Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dear Friends 15

Written: November 12, 2006
Published: November 15, 2006

Dear Friends,

Someone asked me last week what I thought was the biggest single difference I’ve noticed between my old life and my new one. I talked briefly about living in a country so large that there are parts of it four and a half hours ahead of us, which is strange indeed, but probably not the biggest single difference.

Since than, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no one single thing which is the biggest difference; the change we have experienced is really the combination of a thousand small differences. But it is the small differences which you notice; the things which affect your everyday life.

For example, I was in the supermarket this morning doing our weekly shop. In itself, that is a difference, since we were used to the convenience – you could say luxury – of doing the weekly grocery shopping online. I’m not aware of any Canadian stores who offer online groceries, but even if there are, I can’t see how it could be made economically viable in a community as isolated as this. But that in itself is not such a big difference – it was still a normal thing for us to go to the supermarket for food; we just didn’t have to do it every week.

But there is a difference in the shopping experience. Whole categories of food are either missing or so different as to still cause disorientation even after all this time. Imagine the ‘biscuit and cake’ aisle in a British supermarket. Now take all the cake out, and replace most of the biscuits with cookies. You see my problem; even now, I still cannot understand why there is so much tomato juice, and why almost all of it appears to be flavoured with clam.

So, despite the fact that I have been doing this trip every week since we arrived, I can still be disoriented enough to walk off with someone else’s trolley, as I somehow managed to do this morning, if I can’t find what I want where I expect it to be.

And that ‘trolley’? It’s probably a ‘buggy’ or a ‘cart’ – I haven’t yet sorted that one out.

I still haven’t got used to the idea that my mail (and my daily newspaper) is delivered into a box on the front wall of the house. Mailboxes at the end of the driveway are not uncommon, either, but I’ve yet to encounter (although I’m told they exist) a British-style mail slot, so that the mail is delivered both dry and inside the house.

And there are no Sunday papers – at least not out here; I’m sure there are in the big cities. This means that Sunday can be freed up for all manner of other interesting things – like doing the grocery shopping.

There is a definite difference in the shape of the working day, as well, although since I am not in full time work, I find it hard to pin this down. There certainly is no ‘rush hour’ as most of you would understand it; I hear locals complaining about traffic in the morning, but it just causes me to laugh – at worst, you might have to wait for two cycles of the traffic lights on Highway 97 in the morning. The working day seems to start early, and finish early – I know for a fact that the school day does, since I have to collect the boys at 2.31 each day, which used to be just after lunch for me, and often still is if I have been busy, although I see people going to lunch at 11.30 in the morning, so I’m clearly out of step with the Canadian day.

No, I don’t know why it’s 2.31 and not 2.30, although there’s no good reason why the school day has to end on a round number.

The garbage is collected on a ‘moveable feast’ system, which is actually rather efficient – the collection day moves forward by one day every time there’s a public holiday (which there is every month save February, which is presumably already short enough). This means that you have to keep an eye on the calendar – I think we’re about to move to Wednesdays, but I should check that – but is strikes me as perfectly sensible once you get used to it. Certainly, in England having the collection every Thursday was no guarantee that I’d remember about it, so keeping it moving keeps me thinking about it, which is no bad thing.

Despite all these minor domestic differences, there is one big thing which is preoccupying us right now. Winter has arrived, and while I know I will have more to say on this subject, I can observe the differences as I can see them now.

I haven’t seen the grass on the lawn since the last week of October. The snow came quite suddenly, and when I asked around, the popular opinion seemed to be that it could well be here until April. This has come as something of a shock to us all – in the last three years, I think we may have had an average of one day’s snow per year. Certainly the cats aren’t at all pleased with it, and keep giving us accusing looks. Little do they know that this is just the start…

Apparently, we have had snow earlier this year than for some years, which at least meant that we weren’t the only ones scrambling to have winter tyres fitted after the first snowfall.

But apparently, it isn’t cold yet. It has been down to about ten degrees below, but that’s not cold, so I’m told. I think, in the end, the cold may be the biggest difference. We’ll see.

I’ll let you know how winter progresses, as long as I am not frozen to my keyboard.


