To Befriend the Locals Or Not To Befriend the Locals - My Work Canada Dilemma


Stephen Davis, 29 from Gwynedd, shares his epic Work Canada experience!

If you’re about to head off on your first international adventure then one thing is certain: you will soon encounter the classic dilemma experienced by everyone who has ever participated in a BUNAC programme.

The choice is this: do you concentrate on bonding with other travelers, perhaps focusing on those from your homeland, or do you make a concerted effort to connect with the local population of your host country?

Each option has its appeal, so let’s compare:

Stick with your own
  • You’re all new to the area. Explore and discover together. Getting lost is half the fun.
  • You find each other’s accents reassuringly familiar and they act as a reminder of home during those bouts of homesickness.
  • Making friends with folks from back home means you might actually be able to see them again in the future without having to first win the lottery.

Get to know the locals
  • Locals know where all the cool stuff is and many of them are really excited to show you. Your time there is limited. Locals help ensure you don’t miss the unmissable.
  • Locals find your accent fresh/exotic/sexy, even if they can’t understand everything you say. You might not think you’re special but open your mouth and chances are they will.
  • Making friends with locals means you always have somewhere to stay when you visit, eliminating one of the main costs of travel. Plane tickets are surprisingly affordable if you’re not paying for accommodation.
  • Locals often have parents located nearby – especially useful for providing home-cooked meals, lending cooking utensils, and ensuring you never spend the festive season on your own.  
  • You get to be an ambassador for your country and your hometown. Come from somewhere a little bit obscure? You can singlehandedly boost tourism back home by simply being awesome.

If you’re detecting a slight bias towards one of the options you’d be correct, but I didn’t always feel this way.

My first taste of BUNAC came in the summer of 2004 when I flew out to Toronto to take part in the Work Canada programme with my neurotic but adorable girlfriend. Neither of us had much experience of Canada but I was a naïve young filmmaker and our plan was to start off in Toronto, enjoy September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and then, if we felt like a change head west to Vancouver for the second half of our year. But things didn’t really work out that way.

On the group flight to Canada, my girlfriend and I were seated in separate sections of the plane. In my row the highlight of the conversation was a shyly muttered ‘excuse me’ when the person next to me needed to get to the loo. Meanwhile, my girlfriend found herself sitting beside a thoroughly entertaining, not to mention charming and hilarious, Scottish guy. Three months later she told me she was moving to Vancouver with him and I developed a sudden disdain for tartan and British Airways seat assignments.

In the days that followed, as I listened to a lot of Bon Jovi and drowned my sorrows in ready-made pasta sauces, I began to realize that my girlfriend had been a kind of crutch for me. Having her alongside me had given me the confidence to get on the plane in the first place and move to a city I knew nothing about but now she was gone I faced a choice. I could cut my trip short, head back to Wales and take up professional moping or I could embrace the opportunity staring me in the face.

Spurred on by 80s rock anthems and a fear of what my dad would say if I returned home early, I resolved to remain in Toronto and work on my applications to film school in Los Angeles. To cover my ex-girlfriend’s share of the rent I took a second job at a downtown movie theatre. The limitless access to free movies made up for the low pay and I had the added bonus of working for the world’s best boss who took a keen interest in my film work and adjusted the schedule whenever I needed time off to attend interviews.

As goofy as it felt to pull on my cream-coloured baseball cap every shift, the cinema I worked in soon became the heart of my social life. I met my unfailingly wise best-friend/life mentor while measuring the internal temperature of a hot dog and fell for the girl at the box office while sanitizing a handrail. Both of them had grown up within thirty minutes of the city and as they adopted me into their social circles I began to feel less like a tourist and more like I belonged.

By the time summer came around I was in no doubt about the added benefits of having Canadian friends. Many families in Toronto own a second property a couple of hours north of the city, usually near one of the many gorgeous lakes Ontario has to offer. Some of the happiest days of my summer were spent capsizing canoes, windsurfing woefully, burning burgers, and hanging in hammocks. Even daily run-ins with invisible ninja horseflies couldn’t prevent it being the best summer of my life.

