Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dear Friends 22

Written: January 16, 2009

Dear Friends,

I know I said I wasn’t going to do another one of these, but since I have had a number of enquiries over Christmas, I thought I might just bring you up to date with the most recent development.

A few weeks ago, I went out and bought a snowblower. Now, you may be wondering exactly what a snowblower is, and why I might need one. Those of you with long memories might remember me referring to one in passing during our first winter. Essentially, it’s a large gas-powered (for the Brits among you, I mean petrol-engined) beast, not unlike an oversized lawnmower which chomps its way through any snow you happen to have lying around.

Why do I need one? The answer to that question became clear to me one morning in December, when, suffering from a particularly nasty cold, I opened my garage door to discover a layer of snow which came up to my knees. I did eventually mange to clear it by hand, but I had to lie down for a week afterwards, and I decided that enough was enough – mechanical assistance was required.

So, as I said, I went out and bought one. Transporting it from store to home is a short story all in itself, but once I had it here, I filled it with gas, and waited for it to snow.

Now, I don't imagine that many of you have had the particular pleasure of driving one of these things, so I'll give you a little road test, shall I?

First off, it's huge. Heavier than a small car, it is also more powerful than some cars I’ve owned, but I was told that anything smaller wouldn't be able to deal with the heavy snow we sometimes get.

In order to get it going, you have to do several fiddly things to the back of it - I'm pretty certain that starting light aircraft is quicker and easier than this. You also have to, if it's a cold day, plug it in to the wall. Now this is not entirely alien to us now - we routinely plug our cars in on cold nights - but it does have its potential little pitfalls.

Once you get it started, and replace the glass in the front windows which has been shaken loose, you then have to close the choke, and retard the throttle. This last is important, because the idle speed of this thing is only just below that of a fully-laden Vietnam-era Phantom jet, and if you don't, one squeeze of the power handle will have it halfway down the drive, dragging behind it a plaintively wailing Scotsman, and a chunk of the garage wall with the power cable still attached to it.

Once it's running, though, it's a sleek, powerful beast.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? Once it's running, it sets up sympathetic resonances in every joint in your body and sets to work scrambling your brain stem. One squeeze on the power handle, and my earwax is gone for ever. The other handle operates the actual thrower bit - the auger, it's officially known as - which chomps the snow in front of you and belches it out the little chute at the top. This chute, which is technically known as the 'chute', can be pivoted about its vertical axis and also can be angled to aim at passing small dogs. Or large dogs. Or moose.

We don't often get much in the way of wind, but the exception to this rule is whenever I take the snowblower out. Then, we get the whippy, swirly kind which changes direction every thirty seconds and blows whatever I've just sucked off the driveway back into my face.

I say 'into my face'; the effect is a little more dramatic than that. It's like having your own private blizzard - I am transformed instantly from easygoing, well-dressed man-about-town into an overweight, lumpy Yeti which swears a lot.

Once on the open driveway, however, the whole operation is smooth and straightforward. Well, that's a lie, too. The whole operation is like trying to stop a greased runaway mechanical bull with your teeth while someone throws freezing water over your head every fifteen seconds. While strapped to one of those vibrating slimming machines which were all the rage thirty years ago.

Essentially, the sequence is this: engage the chute. Disengage the chute, turn the chute so it isn't actually blowing in your face. Engage the chute. Engage the power. Disengage the power. Manhandle the thing so it's actually pointing at a piece of open ground. Retard the throttle a little more, but not so much that it – too late; it's stalled. Start again. When you get to the 'retard the throttle' bit, DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING. Engage power. Run behind the thing while it careers off trees and small cars. Eventually remember that the way to stop it is to just let go. Let go. Survey the damage. Try again., this time selecting a lower gear (it has more gears than my car, too). Proceed in a slightly more dignified manner to the end of the driveway. Turn round. Repeat.

If only it were that simple. To turn round, you use a steering system derived from World War 1 tanks - you apply the brakes to one wheel, and let it pivot gracefully over your foot. Once you have finished cursing, you eventually figure out that you are now blowing the snow not only over yourself, but also over the bit of driveway you just cleared. You stop everything, turn the chute to face the other way, engage one of the reverse gears, and run over both your feet.

