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On Culture, Community and Travelling Bravely.

How do YOU feel about travelling alone?

I’m not a brave traveller, and I don’t find it easy,  so making the decision to travel to Canada and the US by myself was, in itself, a brave act for me.

Whilst adventurous is not how I’d describe myself – I am stubborn, and what I lack in courage I make up for with tenacity, bravado and a general recklessness. These are not necessarily attributes I’m proud of but they tend to see me through most situations and collectively they helped me navigate my solo trip to North America this October.

I’ve been home for two weeks now and I’ve struggled to write this blog post  – resorting to the usual procrastination tactics and internal Transactional Analysis.

Me (whiny child) “But I don’t feel like doing it……”

 Me (annoyed parent) “I don’t care what you feel like – just DO IT!”

 Me (smug yet insightful teacher/therapist) Have you considered that this trip poked and prodded at some personal and very private anxieties you have around culture, colonialism, privilege, class, age, race, imposter syndrome and your single person status – to name just a few?”

Of course smug yet insightful teacher/therapist was absolutely right but that doesn’t make it any easier. I never really know what shape a blog post will take but it usually starts with at least a sketchy outline. This one has no such outline so I’m just going to start typing and see how it shapes up…..

As any lone traveller will tell you; unless you’re in Antarctica you’re never really alone. In pretty much any situation there are opportunities to engage with, interact with, or simply observe and listen to other people. One of the advantages of travelling alone is you can disappear in plain sight which makes it so much easier to spy on people in public spaces, and eavesdrop on their private conversations. Yes, I do that a lot.

My journey began on the The Hoppa Bus to Heathrow airport which was two miles of spectacular drama. Each passenger dragged their luggage and personal baggage on board and I enjoyed watching the drama unfold from my front row seat.

The leading lady had big hair and entered with no ticket, a voice far too loud for 6 am and a £20 note which the driver had no change for. After a heated discussion (argument) she sulked at the back of the bus leaving three shiny pink suitcases in ascending order wheeling around the isle bashing into shins and causing a great deal of tutting and eyerolling.

Eventually the elderly Jamaican gentleman sitting next to me calmly and quietly tied them all together with something he found in his pocket and secured them all to a hand rail.

Unfortunately I got off  before the lady with the loud voice and big hair realised her cases had been restrained.

I found my way to the terminal and took the Air Canada flight to Montreal where I downsized to a Hoppa Bus with wings which took me over the Gulf of St Lawrence in Nova Scotia to Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. I’d been invited to teach some workshops at the PEI Fibre Festival, so this was my first port of call.

I was met at the airport by Linda from the Fibre Festival committee who had kindly offered to drive me to my accommodation and at some point in the journey I realised I was sharing the car with Patty Lyons.  Patty happens to be a BIG THING in knitting in the US and she’s clearly a professional on the fibre festival circuit and knew absolutely everyone – except me.

The six minute journey took me to my lovely Airbnb which was a tiny historic house in downtown Charlottetown and absolutely perfect for my stay.

One of the first things I did on arrival was to educate myself on Canadian history with a three hour documentary on Youtube –  this brought things into very sharp focus.

I now understand why French is the first language in Quebec. I understand more about the First Nations and the uncomfortable facts around settlements and colonialism. I know about the Confederation and the significance of beavers and silver foxes and feeling slightly more educated I stepped out and investigated Charlottetown with it’s colourful history and brightly decorated houses.

It was Thanksgiving weekend and  being October and approaching Halloween the city had a sense of celebration and excitement in the air. It was also Scarecrow Season and many of the houses and municipal building were elaborately decorated with pumpkins, flowers and the best dressed scarecrows I’ve ever met.

PEI Scarecrow Residents.

I had a day to settle in and prepare for my workshops at the Fibre Festival and there was a visible presence of festival goers in the streets – they were easy to spot with their hand knitted sweaters and tote bags stuffed with WIPs.

The 2023 PEI Fibre Festival was an event well worth celebrating as the organisers have spent, literally, years planning and preparing for it. They’ve battled with the COVID pandemic, lockdowns and hurricanes but finally this year they were able to host the first ever PEI Fibre Festival and they did an amazing job!

Kim from the fabulous podcast Fleece and Harmony had invited me to the festival and I spent two days teaching workshops at the event. I was delighted to meet so many of my online course members as well as lots of wonderful people from the island and much further afield. It was a truly successful event and I absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for an inspiring ‘yarny’ weekend in a beautiful location.

