After months of preparing to emigrate from the UK – dealing with government agencies and companies who reacted as if no one had ever left before – we finally made it to Canada.
The trouble is, I spent so long dealing with the escape part of the plan that I arrived on the glittering Vancouver shore completely unprepared for the inevitable Canadian culture shock.
After a couple of weeks and a steep learning curve, here are my impressions so far.
- Everyone here seems chilled out. Immigration officers smile, welcome you to their country and apologize for the obscene queues. When you take three hours to get through immigration, the airport staff simply leaves your bags next to the carousel for you to collect at your leisure. No gruff border guards. No clichéd suspicion of international terrorism. Huge sigh of relief.
- When Canadians ask how you are, they seem to really mean it. Since I arrived, I’ve seen a government receptionist disappointed that someone wasn’t having a super day and been confronted with posters in a bank checking I was “extremely satisfied” with their services. One Canadian acquaintance told me she sometimes felt the pressure to appear positive about everything. But we both agreed it might not be such a bad thing – being encouraged to look on the bright side and feel good about life is probably a self-fulfilling tactic.
- British Columbia is The Best Place On Earth. I know this because it is the official tag line of the provincial government. Quite a claim. Since they don’t seem to be bragging about it on the international stage, more on local government signs and paperwork, it surely has to qualify as more self-imposed positivity. Although when you’re playing beach volleyball as the sun sets or strolling to your office a few blocks away instead of sitting on the grubby Tube, it is tempting to feel like life is pretty damn good.
Be Safe, Be Kind, Be Fair – rules scribbled on the blackboard of an indoor hockey club.
- Despite this, there are a lot of panhandlers – beggars – in Downtown Van. They don’t always seem to have the most legit reasons for asking. “Travelling and out of money” and “Bet you look at this sign” didn’t really convince me. A lot of reasons are given for the prevalence of panhandling – the high cost of living, drug addiction, closure of mental health facilities – but I agree with my Canadian acquaintances that it is disturbing to see people left behind in a country which prides itself on its universal health care system and its willingness to care for its neediest citizens.
- I can’t comment on any drug addiction or mental health issues, but one thing I can confirm is the high cost of living. First off, there are the many, many taxes applied to everything, chief among them the Harmonized Sales Tax. The HST is seemingly applied to everything, from restaurant bills to phone calls. Then there’s the price of food. The cost of my first supermarket shop was a shock, despite having chosen the Super Valu store in the hope of some cheap deals. From its shabby appearance and in-store post-it note pricing, I thought I couldn’t go wrong. But it was not to be. In the bread aisle, a normal whole-wheat loaf cost almost $5 (£3.15). Cereal boxes averaged $7 (£4.50) and juice cartons were around $4 (£2.50). At this rate, it’s going to be a lean year. And it’s not just food. Alcohol is expensive too. It’s cheapest in the government-run BC Liquor Stores – but by cheap, I mean $26 (£17) for a 12 pack of Heineken. Plus tax. Plus recycling deposit.
And finally, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Those in need of cheap food and alcohol could try a jar of Vodka Pasta Sauce. It’s available everywhere and is considered a completely normal accompaniment to your penne. Really.
I have so much to learn…