Eventually, however, you do have what approximates to a cleared driveway. Apart, that is from the bits which were rutted and packed with uneven ice to begin with, and over which your expensive new toy has just kangarooed wildly - they pretty much look like they did before you started, except covered in a fine layer of newly-powdered snow.

And then you do it all again in a couple of hours, because it won't stop snowing.


Monday, June 04, 2007

Dear Friends 21

Written: April 15, 2007
Published: April 18, 2007

Dear Friends,

For the past few days I have been able to recall to a frightening degree of accuracy, exactly what we were doing on that same day last year. The time of our move is indelibly etched on my mind, which I suppose is not so surprising, but it has been very strange in recent days to be doing our normal daily routines while thinking about the chaos and confusion of a year ago.

A year ago, we had just landed in this strange country where, although everyone was very friendly, we couldn’t help feeling out of place. Now, we increasingly call it home. I have looked back at the letters I wrote a year ago, and I’m afraid I might have been misleading you a little. I generally sounded calm and in control, but my memories are somewhat different. Certainly the first two weeks were a little stressful: we’d arrived here with only the possessions we could carry, then in that short amount of time we bought a house and two cars (all of which, I’m pleased to say, turned out to be shrewd purchases) and enough belongings to ensure that we weren’t eating off the floorboards.

We never did eat off the floor, but our meals were taken sitting on plastic garden chairs around a cardboard box for several days, until we were introduced to the wonders of Garage Sales. We’ve missed the sales during the winter – they were a reliable and cheap way of turning someone else’s junk into things we couldn’t live without. One of our neighbours cheerfully sold us a kitchen table and chairs which are still in daily use (although I really must get round to repairing one of the chairs before Zoë does herself an injury); others sold us toys and games which kept the boys happy in the weeks before our belongings arrived.

But most of our shopping was done in a way which is probably causing local businesses to shake their heads and wonder why April sales figures are so far down on last year. In that first month, we bought two huge sofas, five beds, an entire kitchen’s worth of crockery and cutlery, several television sets, various other bits of electronic equipment and even started on the garden furniture. Needless to say, things have settled down a bit now, and we hardly ever go into furniture shops waving handfuls of cash around any more.

So this April is a little different from last April, but we are still experiencing some things for the second time – the soccer season is about to start, and I’ll be calling the unsuspecting parents of the boys I’ll be coaching soon; school is back, and this will be the boys’ second summer term here. The holidays will seem familiar – Victoria Day must be coming up soon, and there will be no more new ones to catch us out the way Valentine’s Day did. Life is routine again now, and while none of us would change what we’ve been through, I won’t pretend it’s not a relief to have mundane daily and weekly things to do again now.

If I look back, there are, of course, many things we would have done differently; some of them were unavoidable due to the time pressures we were under, others were just bad decisions we made because we hadn’t yet come to terms with our new lifestyle. But there are, on the whole, no regrets.

We have got used to most of the differences between our old lives and our new ones; the boys have made lots of new friends – as I write this, Conor is at a birthday party, and Cameron is out playing basketball – as have we; we drive around on the ‘wrong’ side of the road without a second thought; we generally do things the way the locals do, and it all seems to make some kind of sense.

There are, of course, some things we still haven’t adapted to – some pronunciations and vocabulary items still trip me up, even when I hear them every day, and – to our great surprise – much of the food still tastes different. Of course, as is well known, I will eat anything, but the rest of us still find the differences, even in branded products, odd and slightly unsettling.

But would we change anything? On the whole, I think not. Our lives have changed, and mostly for the better. We like living here, and we like the more relaxed pace of life. We enjoy the scenery – especially now that the snow’s almost all gone, and we can see it again. We spend a lot more time as a family now than we did in England, and that has to be a good thing. I have even had time to write, which was, for me at least, part of the deal.

The writing, however, will change now. It’s time for me to say farewell to my newspaper readers – at least for now – before I start to repeat myself and rant about the state of the roads again. It has been a remarkable and rewarding experience, being a newspaper columnist, and I’d like to thank the Citizen and its editor, Dave Paulson, for making it possible. We will, of course, stay in touch with our friends around the world as we go on, although probably not quite as frequently. And these letters will live on – they are available online, and now I can begin the process of seeing if I can expand them into book-length. Assuming I can find someone willing to publish them, and still more people willing to read them, that is.

Right at the start of this correspondence, I wrote about being in a comfort zone, and wanting to break out of it. Well, we did that, and I think it will be some time yet before we feel like we are in another one. But when we do – watch out!