My Colour Story Workshops at the Festival.

After the festival I had two more days to explore the island and I was thrilled to meet up with Kim and her husband Ken who showed me around their mill and Fleece and Harmony yarn store in Belfast, PEI. All their hand dyed, home spun yarns are made from wool sourced on the island and it’s an absolutely beautiful collection. They’re also a Rowan Flagship  store and one of my recommended suppliers for my online courses.

Yarn Production at Fleece and Harmony.

We had dinner at the fabulous seafood restaurant Clamdiggers which has spectacular views over the Cardigan river and I learnt more about how Kim and Ken have built their business from scratch – it’s clearly a labour of love and a testament to their hard work and passion for the industry.

My last day on the island was spent mostly walking, sightseeing and enjoying fresh Atlantic salmon and lobster in a lovely restaurant mostly full of people engaged in conversations with their phones.

One table was inhabited by a small woman and a large man who talked very loudly about himself and other boring things all through their exquisitely prepared dinner. She agreed with everything he said.

I later had a brief encounter with a friendly Irish couple from the cruise liner I’d noticed in the harbour that morning. When I say noticed – you couldn’t not see it. The ship was so monstrously huge it had the effect of reducing everything, and everyone, to lilliputian in size. It was scarily Gargantuan – other worldly in its scale and inhabited by over 4,000 people who were now, like me, eating lobster rolls and buying Confederation and Anne of Green Gables souvenir key rings in the gift shops that line the historic streets of Charlottetown.

The Cruise Liner and the Lighthouse at Brighton Beach PEI

The following morning I took a taxi to Charlottetown airport for my next stop – Toronto and had a fascinating 6 minute conversation with the taxi driver whose family had lived on the island for several generations. He briefed me on the changes he’s seen on the Island, particularly the influx of immigrants since the pandemic and described how some Island  residents are unhappy about these new settlers. He looked directly at me in the mirror, raised his eyebrows and said “ But 98% of the residents here are descendants of immigrants – so who do they think owns the land?”

I remembered the signs I’d seen on the Island gratefully acknowledging the First Nations and expressing gratitude for sharing their ancestral land and I thanked the driver with a generous 25% tip (options started at 18%).

By mid afternoon I was at Toronto airport being met by Abigail who I spotted immediately in her beautiful Gloria Capelet! It was amazing to be greeted so warmly by someone I really only knew remotely via Zoom, and as we drove to the condo where I was staying she told me more about herself and we made some sketchy plans for the next few days.

I was staying just outside the city centre in a wonderful waterfront condo overlooking Lake Ontario and I spent some time that evening walking along the edge of the lake enjoying the incredible skyline as the sun went down. It was at this point I realised that I’d shed my usual awkward self-consciousness and lost myself in my surroundings. Hypnotised by the sun on the water, and delighted by the antics of the black squirrels I felt unusually confident and empowered by my solitude.

Somewhere along Sunnyside Broadwalk I stopped to read a plaque,  it was Bookmark #22 on the Literary Trail; a passage from Love Enough by Dionne Brand:

“In this city you have to keep your belongings with you,” Da’uud tells this to a woman in his taxi. He tells her everything about the boy and everything about himself; how he was an economist, how he trained in Switzerland in 1978. How many languages he speaks, Italian, English, Arabic, French, Somali. How he went back home and how in 1994 he fled. The whole country fell apart under the men who knew everything. The military men, the religious men. The hard men. “You’ve heard this story?” he asks her. “Before you know it, you’re trapped. Five languages, Miss. Five.” Dionne Brand.

During my stay in Toronto  the Queen Elizabeth Community and Cultural Centre in Oakland, Ontario was hosting a fibre art exhibition; World of Threads so Abigail and I decided to go together.

I have to confess to generally feeling a little underwhelmed by many of the ‘Textile Art’ exhibitions I’ve visited over the years  (for reasons I won’t delve into here) however this show was, genuinely, one of the best textile exhibitions I’ve seen, both in the scale of ambition – and the technical skills employed.