So it was with mixed emotions that I waved goodbye to Toronto in August 2005. On the plus side I had been accepted into the same LA film school as the director of Gigli and was going to pursue my filmmaking aspirations for the next three years but on the downside I was leaving behind a dream team of Canadian friends, not knowing when I would see them again.

Throughout my three years in LA I kept in close contact with my friends in Toronto, which, thanks to the interweb, wasn’t hard to do. When my American work permit expired in 2008 I moved back to Wales hopeful that my Hollywood experience would open a few doors on the other side of the Atlantic. Sadly, the town I called home demonstrated its appreciation for the arts by shutting down the local cinema… and then the theatre… and then demolished both. Before the dust had settled on the rubble I felt Toronto tugging me back and immediately contacted BUNAC. I was in luck; the first time around I had participated as a recently-graduated student, meaning I still had the option of applying again under BUNAC’s non-student programme. 

In October 2009 I touched down in Toronto for my Canadian Adventure: Part II.

Back in 2004 I had spent my first night in Ontario at an overcrowded youth hostel but this time around I had my own room at my best friend’s parents’ house. His dad had never actually met me before but told me to treat the place like my own. When he discovered there was an English football match on that I wanted to see he searched through 150 channels to make sure they didn’t have it, then offered to call the cable company so they could subscribe.

Meanwhile, I sent messages out to my circle of Canadian friends saying I’d returned and was looking for work (ideally something that didn’t involve baseball caps). A lead came back from a friend of a friend and within forty-eight hours of arriving I scored a temporary position at a national theatre organization. The same week I rented an apartment just a couple of minutes from the lakefront and my best friend’s mom equipped me with kitchenware, bedding, cleaning supplies and even some food. As if that wasn’t generous enough, his dad delivered to my new place a bunch of furniture they didn’t need anymore. I was touched beyond words by this extraordinary Canadian welcome.

After twelve frustrating months in Wales it suddenly felt as though I was surrounded by opportunities. Later on I joined a co-ed (guys and girls) soccer team, made even more friends, and travelled all over the city. Toronto is so multicultural that during the World Cup you would see supporters from every single nation. And when Spain won the final it literally stopped traffic as fans dressed in red spontaneously started a game of ‘how many people can you fit on top of a Toronto streetcar.’ Every day was full of surprises but maybe the best one came towards the end of my year.

Before my temporary job with the theatre company was even over a familiar face offered me yet another amazing opportunity. After I went to LA my former boss left the cinema and went to work for the Toronto International Film Festival.

When he found out I was back in town he recommended me to his boss, which led to an interview and shortly after that they hired me to work the 2010 festival.

Over the course of eleven incredible days I found myself in the same room as actresses Natalie Portman and Carey Mulligan, directors Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) and Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go), and two of my screenwriting heroes, Alex Garland and John Sayles. I still have a long way to go before I get where I want to be but I feel like I’ve taken massive strides closer to my dream and I realize now that it all started with my decision to stay in Toronto back in 2004, to put on that silly hat, serve up some popcorn, and make friends with Canadians.

I’m back in Wales now but I’m not moping because my world doesn’t feel small anymore. I have five years of history with my Canadian friends and we’ve built the sort of bond that can’t be eroded by a few thousand miles of ocean. Knowing that I can land in a new country and quickly adapt has given me massive confidence in my abilities and things are looking up. I even repaired my friendship with the neurotic ex. And ever since Sean Connery showed up in a kilt at my LA graduation ceremony I don’t even hate tartan anymore.

So if you just landed abroad or are soon to take off then I recommend taking every chance you get to integrate with locals. You might not be planning to stay in one place for more than a few weeks but if you make the effort you never know who you might meet or where those connections might lead. And if you try something out and fall flat on your arse, who cares? No one back home with ever know!

One last piece of advice: as important as it is to get to know the locals, be sure to keep at least one friend from your homeland close by. When you notice yourself starting to sound like a native there’s nothing like a good chat with your buddy from back home to recharge the accent!

Look after it, you’ll be surprised what sort of doors it can open.

Find out more about Work Canada

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