“When I go back to the UK after a while I get that feeling that I just want to go ‘home’, which to me is now Vancouver.”
It started with a 4 am conversation with a roommate who was moving to Canada. It led to an ask; ‘come with me’. What happened next? Stefan adds;
“I already worked remotely 80% of the time so I actually couldn’t think of a reason not to give it a go. We figured we’d be here for 1 maybe 2 years and 4 years later, I'm still here.”
The weather wasn’t being cooperative and Stefan graciously changed his plans for a location-based portrait session to join me in the studio. Not only did he make it well past 1 or 2 years, he now has Permanent Resident status, so it seems that he’s here for the long term. I wanted to know what it was about Vancouver that made it the place to be for him.
“Honestly it took me some time to realise how special Vancouver was. I visited back in 2012 when another friend of mine was living here and honestly didn’t see what all the fuss was about. When it came to moving to Canada in 2016 I wanted to go to Toronto but my two friends wanted to come to Vancouver so essentially I was outvoted. After living here for a year I decided to travel across Canada to see if there was somewhere else that I would prefer to live in Canada. I went to 8 of the 10 provinces staying almost a month in each province and visiting every major city along the way. I drove most of it and flew a portion before returning to Vancouver in December 2017. I had set my sights on moving to Montreal, but after spending Christmas here with my friends it just felt like home and I never moved.“
Stefan made the move with 2 friends, however, he did know 1 other person here. Having said that, in the first couple of years he only met up with that person twice. What worked, was making the move with others. The ready-made social circle helped the integration.
Moving on to day-to-day life here, Stefan had previously mentioned working remotely. I wondered what he did that allowed that.
“I work full time as Creative Director for a company back home in the UK.” He added. “I predominately work from home, but I also took a part-time job back in 2016 working for a Home Organisational Store here in the city. I still work there part-time and that allowed me to integrate a lot better. Making friends as an adult is hard enough but when you add on working from home 100% of the time it was almost impossible to meet people. While I have met a lot of Brits here through Facebook pages I made a conscious effort to find Canadian friends and integrate as best as I could. I also started a podcast this year called ‘Come Out Podcast’ where I help other members of the LGBTQ+ community tell their coming out stories.“
It seems that Stefan has a full and diverse life - Creative Director to home organisation store is quite the range. His podcasts are well worth listening to as he gives his guests time and space to explore their journey from questioning to embracing their sexuality. What resonated with me are some of the experiences his guests have had. I’m straight, yet certainly not an Alpha Male. In the distant past, I’d occasionally been subjected to homophobic taunts and it hurt, yet it would have been insignificant compared to the challenges that some people face when coming out. Stefan’s guests also offer up many positive moments that bring hope, so go listen.
Back to Stefan. Not content with all the above, he is also another active Brit that takes advantage of the amazing natural environment to get out and hike. In the past, he lived near the Lake District in the UK and that appears to have been the prompt for his activity. One of his more recent goals is to heat map Vancouver by bike. He showed me his mapping app and he’s covered a lot of km! He added
“Theres so much natural beauty here and I won’t be happy till I’ve laid eyes on every square inch of the city. If there’s a doughnut place in the city, it's also likely that I’ve been there.”
When asked about what else he managed to fit into life, his creative side offered,
“I'm borderline addicted to Winners and Homesense and before the lockdown, you’d find me at one of their locations every other day shopping for unnecessary things I didn’t need.” I guess more unnecessary things may well be making their way into Stefan’s home now.
Despite being in a ‘western’ English speaking country, Brits still experience culture shock when they move here. For Stefan, like other Brits, humour has been an unforeseen banana skin.
“I think when I first arrived here it was hard to make meaningful connections. I’ve always seen myself as the funny friend but my sense of humour is quite sarcastic which is something that wasn’t understood by a lot of Canadians. It took me quite a long time to find people that got me and my sense of humour. They do exist, they are just harder to find. I think I took for granted the fact that there wasn’t going to be a language barrier and although we could understand each other there’s something to be said in the tone in which we communicate. I have found that its easier to meet another British person and hit it off right away. Canadians are a bit of a slow burn for the most part. There seems to be an adjustment period when you meet someone where you are figuring out the slight differences in the way we think and behave. Once you understand each others tone, you can make equally as good friends as fellow Brits.”