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dear Friends 20

Written: March 18, 2007
Published: March 20, 2007

Dear Friends,

Just when you think you’ve got the hang of this whole ‘living in Canada’ thing, along comes Valentine’s Day to spoil the illusion. I thought I knew how Valentine’s works; I buy a card and possibly some other things for Zoë, and that’s it. I vaguely remember the exchange of hand-made cards at school – it was always a time of great embarrassment for the socially awkward teenager – but since about 1981, there has only been one other person involved in my Valentine’s Days.

So, imagine my surprise when, just after Christmas, I saw a box of pink and red cards on sale at the local hardware store (hardware stores are more than just hardware stores, but that’s a whole tangent I haven’t got space for right now) . I looked twice – who on earth would need a box of 32 Valentine’s cards? Two or three I could understand – presumably that would be the teenage ‘covering all the bases’ market, but 32?

I thought little more of it until I came to buy my own card this year. I browsed the card section at the drug store (see comment about hardware stores above), and was confronted with a bewildering array of pink love tokens. ‘To my brother on Valentine’s’ read one. There was an entire section for ‘grandparents to grandchildren’, and – you may be ahead of me here – another for ‘grandchildren to grandparents’. I’m sure I saw cards for step-parents and sisters-in-law. Try sending a Valentine to your sister-in-law in Britain, I thought – those cards would have to be stocked next to the ‘sorry about your divorce’ ones (no, I’m kidding about those; at least, I think I am).

Conor came home from school with a half-remembered plan about making a card for one girl in his class. We thought this seemed like an excellent idea – pair the children off, so no-one gets left out. Oddly, he came home with a list of the whole class, but he seemed relatively clear that he was to make a card for one girl. Cameron had no specific instructions, and we presumed that Grade 4s were above such things. Conor put some effort into his card, and we felt sure that the girl in question would be pleased.

That night, the boys came home with backpacks bulging. They tipped them out on to the kitchen table. It seems that the idea was for them to give cards (and possibly candy) to all the other children in the class; they each came home with upwards of 20 other cards – from boys as well as girls – as well as a vast array of chocolate hearts. I’m not sure exactly what the message of Valentine’s Day is here – be nice to each other, I suppose – but it’s not the same declaration of romantic love as the one I grew up with.

So to the parents of all the other children in the boys’ classes, I apologise – we didn’t know. It’s not that our boys don’t like your children; it’s just that no-one told us. And particularly to the parents of one girl who came home with a lovingly crafted card about three times the size of all the others – we didn’t know!

So that’s one more thing to chalk up to experience, and in the last few days I have encountered another. We made great sport last year of the fact that Zoë had two Mother’s Days – one before we left the UK and one about two months later here. The corollary to this did not occur to me until last week, when I went to buy a Mother’s Day card for my mother. There is, of course, no such thing – not yet, at any rate. The boys and I spent ages scouring the racks for something appropriate, and I’m not sure we quite got it right – but I‘m sure the thought will be appreciated. So when we do get our own Mother’s Day, I’ll make sure I buy one for next year. Of course, I’ll put it somewhere so secure that I’ll never be able to find it ten months later, but – as I say – it’s the thought which counts.

And even calling up to wish her a happy Mother’s Day is fraught with difficulty now. For the best part of a year, we have been mentally calculating the 8 hour time difference. I still have to think about it, but it’s not too far from automatic now. And then, because the US decided to start daylight saving 3 weeks early, we are now in a mixed zone – I think I’m pretty certain that the difference is 7 hours until the end of the month, and that it’ll be 9 hours at the end of October – unless I’ve got that backwards. In any event, whenever I call, I’ll have got it wrong, and it’ll be the middle of dinner. Or supper, or whatever that meal is called now.

There’s a long explanation of why Canada’s daylight saving is decided in Washington, DC, but I’ll spare you that.

So, here I sit – still being confused by unexpected things, even though I am, at time of writing, only 3 weeks away from our first anniversary. We arrived in Prince George on April 4th last year, and it feels like about three weeks have passed since then. I know that the year is almost up, because I’m getting renewal notices for car insurance, and house insurance, and all the other things we bough in those first few weeks, but it can’t be.

