Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dear Friends 5

Written: 8 April 2006
Published: 20 April 2006

Dear Friends,

Well, we’re here. I’m afraid the idea of doing one of these in transit was never likely to take off; there really was too much going on at any given moment. Indeed, this is the first chance I have had to sit down and think about what we’ve done since we arrived in Canada, and it is – of course – early in the morning, and I’m unable to sleep. That much, at least, hasn’t changed.

I think the first thing to say is that the weather is not at all what we expected, and not what we had packed for. It has been uniformly sunny and warm since we reached Prince George, and there is really very little snow left on the ground, at least in the city. What snow there is looks grimy and frozen, but at least we have proof that we will have some serious snow next winter. Having said that, the locals have been complaining that winters have been ‘mild’: rarely getting below -20, and hardly worth the effort of getting the skis out. I’m sure it will feel plenty cold enough for us, though.

So, what are the first impressions of Canada? Having been here before, there are certain things we knew to expect, but even so, it can take you by surprise. For example, I have been regularly coming back into Britain over the past 18 months from various European airports, and even as a native with a valid passport, I generally have felt myself to be under the suspicion of the surly immigration officials; they don’t acknowledge you, they try to stare you down, and the most you might get is a mumbled ‘thank you’ as they look for the next victim. We arrived at Vancouver airport on Monday evening, it was around 2am by our body clocks and we had two tired children in tow. In addition, we were not simply arriving, showing passports and moving on; we had forms to present and documents to collect.

The welcome we got was friendly, warm and interested. We were looked after and helped, both at the passport desk, and at the immigration desk. The process was somewhat long-winded, with four of us to process, but was completed in a way which made us feel welcome, and made us feel that we were in an entirely new country, one where they do things in a more civilised way.

The most obvious difference between Canada and the UK is that everyone you meet is pleased to see you, and interested in you. It takes some time to understand that your waiter showing you to your table in the restaurant or the clerk at the car hire desk is initiating a conversation by asking how you are, not just reading the bit in the script where it says ‘be polite to your customer’. I am finding it difficult to overcome that Brit reticence, and not just mumble ‘OK’ while staring into the middle distance. I’ll get there, but it is a bit of a culture shock.

Our first few days here have felt uneasily like being on holiday – I think partly because the last time we were here, we were on holiday, and partly because any change in routine will have that effect. To offset this, we have been making sure that we do some practical things each day – registering ourselves for Social Insurance, visiting the boys’ new school, buying some practical items we will need for when we move in.
Because we are not yet in our own new home, this activity is interspersed with more eating out than we would normally do, and more driving around looking at things. This just adds to the holiday atmosphere, however, and we all feel that we need to be in a place we can call our own as soon as practical. Like it or not, routine is what we really need right now.

At the moment, we are living in the basement of our friends’ house. This will, I am sure, conjure up some odd pictures for those back home, but here comes another of those cultural differences. Over here, basements tend to be part of the living space – indeed, the rooms we’re sleeping, playing and working in at the moment are easily as comfortable as the equivalent rooms in our old home. And because Prince George is hilly (I’d go so far as to say steep in places), basements need not necessarily be underground, so you need not worry; we have not become a family of cave-dwellers!

The reference above to our former home is something I typed with some relief. After what has seemed like months of struggle, we have at last shaken off the last of our UK encumbrances, namely the mortgage; sold our house to a very nice family, who will, we’re sure, be as happy in it as we were, and therefore freed up the required funds to buy all the things we need in Canada. Like a house, and a car or two.

The house purchase should be completed in the next week, and all manner of things will become easier then, once I have an address to call my own – quite apart from anything else, I can never remember the address of the house we are lodging in, and this has made several transaction appear somewhat strange; I can feel people suppressing the desire to ask me why I don’t know where I live.

It has only been a few days, but already I have a number of stories to tell; of supermarkets and used car salesmen; of banks and solicitors; of schools and houses, and not least, of being stopped and asked if I’m the guy who is writing in the paper. But the stories of my fame will have to wait for the next letter; it’s still a busy time for us all, and I’m sure there are things I should be doing instead of writing to you.

Thanks to all who have sent good wishes, I’d like to assure you that we’re doing well and enjoying this part of our new lives. Still, it will be nice when it settles down a bit.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Dear Friends 4

Written: March 21 2006
Published: April ? 2006

Dear Friends,

There are all manner of clichés in my head about the passage of time at the moment. These letters have not been quite as frequent as I imagined they would be, nor have they been as much on the carefully planned topics as I thought they would be. Still, I’m writing them, so I’m getting something right.