In other words, be mindful, take your time and it’ll likely work out.
Stefan has travelled extensively across Canada (Halifax, Lunenburg and Truro in Nova Scotia. Moncton and Saint John in New Brunswick. Quebec City and Montreal in Quebec. Ottawa, Toronto and Niagra in Ontario. Winnipeg in Manitoba. Regina and Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. Lethbridge, Calgary, Edmonton, Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta) so I asked what it was about Vancouver that keeps him here.
“Location, location location. To have a city, beaches, mountains, countryside, seaside towns and suburbs in such close proximity is amazing. If you want a day in the mountains it's right there. If you want to go to the beach, you can go on your lunch break. If you want to get out into the countryside its literally a 30-minute drive. That is rare from my experience of travelling around the world.”
It’s no surprise to hear that. Even after 13 years the variety that Vancouver and its surrounds offer still stuns me. Although Vancouver has captured Stefan he’d previously mentioned Montreal as the place he thought he’d be heading to. I asked what it was about the city that was a draw and he spoke about the architecture, diversity and that it “just had a really cool vibe.”
We moved on to a different side of Vancouver, that of it being Hollywood North. I asked Stefan if he’d bumped into any sets whilst out.
“The longer you are here and the more frequently it happens, it starts to lose its excitement. I live 2 blocks from one of the Riverdale filming locations and I've bumped into scenes from Super Girl and Arrow, downtown quite frequently. When I moved here I was a big fan of Bates Motel and went out to visit the set when I first arrived here but it was an offseason and was all boarded up.”
I haven’t got to the point of losing excitement as of yet. I’m still intrigued at how a small part of the city gets transformed for a few hours, as I saw recently, how a camera rig is attached to a car to film behind another travelling vehicle. Having said that, I’ve only lived in the city for a year so maybe the lustre will wear over time.
Many of my current Brits in Vancouver portraits were taken at the end of our version of ‘lockdown’ due to the coronavirus. I wanted to know how Stefan had fared during the weeks of semi-isolation.
“Professionally I'm lucky to predominantly work from home. I can do my job without even leaving my house. I got laid off from my part-time job but other than being socially secluded more than usual I haven’t been too affected. Personally, it's been a lot harder. My boyfriend is actually American and we haven’t been able to see each other now for 3 months. There doesn’t appear to be any timeframe for when the border will reopen so I’m not sure how long that will go on. It’s been hard as I would spend every other weekend there for the past year-and-a-half. Lucky that we live in an age where we can communicate in so many other ways, we get to FaceTime every day even though we can’t meet up.”
The last months have certainly placed many people under different stresses such as loneliness or anxiety so as difficult as it’s been, it was heartening to hear that Stefan had navigated his way through the period.
I’m always curious about what my interviewees miss following their relocation. Stefan’s answers were a mix of ‘yup, I get that’ and the unexpected.
“Sarcasm. Chip shops. Cadbury’s (being from Birmingham, this is a particularly hard blow). I do miss architecture, while I love the North American wooden houses, I miss the impressive buildings you get in a big city back home, full of history and not made with concrete. British supermarkets, just the familiarity of a grocery shop at Asda/Tesco/Sainsbury’s. My bike, it's a 1980s Raleigh bike that my dad gave me (hopefully one day I’ll bring it over).”
Given the comprehensive list of things missed, would Stefan ever return to the UK? His answer was a qualified yes “Something has happened to my immediate family and I need to be there”, a humorous yes, “My boyfriend bullies me into moving to Scotland” and maybe a not likely to happen yes, “Canada has politely asked me to leave.”
Finally, what advice would Stefan have for the potential immigrant?
“I’d say do it, but have a plan to stay for a while. The city and its people take a while to grow on you and feel like home.“
And, as Stefan said at the very start of our conversation, home for him is now, very much, Vancouver.
Thank you, Stefan, for spending time with me, telling your story and being part of the Brits in Vancouver project. It was a fun portrait session and I’m glad you enjoyed the experience. Welcome to the Tardis. May your heat mapping spread and your podcast inform.
You’ll find more images from Brits in Vancouver on my photography site.