When we arrived, there was still a little snow on the ground – I don’t know if this lot will shift in three weeks, but there’s still a lot of it out there – this morning, we awoke to another few inches, which has at least covered up the old, grit-filled, stuff. Once it’s gone – or mostly gone, I think we’ll know our first year is up. How do we feel now?

Ask me next time.


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dear Friends 19

Written: February 11, 2006
Published: February 28, 2006

Dear Friends,

One of the things we were unable to bring with us from Britain was our credit rating. Having popped up in Canada unannounced, as it were, it seems that the local financial institutions regarded us with some degree of suspicion. The credit history which we had so carefully built up over twenty years of mostly responsible spending was of no use to us here, and we have had to start again from scratch.

Considering how much time and effort I actually put into organising banking before we arrived, I still have the nagging feeling that I didn’t quite do enough – I had read up on the whole issue of credit scores, but I felt sure that we’d be able to work something out, given that we had sold up and were arriving with a reasonably large pot of cash.

But I was sadly mistaken. Although our British bank is part of a global corporation with a branch here in Prince George, there seemed to be little or no link between them, and I ended up with the bank who were the most helpful when it came to moving our money offshore and then back onshore again.

For you cannot open a bank account in Canada from abroad. I imagine that this was possible not so long ago, but banks everywhere are understandably suspicious of people opening accounts in countries they don’t live in, and even as an existing customer with an offshore account – perhaps especially as an existing customer with an offshore account – I had to wait until we were actually here to get my own local bank account.

The process was relatively painless, although – as noted before – somewhat paper-heavy compared to what I had been used to; everyone I spoke to at my new bank was extremely helpful and forgiving of my stressed-out demeanour. The stress was mainly due to the protracted sale of our house in England – the money which we needed to pay for our new house only reached the new bank account a day or so before we needed it, with the ink barely dry on the new account forms.

So, once we had done the difficult part and paid for everything, we stopped worrying about the banking situation for a while. However, working without a credit limit, even when you have cash in hand, is almost impossible these days, and we found ourselves in the odd position of putting purchases on our UK credit card, then having to transfer money across the Atlantic, incurring various charges along the way, to pay for them.

At the same time, our UK bank decided that moving abroad put us in a special category of customer and we found that every third transaction or so was refused, because (as I was told) “they’re all in Canada.” Explaining that we lived in Canada now cut no ice with the automated systems which watch your transactions for irregularities – and living in another country seems to be particularly irregular.

The net result of all this was that we were using our new bank accounts rather more frequently than we had intended, and that brought us up against another feature of the Canadian banking system which took me by surprise – bank charges.

I remember bank charges in Britain – indeed, I’m sure it’s not so long ago that the concept of ‘free banking’ was introduced, but, as with so many things, it feels like ancient history now. Back in England almost every purchase was made by plastic of one kind or another and, aside from wondering if there were sufficient funds in the bank, I never paid any attention to how many times the card was used. Here, though, all the main banks still charge for every transaction on an account. I understand that it is possible to have an account where this does not happen, but it is unusual to say the least, and it has been a most unwelcome surprise.

Add to this the fact that salaries are paid in every two weeks, while payments may be taken out every calendar month, and you can understand why I am paying a lot more attention to managing our bank accounts than I ever did before. On top of all the practical problems, I am still, after all this time, mentally translating everything back into pounds and pence, although I’m still using the exchange rate from a year ago, so I have no idea if I’m rich or poor.

As you might imagine, the only way to get a credit rating is to incur some debt and pay it off. However, in the time-honoured tradition, the only way to incur debt is to have a credit rating. I was, somehow, able to obtain a loan to buy one of our cars in the first few days after we arrived, but I have no idea how this was done, since it seems to have no impact on anything else – the loan is with the same bank as our other accounts, but they won’t entertain the idea of a credit card for us – or, at least, they didn’t last time I checked.

We do, however, now have Canadian credit cards – we were introduced to a very helpful lady at another bank who helped us do the inevitable mountain of paperwork involved, and we now have a credit limit; it’s laughably small compared to the one we have been used to, but it works, and by carefully paying it off each month we will be building ourselves up a credit score at last. How long all this will take is anyone’s guess, but we are on the road now.