As I type, the dawn chorus is chirping merrily outside the window behind me. It’s around 5 in the morning, and no civilised hour for doing this kind of thing. However, the truth is that with only a few days to go now, the realities have hit, and we’re both waking early, minds racing. Is it the amount of detail still to be covered which is waking us, or is it the mixture of fear and excitement at the prospect of what we are about to do? A little of both, I suspect, but however I look at it, this is not the ideal preparation for living in the Pacific time zone. In two weeks time, if our sleep patterns remain the same, we will be crashing out in the early afternoon, and waking mid-evening. Neither of us had planned on working night shifts, so this may turn out to be a little inconvenient.

With any luck, this will cause us to reach Vancouver still awake, and then sleep for 12 hours, starting the process of resetting our body clocks at the same time. Certainly, the final leg of the journey, a one-hour hop to Prince George, which we will do the day after we arrive in Canada, will go better if we’re a little more rested.

Prince George, then, is but an hour’s flight from Vancouver. This will, I hope, act as encouragement for those of you planning to visit us in the future. Those of you not planning to visit us will have all kinds of psychological pressure applied to you over the coming weeks and months until you crack, and we turn into a one-family tourist drive for the Northern Interior.

I hope that the simple fact of the flight time will put the geography in context for you. As I have been explaining to people over the last few months where we are going, I have almost universally been met with the response “Oh, Vancouver is lovely!” Well, yes, it is. However, it’s analogous to moving to northern Scotland, and continually being told how lovely London is. Although we will be an hour from one of the world’s great cities, we’ll be in a city of our own, a full day’s drive away.

I promised you an impression of Prince George in one of my previous letters, but never quite got round to it. I’ll do my best now, but be prepared for all my opinions to change once we’ve been there for some time.

If you research PG (as everyone seems to abbreviate it), the most common words you will encounter are ‘pulp’ and ‘mill’. This has the effect of setting up some particular preconceptions, which I think need to be tempered a little. If you research my home town, Aberdeen, you will keep turning up the expression ‘oil industry’, but there is a lot more to Aberdeen than oil, and there is a lot more to Prince George than wood.

Which is not to downplay the number of trees, because there are a lot of trees around the city. And as you drive towards it, the number of logging trucks on the road increases until it comes as something of a surprise to see any other kind of commercial vehicle. And yet, so much of the city’s needs must be served by road; I wonder if my impression is influenced by what I know of the place? Certainly, there are yards full of timber (or is it lumber? I will need to get the terminology straight), just as there are yards full of drilling equipment in Aberdeen. And then there is the other 90% of the city, which is not preoccupied with trees.

My immediate impression of the place, driving into it from the south, was that this is a working town. As with many places around the world, the outer edges of the main roads are filled with industry. It’s logical and inevitable, but it can colour one’s first impressions. However, as you descend into the centre (and you have no option but to descend; the city is often described as being in a ‘bowl’, and there really is no better word for it), things become more suburban, then more urban.

To the European eye, the surprise, I suppose, is the newness of everything. Yes, we have our shopping malls and modern houses, but the only things here which were not built in the 20th century were built in the 21st. And there’s an almost indefinable ‘North American’ feel to it – this is hard to explain, but given that by the arrangement of the roads, you couldn’t be in the UK, you equally couldn’t be anywhere in Europe, either. It’s just different.

As you drive around, you see the unfamiliar – hotel names, schools, shops – alongside the familiar; global brands which exist in every town in Europe as well as here. And you see things, like yellow school buses, which are iconic and familiar but only through film and television; there’s a strange sense of being at home somewhere although it’s all different.

The traffic is very North American, too. Slow-moving to those of us who have spent time driving in Italy recently, and big. Despite my preconceptions, there are plenty of what we would recognise as family saloons around, but there are also very many larger vehicles – SUVs, minivans, pickups, and other unfamiliar types – which are also family vehicles. We know about winter in these parts, but there really isn’t the sense that everyone drives huge off-road vehicles with studded tyres. Mind you, we were there in September; perhaps it’s all different in January.

