Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

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.