Artists Clockwise from Top Left: Boisali Biswas, Christine Seager, Svetlana Turov, Marty Ornish

Artists Clockwise from Top Left: Theda Sandiford, Tina Poplawski, Carol Eckert, Bornemisza Eszter

World of Threads is an annual festival, running (with the exception of the Covid years)  since 1994 and it’s now one of the largest textile exhibitions in North America. This years festival runs until 17th December 2023, it features 426 artworks by 115 artists from 15 countries. Oh, and entry to the exhibition is FREE!! (at the time of writing this exhibition has been paused for an Oakville Labour dispute)

The standard of work in this show was incredible, representing a broad range of materials, processes and subject matter and I can’t even begin to describe the highlights for me – there were so many. The exhibition brochure is free to download and it’s an excellent companion to the show.

As I walked through the corridors noting the names and nationalities of the artists I also read the following Land Acknowledgement

“We acknowledge that the Town of Oakville is located on the treaty and traditional lands (Treaty 14 and Treaty 22) of the Mississaugas of the Credit, part of the Anishinaabe Nation that extends from the Niagara peninsula across Hamilton, Halton and Toronto to the Rouge River Valley. We thank the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations for sharing their traditional territory with us. We also recognize the enduring presence of Indigenous people on this land.”

I wondered how many of those exhibiting were Indigenous First Nation artists.

Just as I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work on display something grabbed my attention.

Off the beaten track of the main exhibition hung a simple collection of red dresses. They were smart, not overly glamorous, but held their presence in the space.

I walked over to them to read the accompanying information and Abigail explained that the dresses aren’t part of the World of Threads exhibition they belong to a separate installation art project called The REDress; developed by the artist Jaime Black it draws attention to the issue of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada and the United States.

“The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence” Jaime Black

The REDress Project

The semiotics of these dresses transcended anything else I’d seen that day and the women they represent became blindingly conspicuous in their absence. This simple display, stripped of any embellishment, haunted me with its poignance, directness and social conscience.

The following day I did a lot of walking and sightseeing. I took in the amazing view from the top of the CN tower, not quite believing where I was and what I was seeing. It was a beautiful day, the sky and the water were both brilliant blue and the sun made the architecture glitter and shine.

The View from the CN Tower

I also visited Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art which is an impressively raw industrial space. The art on display was cutting edge and conceptual; Liz Magor’s installation The Separation displayed objects of everyday junk and detritus displayed in large clear acetate boxes.  The work was a commentary on our “emotional investment in the material world” and “refers to changing values and shifting fates.”

 Another floor was dedicated to Phyllida Barlow’s ‘anti-monumental sculptures’; cast from low grade materials like cement, scrim and carboard they echoed the shapes and scale of the galleries industrial pillars.

Top: Phyllida Barlow. Bottom: Liz Magor

 I spent a long time with both these works. I tried really hard to engage with them, imagining how I would have written about them in the past, peeling back the layers of meaning, or potential meaning, interrogating them and examining my responses. But they left me feeling empty and the red dresses still haunted me.

Later that day Abigail and I spent An Evening with Jane Goodall at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton which was both inspiring and uplifting. Jane Goodall talks eloquently and with good humour about a lifetime spent working in conservation, wildlife protection and environmental education.

At almost 90 years old Jane Goodall is the voice of reason and has earned her position as a United Nations Messenger of Peace.

“Some people say… that violence and war are inevitable. I say rubbish: Our brains are fully capable of controlling instinctive behavior. We’re not very good at it though, are we?” Jane Goodall

The next day I was thrilled to meet up with another online course member, Lisa who also lives in Toronto. The three of us had a lovely ‘show and tell’ where we talked crochet and admired each others work and I was reminded that this was what brought me across the ocean, and this is what fills me with joy.

Lisa happened to mention that an artist friend of hers was having an open day and she thought I might like her work – so we hopped in the car and drove through suburban Toronto to the home of the brilliant artist Sara Petroff.

Sara’s open house was a beautifully curated mix of private domestic space and exhibited artwork.

As a mixed media sculptor Sara works with an eclectic mix of found paper to create stunningly beautiful relief works layered with meaning drawn from both the text on the paper and the figurative imagery she creates. Sara’s hands perform a strange alchemy which renders paper into gold and the effect is mesmerising.

We’d arrived very late in the day, just as Sara was closing, and I didn’t want to over stay our welcome so we chatted briefly before leaving for Lisa’s house where we had dinner then booked an Uber for my next stop; The Knit Café in Central Toronto.