Dear Friends 14

Written: October 15, 2006
Published: October 17, 2006

Dear Friends,

All of a sudden it’s October. The days are noticeably shorter, and we have several times had to dig the boys out from under huge piles of leaves in the front garden. The whole worrying concept of Halloween is looming large now, and I’m really not sure where we’re going to come up with all the candy we’re supposed to need to hand out to the several hundred costumed children we’re expecting to be knocking our door down. I’ve rather cunningly booked the boys in for a dental appointment that afternoon; perhaps they’ll be on a candy ban!

The other indicator that October is here is that sport has suddenly become a much more serious topic of conversation. And, since we’re in Canada, by ‘sport’ I mean ‘Hockey’ (I’m pretty sure it has a capital ‘H’). Just to be clear, this is the terrifyingly fast sport played on ice, not the one I used to play on muddy fields with a ball seemingly carved out of granite. We like to think that Britain is football (or ‘soccer’) mad, but we know nothing when it comes to being fanatical about a sport. Everyone is hockey crazy – even the ones who don’t like it know all about it.

I’m afraid to say that we haven’t really got the hockey bug yet; from the action we’ve seen on TV, all I know for sure is that it’s so fast, you can’t really see the puck at the crucial moments. My Canadian acquaintances tell me I need a bigger TV, but it seems somewhat extravagant to spend all that money just to see if we can follow hockey a bit better. I suspect that, like anything, we need to see it in the flesh first.

I did this with Canadian football when I was in Vancouver in August; up until then, I had struggled to understand the differences between the football played south of the border (which I was at least familiar with) and the local version, but an evening spent watching the BC Lions quickly got me up to speed, and I have to say I really like the CFL version of the game; it seems faster and more enjoyable – I’ve even caught myself watching games on a Friday night from time to time, trying to explain the finer points to the boys, when I’m not entirely sure I understand them myself.

Baseball, on the other hand, I was already a fan of, and I’ve needed very little excuse to tune in over the summer – given the number of time zones involved, there’s pretty much always a game on somewhere, and it can be quite hypnotic. It’s also nice to watch a sport where I don’t have a favourite team, and can just enjoy it for what it is.

But, contrary to what you might expect, soccer has been our main sport since we arrived. We decided long before we moved that getting the boys involved in teams would be an excellent way of helping them settle, and a good way of making friends outside the school environment.

On top of which, I decided that I should try my hand at coaching, which turned out to be an even better idea, if a little all-consuming at times. During the season, we had two games on a Saturday (one watching, one coaching), one on Monday evening, one on Tuesday evening, and a practice session on Thursday evening. Tiring it may have been at times, but great fun as well – the boys in ‘my’ team (actually, there were two of us coaching, but they still felt like ‘my’ boys) were all full of enthusiasm and willing to learn, even if they did do their best to confuse me with all their hockey terminology, and I’m happy to say that my worries after our first game, a 4-1 defeat, were unfounded, and we won as many as we lost through the season. In fact, one Monday evening in September, with the floodlights on and the temperature dropping, Marty, my co-coach, and I urged our boys on as they twice came back from a goal behind to eventually win 3-2. I can honestly say that it was one of the best sporting evenings of my life.

The youth soccer setup here is extremely impressive, with a thriving organisation overseeing somewhere in the region of 2,800 players, all on one huge facility. It was easy to believe on game days that all the players were on the field at once, as I looked around: soccer players in all directions as far as the eye could see.

But you can’t play soccer during the winters we have here, and in any case, it’s Hockey season, so everything else is put to one side. All through the town, kids are practising in portable nets in their driveways, and breaking out last year’s skates to see if they still fit. Our boys are signed up for skating lessons (and I guess we’ll have to learn, too), and they have their eyes on some extremely expensive-looking equipment – let’s see if they can stand up on their skates first, though.

And I have promised to take them down to see a game – just as soon as we can find a gap in our increasingly hectic social schedule. The hockey teams here in Prince George are not, of course, playing at the highest level (and it is strange, for those of us used to the soccer way of doing things, to realise that there is no way that they ever could), but the dedication and devotion to hockey here is such that a game here will draw a big crowd, and the atmosphere should be every bit as good.

And once we’ve done that, we’ll be another step further along the road to being Canadian. And perhaps by the time I’m coaching soccer next year, I’ll understand some of the strange things my players talk about.