Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Dear Friends 8

Written: May 30 2006
Published: June 6 2006 (with a headline strap on the front page ("Dear Friends correspondent writes home"): I seem to be a selling point!)

Dear Friends,

We passed a test last weekend. Not the driving test, that’s still to come – the whole subject of driving here is being left until that particular trial has passed – but a test of what you might call residence; an indication of how we are settling in to life here..

Last weekend was a holiday weekend; I imagine that most, if not all, countries have at least one long weekend in May, and Canada’s excuse is Queen Victoria’s birthday. No, I don’t know why, but it seems to be a typically Canadian thing to do. People asked me if Britain celebrates it, and I had to confess that although we have two May holidays, they celebrate the beginning of May, and then, much later, the beginning of spring. Now I read it, that doesn’t really make much sense to me either. I have tried to explain the phenomenon of local holidays, but I’m getting tired of watching people’s eyes glaze over.

So, we had a long weekend, and we thought it was about time we got out and started to explore this country. We have almost completed all the major furniture purchases (although I’d better get on and buy a barbecue before the summer is over!), and the soccer season took a break for the holiday, so we were free to do what we wanted.

If I’m honest, we really needed a break, too. I think I sometimes give the impression in these letters that this has all been relatively plain sailing, and that we are just swimming serenely on, but of course, there are stresses and strains, and even though our new routine is only a few weeks old, we really needed a change from it.

So we decided to go to Jasper. Since we arrived, we have been tantalised by glimpses of the Rockies in the distance (or what we assumed were the Rockies; it’s remarkably difficult to get one’s bearings in a new geography), and Jasper is the place – we were told by many people – to get the authentic mountain experience. It’s not that far, our friends would tell us – just a short hop, really – and full of interesting and exciting things to do.

Here we come to one of the key differences between our two countries. A short hop in Canadian terms is equivalent to driving from our old house in the south of England to Carlisle – a journey which would take half a day, and use some of the busiest roads in Europe, passing several major cities on the way. Here, we set off early on Saturday morning, and once we were out of the environs of Prince George, did not pass another major (or even minor) road, never mind city, town or settlement, for over 2 hours.

Eventually, the town of McBride loomed into view through the rain. Yes, it was a long weekend; it rained, what did you expect? McBride is where things got really Canadian. For a start, all the sidewalks – and many other things - were painted blue, and to explain why would take longer than I have space for. Enough to say that it’s about hockey, and I’m only beginning to understand how deeply hockey lives in the Canadian psyche. We stopped at the railway station for a snack – the station has been converted into a kind of museum-cum-gift shop-cum-restaurant, although it still functions as a station as well – and wondered when we were going to see any mountains.

As we pressed on, we passed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, although what we saw was cloud and rain. Eventually, we made it over the Yellowhead Pass and down into Jasper.

This was our first experience of another province, and because all the license plates on the vehicles are different, and the town itself is kind of alpine-looking, and therefore quite different to Prince George, we felt for a while that we were in another country – it really was like being abroad. We parked, and explored, and the rain began to ease, and then we came to our big test.

Naturally, when people hear our accents, we become objects of curiosity (although in a nice way), and there are a regular set of questions we expect; first of which is always “So, where are you folks from?” Until now, this has led to lengthy discussions about the UK (no, not the Ukraine!) or Britain, or the difference between England and Scotland, and more often than not, the follow-up question “So, are you the guy who’s writing in the paper?”

However, we were in a shop in Jasper, we felt like we were on holiday, and when the question was asked this time, Zoë said “Prince George”.

And I realised it was true – we’ve been here since the beginning of April, when there was snow on the ground, and now the summer is almost here; the boys are about to finish their strange, disjointed, school year, and we do come from Prince George now We’re a long way from being natives, we’re even a long way from being entirely comfortable with simple things like the language differences (and remind me to write about that sometime), but it feels like we’ve passed stage 1 of our adventure; we’re here, and it doesn’t feel odd to say that we live here now.

The rest of the weekend was wonderful; Jasper is a great place, and the sun came out. We walked on a glacier (and fell into it); we got higher up a mountain than any of us has ever been before, and on the way home, we saw black bears grazing at the side of the road, which is kind of what we’d been hoping for.

We even saw Mount Robson without the cloud surrounding it: they have big mountains here.

Or should I say, we have big mountains here?