And all of this might sound critical, but it’s not meant to – it’s just different. Like so many things we’ve encountered over the past year, it’s the little things which make us feel different – bank charges or the flavour of baked beans, it all just keeps us on our toes.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Dear Friends 18

Written: January 10, 2007
Published: January 15, 2007

Dear Friends,

Like families the world over, I suspect, we have heaved a collective sigh of relief this week as routines re-established themselves, the boys went back to school, and we went back to work. The tree and the lights came down, the decorations were carefully packed away (and carefully stored in the one place we won’t remember to look next year) and we finished all the fattening snacks and drinks in the cupboards and promised ourselves that we would start eating a little more sensibly.

It had been our first Christmas on our own – just the four of us, plus the cats – for many years, and while we would all have liked to be able to spend some time with family, we also were glad to be able to relax and do things at our own pace, barely moving from the sofa if we felt like it on some days. It has, after all, been a busy year.

Most things about Christmas and the New Year were, of course, just as they are anywhere we have lived – we eat too much, the boys get spoiled by their auntie, and the toy they play with incessantly is the one you picked up at the last minute for next to nothing while the big expensive presents get pushed to one side. It was ever thus.

But there are differences, too. I am sure that I remember having a white Christmas or two when growing up, but never on this scale. We didn’t actually have a snowfall on Christmas Day, but there was more than enough of the white stuff lying on the ground to qualify. The boys are actually finding it quite hard to remember what the garden looked like in the summer, but it does set off the lights and decorations very nicely.

It also provided enough ground cover that we were able to go on a proper sleigh ride on Christmas Eve. For all I know, it is commonplace around here, but the sensation of being dragged over the snow behind two enormous horses while singing all the carols we could remember was quite magical. We spent the best part of an afternoon feeling like extras from Dr. Zhivago, gliding along through the forest. It certainly beat last-minute shopping for Christmas Eve excitement. The only things missing from the whole experience were mince pies – I can’t imagine doing something like this in Britain without a huge plate of freshly-baked (or at least freshly-bought) mince pies being on offer at the end.

Mince pies, however, are pretty much unknown here. Of course, maybe I was asking for the wrong thing – mincemeat would likely translate as ground beef, and that was not what I wanted at all, but I suspect that the idea of the humble mince pie somehow never quite made it over the Atlantic. We did find Christmas crackers, although nothing like the selection and variety we had been used to - I was surprised by that, since for some reason I had thought crackers were a universal feature of the Christmas table, but perhaps not.

In recent years, we have been marvelling at the lengths people have been going to in order to decorate their homes for Christmas. Let me tell you that the Brits know nothing about this art. Last Christmas I remember thinking that the whole phenomenon of lighting one’s house had got a little out of hand, but I now see that the English are a model of restraint in this matter. Last year, we had one long string of white lights along the front of the house, and that seemed plenty to me. This year, our house had four separate sets of lights, and we were seriously underdressed.

There were houses where every straight line on the front had lights strung along it, every tree and bush in the garden groaned under the weight of multicoloured lights, and there were motorised or inflatable displays in every other front yard. There is an entire neighbourhood which is renamed ‘Candy Cane Lane’ for the duration of the holidays, and nothing I can say here can do justice to the overwhelming effect of several whole streets where every available surface has been lit up, and you fear that if you stand still for too long, someone will connect you to the mains. It sounds like it would be too much, but it’s actually quite enchanting. The budget for lights for next year may have to be looked at.

Once we had survived Christmas, we studiously avoided Boxing Week. This is no different to the post-Christmas sales in Britain, but seems to be more concentrated, and is clearly developing a name all of its own. We felt, however, that we had spent quite enough on new things during the year, and stayed at home or went sliding. Well, the boys went sliding; we took pictures of them and felt old – certainly too old for hurtling down hills of ice on flimsy pieces of plastic.

We were invited to a New Year party – I tried calling it Hogmanay, but people just gave me odd looks – by friends of friends, and it kind of summed up the whole Canadian experience so far for us; people who barely knew us extending the hand of friendship, and a room full of people we mostly didn’t know, but none of the social awkwardness we might have been used to – we met people, made friends, and the boys saw in their first New Year, albeit an oddly time-delayed one, since the whole of North America appears to watch the party in Times Square, New York, which had happened three hours earlier by our clocks.

And then we could start looking forward to 2007. Whatever else happens, it is unlikely to be a year of as much upheaval as 2006. I hope that it brings you what you wish for.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dear Friends 17

Written: December 13 2006
Published: December 21 2006

Dear Friends,

So there we were, all smug because we had survived the worst that winter could throw at us. I went out and bought more snow shovels – it turns out that there is no such thing as too many snow shovels - and with the winter tyres on, we felt we were in control of the situation.