The one thing I know for sure is that these impressions are all about to change. However, it’s useful to have a benchmark to come back to in a few months, when all will be familiar, and photographs from ‘home’ will begin to seem exotic and strange.

That’s it for preamble, friends. The next time you hear from me, we’ll be either in transit or in situ. In spite of the stress, we’re really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Dear Friends 3

Written: March 2006
Published: April 4 2006

Dear friends,

Another day, another airport lounge, it seems at the moment. I think it’s an effort by my current employer to squeeze the last few ounces out of their pound of flesh, but, in truth, I don’t mind – the daily routine is beginning to drag a little now, with so much else going on, and I’m happy to break it up and at the same time – allowing for the normal delays involved in these things – tie up some important things before I leave. I’m trying not to think of it as my legacy, but there are certainly things which would be better resolved by me than left for whoever comes along behind me.

It has been cold these last few days, and it has got me thinking about the change we’re about to make. Every time I look at the weather for Prince George (it’s early March at this writing), the temperature reading has a minus sign in front of it, and while it’s part of the thrill of this – experiencing new extremes – it’s also something of a worry; will we really cope if a temperature of 3 or 4 degrees allied to a stiff wind has us huddled round the fire?

Everyone we talk to about it tells us confidently that people dress for it there; they know what to expect, and how to deal with it, and I’m sure that’s true, but I was standing in the drive loading boxes into Zoë’s car on Saturday morning – another round of goods and chattels being sold off to the highest bidder – and I was cold. Properly cold, and I’d have said I was dressed for it. Still, it’s also (by all accounts we’ve heard) a different kind of cold, not informed by the damp air inevitable, given that we live on an island. Only time will tell.

We’ve also been talking to some British expats in Prince George, who make the same noises. This is a particularly exciting development, because in the space of a week, we have gone from despairing that we’ll ever find a rental property to live in while we hunt for a home to having an offer accepted to buy a property which fits our requirements exactly; a house which we’ll be able to move into less than two weeks after we get to P.G. If it sounds unlikely to you, imagine how it feels to us.

When we were over in September, we spent some time driving around the town looking at neighbourhoods (I think I’m supposed to call them subdivisions, but this distinction is on the list of things I need to learn), and we identified one in particular we liked. It has a good school, which is key (and is recommended by our friends whose children went there), it has all the necessary conveniences and it’s exactly the kind of place we’d imagined when we first had this idea of heading for a new life. As we drove round, Zoë took notes, and afterwards we identified one street out of all the ones we had been in which would be the ideal.

No houses ever came up for sale on this street, however, and we kept considering other options. In the end, there are plenty of good places to live, and we would have been happy in any number of them. We were also in no particular hurry; the proper thing to do is surely to get out there and then buy something – you can’t do this online.

Except, of course, you can. Our friend alerted us to a house being sold privately on the very street we most liked; we investigated, pondered, tried to find the catch. In spite of the fact that it has been one of the drivers behind this whole move, I still cannot accept that we will sell our house here, pay off our not insubstantial mortgage, buy a new house which is significantly bigger, furnish it, buy all the electronic devices a house full of boys could possibly want, buy two cars, and still be wondering how to invest the remainder.

There was no catch. We offered, negotiated, and were accepted. We’ve never set foot in the place (although I’m sure we’ve driven past it), but we’re about to become its owners. Strange doesn’t begin to cover it. Now, of course, the deal is not yet done – Canada appears to work in the civilised way which the Scots among you will recognise, where a handshake will seal the deal; we haven’t yet developed a method for shaking hands electronically. But a lot of the pressure we were feeling has gone. There will be a two week period where we will be effectively homeless, and we can’t sleep in friends basements for all that time, so this has to be addressed, but the biggest single issue has been resolved.

Now the real planning starts. We’ve been amateurs so far, making general plans about things, doing the urgent ones, getting by on the reserves of time we still feel we have. Now, it’s not so flexible. We have only a couple more weekends in this country; we have a long list of things which have to be done, and we now have a calendar with detailed actions for each of us itemized by day. We still have cars to sell, things to pack, cats to transport, friends to say goodbye to, utilities to wind up, and several dozen others, some of which have probably not even occurred to us yet.

It’s busy, and it’s going to get busier. And one day it will be over, and we will be living a sedate suburban life in an entirely different country.

Except, how can sedate and suburban be enough any more? I get the feeling our lives are about to expand. I don’t know if all things are possible, but more things certainly are.