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Dear Friends 7

Written: 15 May, 2006
Published: 17 May, 2006

Note: this was published alongside a family photograph, with Zoë and I repeated in colour on the front page. The fame game just got more intense!

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to believe, but we have now been in our new house for a month. We’re still buying things for it, and working on it – this weekend, I finally installed the cat flap, so now the cats can come and go as they please: we’re expecting to be woken by one of them trying to drag a moose in through the door, but at least we can reclaim some of our laundry room, which has been the cats’ own territory since they arrived.

I know that I am a homeowner again, because I have chores to do – laundry, vacuuming, dusting and so on. It no longer feels like a holiday, it feels normal. Well, mostly normal; there are some things about living in the Canadian style which still feel unfamiliar to us, and there are some which we may never get used to.

For example, we have no fences around our property, and no sidewalk outside. Yet this is a normal, suburban street - we have neighbours at either side, there are all the normal utilities and so on, we don’t live in the wilderness. It’s just that some things are different. Having no sidewalk (I can’t call it pavement, because that refers to the road surface, and the road surface is a whole other topic I’ll get round to in another letter) means that we walk to and from school in the roadway, which in turn promotes more careful driving habits than we’re used to, and – I think – a greater appreciation for road safety than our children are used to.

Where we lived in England, we were used to sharing the narrow streets with fast-moving vehicles, and I was used to having to watch the boys every step as we walked to school, but here there seems to be a better balance. The layout of the streets means that the pedestrian has more expectation of priority, and seems generally to get priority – it’s a wonder to me that more Canadians aren’t killed while on holiday in Europe; just try stepping in front of a turning car on an intersection in London!

So, externally, the house looks different, and internally we have much more space than we are accustomed to. On our first visit to the house, the boys set off exploring while we chatted in the family room, and after a while, I thought I should go and look for them. The result felt like going for a walk inside my own house – several flights of stairs, seemingly endless corridors and any number of rooms which they could have got lost in. It’s not just that the rooms are generally bigger than we were used to; there are so many of them. We still have two entire rooms – which will eventually become our living and dining rooms – which we simply do not use yet. We don’t have furniture for them yet, and we don’t need to use them.

The chat in the family room was with the previous owner of our house. We have been extremely lucky with this purchase; not only did we buy from people who had themselves gone through the process of emigrating from England, and orienting themselves in this place, but we bought from people who have been unfailingly friendly and helpful, and that has made the whole process much easier than it could have been.

As most of you will know, the process of buying and selling property in England (and I exclude Scotland from this deliberately) has become increasingly adversarial. Our own sale, which should have been straightforward, turned into an agony of waiting, bargaining and threats sadly familiar to many people these days. We consider ourselves lucky to have escaped from the process with more or less the amount of money we had asked for, and only a week later than planned. The possibility that the sale could have fallen through less than a week before we flew out still gives me sleepless nights, and our situation was not unusual, or even particularly bad.

In contrast, from the first contact we had with them, Andrew and Janet, and their family, made us feel welcome, and that we were all on the same side. Even as I grew more and more nervous about the late arrival of the funds, they kept telling us not to worry, that it would all be resolved. And it was.

But I’m saving the best until last. I almost didn’t tell this tale, because I don’t think it’s a typical Canadian situation, but it’s too good a story to miss. Before we arrived, Andrew and Janet invited us to a party. Said party to be held in the house we were about to buy, the weekend before we were due to move in. We accepted somewhat bemusedly, and turned up on the Saturday night not entirely sure what to expect. What we got, of course, was the most perfect introduction to a new house that it is possible to imagine. We had the chance to see the house in use, as it were, not just as a kind of museum piece, which is how most houses for sale are presented, and we got the precious opportunity to meet all our new neighbours. I’m not sure if we were sizing them up, or if they were sizing us up, but it was a fantastic experience, and the perfect way to get to know people. I think I should start a campaign to have a ‘handover party’ included in every property sale.

Then I think of the English system – mixing a contentious sale, where either party could still pull out, with alcohol and loud music might not be the best idea I’ve ever had. But it worked for us; after we’d seen the house full of people enjoying themselves, how could it not?