Winter tyres have, of course, been an important consideration. On the first real morning of snow, I stared out of my window in amazement at the traffic going past. No-one appeared to have been slowed down in any way by the fact that the road surface was now under a couple of inches of snow. I thought back to the last time it had snowed in London – my 25-minute journey home from work had taken upwards of 3 hours as everything ground to a halt. The same level of snow here might – and I emphasise might – cause one or two people to slow down a little until they got a feel for the conditions. Then it would be business as usual.

But winter wasn’t finished with us yet, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.

The first we knew of it was when we were advised to plug the cars in overnight, even in the garage. We haven’t gone over to electric vehicles – cars here have what are known as block heaters fitted as a matter of course. The outward sign of this is that, once it gets cold enough, most vehicles have a piece of electrical cable dangling from the front. This is then plugged in, whether at home or, if you have a thoughtful enough employer, at work.

Most houses here have several power sockets on the outside walls, which seems very useful – all sorts of things have been plugged into ours, from Christmas lights to the iron (I occasionally did my ironing on the deck in the heat of summer), but now we see the real reason for them. Most houses now have attractive bright orange power cables dangling from the front, so that the various vehicles can be plugged in.

We plugged in, and went to bed. In the morning, the thermometer on the kitchen window was showing 20 degrees below. We stood and stared at it for a while – I even took a picture of it. Then I went out to clear the driveway.

At first, that kind of temperature doesn’t seem so bad – you are well wrapped up, and it is, as promised, a dry kind of cold – I have honestly felt much colder in England when the temperature was above freezing. Then, as I stepped outside, something odd happened to the middle of my face. It took me a moment to identify it – the inside of my nose had frozen. I hadn’t done anything with it to provoke this – I just breathed in, as I generally do, but there was no mistaking it; I was freezing up from the inside.

It is, I can assure you, a most peculiar sensation. I had a scarf over my mouth, and that was soon encrusted with ice crystals, but to cover my nose as well seemed likely to overheat me. So I just accepted it, and got on with the clearing, which I had by now got down to a fine art. Yes, I was cold afterwards, but not excessively so – I reckoned, once again, that we were on top of this winter thing.

However, 20 degrees below is seriously cold – cold enough that the boys had several days in a row at school as ‘in’ days; no playing outside because of the temperature. I discovered why when waiting for them to come out of school that afternoon – as far as I could tell, the temperature had dropped slightly during the day, and was now nearer 25 below. Standing in the playground while my children went through the daily ritual of putting on layer after layer of protective clothing – it was now, finally, cold enough to persuade even them that they needed to wrap up – left me with a serious appreciation for just how cold it is when you are not doing any kind of activity.

And then it got even colder. I have a photograph of the thermometer showing -30, and that was about as warm as it got that particular day. And still it snowed, and still I cleared it, and still my nose froze.

Then it was over – the cold front passed, and we were back to normal – temperatures no lower than ten degrees below, and the children back to sliding around in the playground. But of course, winter wasn't finished with us (indeed, since it’s only December, it’s only just beginning). As the temperatures rose, the snow came back. Day after day of heavy, wet snow, and finally we began to see that even the locals who are used to it can find it hard. There wasn’t really enough of a break in the snowfall to allow for proper road clearing, and even downtown became a risky place to drive around. I now understand why so many intersections have signs on poles pointing to the stop line – under all that snow, there is no chance of seeing the lines on the road.

One day last week, the overnight fall was particularly heavy – I kept hearing people complaining about 17cm of wet snow – and I needed all the available time just to dig out a path so that Zoë could get to work. The crews out clearing the roads were doing their best, but driving around that day was a particular adventure. I went up to get the boys after school, but had to admit defeat after the car became beached – the thickness of the snow was enough that the underside of the car, rather than the wheels, was stuck in it. Once again, I’d like to acknowledge the various people who kept digging me out, and never once complained about this idiot foreigner.

And now? Well, we have been thawing – the pile of snow at the end of the drive was as tall as me last week; now it is only just big enough for the boys to hide behind. We’re not kidding ourselves that winter is over, but we’re a lot more confident that we can handle it. Just another 4 months or so to go, then.