This yarn store is an absolute gem and that evening they were hosting a social to celebrate 20 years in business – so it seemed like the ideal opportunity to drop by and say hello and I’m so glad I went. It’s a welcoming yarn store full of beautiful and carefully selected brands including Brooklyn Tweed, and gorgeous hand dyed  Lichen and Lace mini skeins.

I met Kristina and Iwona who were both lovely and they invited me to come and teach a work shop next time I’m in the city, and – I won a $20 gift voucher! So what would you do with $20 when you’re standing in a yarn store? I’ve started a new stash of Lichen and Lace mini skeins.

The following day Abigail and I headed to Niagara Falls for a day in borderlands and a meet up with Mary. It was, of course, spectacular and awe inspiring and I spent a couple of hours as a happy star struck tourist in a yellow plastic poncho. I went Behind the Falls and we dined at the Top of the Falls restaurant looking out over the water in the direction of my next destination – New York state.

The Falls….

I was formally handed over to Mary and after a few nail biting moments at border control we headed to Rochester for a lovely evening of home cooking and craft talk.  We admired each others work over a bottle of wine and discussed our plans for future projects.

As I lay in bed that night I thought a lot about my crochet community and for the first time I think the enormity of what I’ve created dawned on me. There are over 1500 members on my online courses and we’re an amazing global community of crafters  – to date our meet ups have all been virtual, but I sense a shift in the landscape and I’d love to facilitate more real life connections and social events in the future.

The next day Mary drove me to Rochester station for the 10.06 train to NYC. I love travelling by train, it’s my absolutely favourite method of transport. I don’t care if the seats are a bit grubby and uncomfortable, or if the windows haven’t been cleaned – ever. Seven hours weaving through rural and industrial landscapes in the company of an audio book felt like exactly what I needed.

I’d had the best time with the kindest of people and I’d loved every minute of it – but for me just being with people is exhausting. So it felt good to be able to sink into my seat and disappear as the accents and scenery gradually changed and we made our way through New York State to Penn Station NYC.

It was late when I eventually dragged my 22.8kg suitcase along 42nd Street and with the help of Google maps I located my hotel, checked in, ate the biggest pizza I’ve ever seen (or eaten) in the hotel restaurant and wrote a New York ‘to do’ list.

Over the next two days I walked the High Line,  (a public park built on a disused railway line above Manhatten’s West Side) starting at the big red Old Tree installation by Swiss artist Pamela Rosenkranz, I walked to the Whitney Museum of Modern Art, and then continued to the 9/11 Memorial.  On my second day I went to MOMA and had a leisurely walk in Central Park.

Left: Old Tree by Pamela Rosenkran. Right: My only view of The Statue of Liberty

The Whitney Museum Of American Art: Clockwise from top left: Detail from Sultana’s Dream: Chitra Ganesh, wire crochet structure by Ruth Asawa, Black Panthers Installation by Henry Taylor.

I did all these things in peaceful solitude and with the exception of a couple of bartenders, waitresses and the very kind woman in the metro, I really didn’t speak to anyone.

New York is the ideal city to lose yourself in. By day I walked, I listened to audio books, looked at paintings and buildings and was delighted by how easy it is to navigate your way through a city designed on a grid. And my evenings were mostly spent peering down from a rooftop restaurant with a Pinot Grigio watching the glistening spectacle of a city that never sleeps.

Don’t listen to the people that tell you New Yorkers are rude. I only needed to ask one person for help during my stay when I couldn’t get my totally useless Travelex card to work at the Metro ticket machine and after several attempts to help she simply bought me a ticket and chatted with me all the way to my stop.

She was with two energetic boys in sports wear and they were on their way to ‘the game’. I nodded enthusiastically with absolutely no idea what game she meant.  I wondered if this was the same as ‘the match’ in the UK and looked around for leary drunk football supporters but everyone was just looking studiously at their phones in smart city leisure wear. No home or away football fans on this train.

After three nights and two full days in New York, it was time to go home and on the last morning I crawled painfully slowly through the congested city to the airport in the back of a shiny black sedan.

It would take me 12 hours to get home; one taxi, two aeroplanes, two trains and a lift from a kind friend.

Twelve hours to take stock and decompress.

Twelve hours to think about everything I’d done and everyone I’d met.

