watch movies in the shared common area, share meals from each of our countries, celebrate holidays, go shopping, and everything that friends do. They were very much like family to me. From there my friendship group branched out. One flatmate introduced me to his group of friends and encouraged me to join CSR, the community student radio station, through which I made even more friends. I also joined the University’s Hockey Team (being Canadian, I pretty much had to) and met more people from that. Not to mention classes, where I found many like-minded people and, hopefully, life long friends. I tried to stay active and always say yes to any opportunity that arose, and in doing so, I never really felt alone.
In meeting all these new people, I found out something about myself. I hadn’t changed. I was still the same person I was in Toronto, just in England. Still a wallflower, still not the charismatic leading man I hoped to become, but all that was okay. People liked me for who I was. There was growth in my character along the way, sure, but the fundamentals of my being, my morals, and the little things that made me, me, didn’t change. So of course, when I came home after a year, I was pretty much the same person. The ‘I can’t believe that’s Gavin!’ climax never happened. I just came home and settled back into my old life. My friends from before I left were still my friends now that I was back. Nothing had changed. The only difference was that I had more life experience, more stories, and more couches to crash on if I ever decide to travel the globe. All of my fears and worries from before I left had now felt silly and unwarranted, just like most fears in retrospect.
So I faced some fears, gained perspective on others, met some amazing people, had an adventure, and grew to accept myself for who I was. While all of that certainly adds to my reasoning, there is one more thing that I believe to be the most important.
The best part about England is that it ended. I thought about staying for good. Truly. I looked into all the different ways I could extend my stay, either for a few more months, or years, or perhaps forever. In the summer after classes finished, I had started to miss home. I became sentimental and began realizing how great of a city Toronto is. My friends. My family. My city. Now, having been home for seven months, Toronto, once again, doesn’t seem all that special. I long for England again and the days of busing to Spoons on a Thursday to get curry with the boys, movie nights with the flatmates, or wandering the streets of London. While I miss it everyday, I don’t think going back would satisfy this longing. If anything, it might ruin the memory of the amazing year I had there.
In 2009, a professor at the University of Toronto stood in front of five hundred freshmen and asked why a real rose was more beautiful than a fake one. I sat in the crowd and pondered the question. He made a joke about giving your significant other a fake rose and getting slapped in return. The room filled with sounds of laughter. He then got serious and said the real rose will one-day wilt and die. That’s what made it beautiful. My year in Canterbury was the best year of my life because it lived for a year and it was over. There is beauty in that. I went into my year knowing that it would end, and because of that, I took more chances, said yes to more things, and I lived more in the moment than I do at home. Home is infinite and never ending. For all I know, I’ll be here until I die, and perhaps that makes me appreciate it less, but it also makes me appreciate everywhere else so much more.
I wish that I could look at my life in the same way I now look at a rose. Being only 25 years in, it’s hard to see an end. The petals of my life have only just bloomed, let alone began to wilt and fall, so I still take my time alive for granted. If I could somehow change the way I see my life, and view it through the same eyes I had for that year in Canterbury, then maybe every year could be the best year of my life.