Dear Friends 16

Written: December 13, 2006
Published: December 16, 2006

Dear Friends,

I should by now know better than to wish for things. ‘I’ll let you know what happens when it gets properly cold’ I said last time, thereby attracting the attention of Winter, which promptly let us have it with both barrels. Sorry, Prince George – it was my fault for wanting something to write about.

In recent years, we’re told, winter has waited until mid-December before starting to get serious. Not this year. As I mentioned before, we had the first proper snowfall before the end of October, and Halloween was spent trudging around the local streets in snow boots and warm coats. So I had some time to practice my snow clearing skills before it got more interesting.

Snow clearing is a serious activity here. The first time I realised that was when I was woken one morning by the sound of the neighbours scraping their driveways. The problem is that, even with a small amount of snowfall, if you drive over it you run the risk of packing the snow down and forming ice on the driveway. This in turn can lead to several hours of fruitless scraping later in the day as you try to break up the white stripes which have frozen to your otherwise pristine driveway. You can figure out for yourselves how I know this.

So, up with the lark, on with the snow gear, and out to the front line. The battle against the snow is mostly fought in the driveway, but you need to have the proper tools for the job. I quickly learned not to put on too many layers of snow gear, since this is an intensively aerobic activity, and being extremely hot and sweaty inside several layers of fleece is deeply unpleasant. I went to my local hardware store and bought myself a snow shovel – a long handle attached to a very broad blade, ideal for burning the snow off in minutes. Well, that’s what it said on the label. I, of course, overestimated its capacity, and promptly broke it. It will shift snow, but you really can’t expect it to stand up to the kind of vigorous abuse I subjected it to. The secret, it turns out, for shifting wet snow is to shift small amounts often, rather than one huge shovelful which you can’t even lift when you get to the end of the drive.

Here I must pay tribute to my neighbours. The first Saturday morning of properly thick snow brought us all out, and there was a real community spirit as we battled the elements with, in my case, a broken shovel. One of my neighbours, seeing my plight, brought his snow blower over, and made short work of the unshovelled portion of the driveway, something for which I am still extremely grateful.

A snow blower is a fearsome piece of machinery. It has the kind of engine you might find on smaller motorcycles, a set of revolving blades which would quite possibly demolish entire forests if let loose (although I don’t recommend trying it), and best of all, a great snow exhaust which blows the gathered snow over a wide area. Coming home in the evenings can be quite a spectacular sight, with all these fountains of snow gushing over the neighbourhood accompanied by the low rumble of two-stroke engines.

However tempting it may be, a snow blower is a serious investment, and I’m still in the denial stage – I don’t need one because I’m young and fit (I told you I was in denial), and I have enough time to clear snow during the day if needed.

But remember that this was in the early days of winter – I still didn’t really know what could happen. One Sunday afternoon, we were settling down to our usual routine of electronic diversions, peering out the windows at the snowstorm raging out there, and feeling glad that we weren’t out in it, when all the lights went out. Many of the power cables here are still carried above ground – presumably there are issues with putting them underground when that ground may be frozen solid for half of the year. So all it takes for power to go out is high wind, wet snow and trees with shallow roots, all of which we had in abundance that Sunday afternoon.

I freely admit that we were lucky – we are within walking distance of various amenities, and the outage was highly localised; being without power is more of an inconvenience than anything. Many more remote areas were significantly worse off than us – we could go into town for pizza, for example – yet it still felt like we were somehow at the mercy of the elements. We went out and bought more candles, we took our most highly perishable goods round to friends for safe keeping, and we went into our best approximation of survivalist mode. I called the power company, and was warned that we might be without power for a couple of days, so we all went to bed early and settled in for the long wait.

The power was, of course, back on in the morning, but we’re perhaps a little less blasé about winter as a result – especially since the heating didn’t come back on with everything else. Fortunately, we have gas fires as well as the furnace, so we were in no real danger of freezing up, but it was hugely embarrassing to have to call out an engineer only to find that one of the things we had switched off while the power was off – taking care that we didn’t overload anything when it came back on – was that odd switch at the top of the basement stairs. We had never found out what it was – it certainly didn’t seem to control anything, so we turned it off.

But it does control something – the furnace. Oh how we laughed. Eventually.

Having survived the power outage, we felt we were now able to handle anything the winter could throw at us.

Then it got cold…

To be continued