Twelve hours to change the way I think of myself.

My story was always that I’m an anxious traveller.  Catastrophising about everything, convinced I’d miss the plane – or worse, get on the wrong one and it would crash. Eating and drinking alone in bars and restaurants typically filled me with dread verging on shame for being alone.

But my story has a new chapter now – it’s the one where I challenge my perpetuating self beliefs.

The theory is that the thing you resist most is probably the thing you most need to do, but it’s hard to do the difficult stuff and face your insecurities – so this is a call to action.

It’s a rally cry for anyone who’s ever talked themselves out of doing something because they thought they weren’t ‘that sort of person’ – like the advert says- just do it.

You’ll meet some beautiful people on the way – and one of them will be you.

This Post Has 31 Comments

  1. I’ve travelled a lot worldwide for business. I loved every minute of it and miss it. You did so much and saw so much in all of those cities. Ones I’ve visited and ache to go back to. Thank you for sharing so much. V

    1. You are very welcome Patricia – I’m glad you enjoyed my blog. I hope you are able to visit those places again one day.

  2. Wow just hearing your wonderful travel stories fills me with wonder and energy! Can’t wait to see more instalments and so happy to have stumbled upon your courses. It’s changed my life!
    Love Jayne

    1. Thank you Jayne! It was amazing to have you as part of the retreats this year. I am happy you stumbled across my courses too!

  3. Very brave, not something I could contemplate alone. Canada is a place I would love to visit, but my husband is afraid of flying so it’s highly unlikely that I will ever get there. Fleece and Harmony, I love watching their podcast, in fact it’s how I found out about you… small world. I really must get my blanket and cape finished

    1. Thank you Cheryl – maybe you will make it there one day. I am grateful you found me through Fleece and Harmony! I hope you manage to get going again on your projects!

  4. Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing Sue. What an adventure, and I’m so happy that your decision to go it alone paid off in spades. An inspiration as ever. Lisa

  5. Thank you so much for your honesty and for taking your readers along for the ride. You have inspired me! (I,too, have trepidation about traveling.)

    1. I’m pleased you like it Holly – take a deep breath, say yes, and who knows where you will end up! (Then let me know!!)

  6. Lovely to read the story of your adventures. I’m happy to have been a small part of your journey and I look forward to learning more from you in the upcoming new year. ❤️

  7. Thank you for your sharing your solo travel experience Sue – I really enjoyed reading it. You have also given me tremendous timely encouragement for my own forthcoming trip to Vietnam in a month’s time for my big birthday. I am both excited and terrified at the same time but reading your story gives me extra courage! I’ll be back in time to start tessilation nation !

  8. Sue, I really enjoyed reading about your travels, such clever writing about the places and people you met. So glad that you made the trip, and had a wonderful, insightful time discovering Canada and NY. The photos are great.

    1. Thank you Mary! I am very pleased I did it – and I’m glad that sharing it has been useful for others!

  9. Great blog entry Sue. I really appreciate how much of you was shared with us. I too have embarked on a big adventure. At the ripe old age of 70, my husband and I moved from Salt Lake City, Utah (where I was born and grew up), to Portland Oregon. That doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but I did have to reach 70 years to be able to move away from home. It has been a difficult and exciting time for the past year as we fixed up our home for selling, finally put it on the market during a terrible real estate downturn, sold it, packed and moved. We are in temporary quarters while we wait for our new home to close, with 99% of my huge yarn stash locked up in storage. I haven’t been able to concentrate much on anything but the move for months, so I stay engaged by following people like you. Thanks so much for staying in touch and giving us many things to think about!

    1. Oh wow Julie what a big change! You are so brave! I really hope you can get in and settled in your new place really soon! I’m glad I can help in some way x

  10. Oh Sue! I finally had the chance to read and slowly digest this beautifully written blog. Oh the places you have been! And, the things you have seen!

    What a lesson in taking the time to observe, listen and feel. Thank you for your insights and generosity.

  11. Oh Sue! What an adventure!! You write so evocatively about the interior landscapes, the familiar (to me) anxieties and the new learnings and feelings of triumph that can unfurl when we take the rush and do the thing we have feared. Thank you. The red dress project is now haunting me too. And I’m getting SO excited about Tesselation Nation!!

    PS welcome to Portland Oregon, Julie Bradshaw!

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