So, thank you to Andrew and Janet (and best wishes in your new home) and although our transaction was not exactly typical, it somehow seems right in keeping with everything else we’ve experienced so far – surprising, fun and welcoming.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dear Friends 6

Written: 28 April 2006
Published: 3 May 2006

Dear Friends,

I’m writing this sitting at our new kitchen table. The boys are settled in the family room behind me, watching a ‘Star Wars’ DVD, and I’m able to look out the window at rain falling gently on our back garden – a garden which very quickly becomes woodland as it slopes away behind the house. It does feel good to be here now, although there is still some way to go before we will be able to call ourselves ‘settled’.

Our ‘new’ kitchen table is, in fact, one of the few things which we haven’t bought new. It was actually bought at a garage sale a few doors down our new street, and in a transaction somehow typical of the first few weeks here, it was bought from a teacher at the boys’ new school; a woman from Dundee. I had always assumed that there would be a British expat community here, and by extension, a Scottish one, but it has been truly remarkable how many Scots we’ve met in the first few days – our neighbour wasn’t even the first person from Dundee we’d met.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a small town where everyone knows each other, but sometimes it’s hard to shake off that feeling – it took us about two days before we started bumping into people we knew. Prince George is, in fact, a city of around 80,000 people, but it is also a community in a way that a similar sized British city would not be. I think that this is partly because it is remote from other large towns, and partly because there seems to be a natural sense of community here; as I have already mentioned, people are friendly and welcoming; this gives a clear sense of being part of something, even as newcomers.

This has been brought home to me most clearly by my brushes with fame – as you know, these letters are being published in the local newspaper, and not a day has yet gone by without someone asking me if I’m ‘that guy from the paper’. This is a curious sensation; for all the time I was in paid employment, however well I did my job, no-one ever stopped me to ask if it was really me. It is obviously gratifying to be recognised and complimented, but there’s more to it than that – it gives me a feeling that there is a real continuity in this city – not only is there a daily local paper, but there is a clear impression that most people read it, or are at least aware of what is in it, and therefore knows what is happening in their city, and having come from an environment where people seemed to be becoming more disconnected by the day, that is a welcoming prospect.

I’d like to tell you that we have spent most of our time since we arrived getting to know people and settling in, but the truth is that having arrived with a grand total of 6 suitcases to our names, we have mostly been shopping. I imagine that, taking the global economy into account, you’d expect me to say that shopping in one country is very much like shopping in any other, but there are certain observable differences, some of them very definitely Canadian.

I suppose the most obvious of them is that Canada is a bilingual country. This is not readily apparent in the middle of British Columbia – we are almost as far away from Québec as you are – but while you don’t hear French spoken on the streets, you do encounter it in the shops. Everything – and I do mean everything – is labelled in both languages, which does bring you up short if you are looking for baked beans, and all you can find is a row of ‘Fèves’. It’s probably too early to tell what the average Prince George shopper thinks of having everything in two languages, but as an outsider, it seems to me that this situation has an unusual impact.

Without the French language on everything, it would be extremely easy for manufacturers simply to view Canada as part of the US; to run Canadian operations from the same office and in the same way as those for Houston, Texas or Boston, Mass. Because there is a legal requirement to do things differently here, there is a subset of the global economic juggernaut which is uniquely Canadian, and it seems to me that it helps to foster a sense of Canadian identity. It may not be a universal point of pride that there are two languages on the shelves at Save-On-Foods, but it is a unique selling point.

There is another obvious difference to the Canadian supermarket experience. If your shopping list contains both cat food and beer, you will be visiting two retail outlets. There is no alcohol whatsoever for sale in the grocery stores (and they’re ‘stores’, not ‘shops’: shops are something else entirely). This takes a little getting used to for the Brit who is used to buying everything from malt whisky to car insurance at Tesco. It feels ridiculously inconvenient to me, of course, but judging by the shocked faces when I explain the British way of doing things, I wonder if there isn’t something to be said for it.

If you do want to buy beer, then, you’ll have to visit a liquor store. Now, I don’t know about you, but this expression conjures up all sorts of images for me. Or it used to – I braved one of these exotic sounding places, only to discover that it’s just an off-licence. A very big, government-operated off-licence, but that’s what it is. There are privately run operations, but they have to buy their alcohol at the price the government outlets sell it at. The fact that there are any profitable independent liquor stores gives me great faith in human nature.

I’m at the end of another letter home, and I haven’t even got to coupons, never mind the lack of online home shopping. And there’s so much more to tell you, as well. It’ll have to wait until next time.

Until then, keep well.