British Columbia

Springtime in Vancouver


Spring sneaks into Vancouver.  You’ve got your head down, and your shoulders hunched and your hood up, when you suddenly look up and realize that the sun is shining, and Spring has ARRIVED!

For the last few days I have been working downtown, and there is nothing more beautiful, in my experience, than Vancouver in Spring sunshine.  I catch the Skytrain through New Westminster, along the huge slow Fraser River, into the bustle of Metrotown and out again, beside the peaceful parks and cycle paths.  As we reach Vancouver, the sun glints off the glass towers, the new leaves and the waves out on the water.  I stare at the new Community Garden which has sprung up on an abandoned parking lot near Science World – raised beds which a month ago were barely filled with soil, now a patchwork of shades of green .  The grass and wildflower roof of the Convention Centre is dazzling and busy with the bees from the Centre’s own hives.  The snow on the mountains, which look so close on a clear day, is almost too bright to look at.

I find myself running late for meetings as I am distracted by all the new cleanness around me.  Buildings and signs and people I have ignored over the winter are suddenly too bright and interesting not to stop and watch.  This is a city where people take cherry blossom very seriously; so seriously that it is a weekend and evening pastime to go for a Japanese-style Cherry Blossom walk.

I return home and sit in my garden, chatting to neighbours we haven’t seen since October – everyone is suddenly obsessed with gardening, everyone is growing something, even if it is just a lawn, and we compare notes and growing tips.  A queue of hummingbirds at the feeders, surprisingly noisy as they get into fights; apparently queue-jumpers exist everywhere.  We cannot wait for the full summer to arrive!  Welcome to Spring!

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When Canada Sucks…

What will make today even better than yesterday?

I got a surprise this week when I went to track down a blog I was following.  I thought I had subscribed, and so should be getting updates, but then I realized The Budgie Spirit had been very quiet for a while, so I dived deep into the blogosphere to find her.

Turns out I’ve missed quite a bit.  After 4 turbulent months in our fair city, these new immigrants returned to England in 2011, and should by now be enjoying the benefits of great cheese, cheap wine and a new baby.  Their decision was hard to make, and Budgie’s writing is thoughtful and somewhat regretful.  What I particularly like (being very sensitive about my wonderful home) is the very positive way this couple left us and how happy they are “back home”, but a few of the comments about their struggles with Vancouver sounded very familiar.

Budgie talks about how hard it is to make friends in a new city.  They lived at the University of British Columbia (UBC), which is somewhat isolated, then in Kitsilano which is anything but isolated.  Although the speed of life in Vancouver is nothing compared to London, Paris or even Basingstoke, this is still a city, with city attitudes and busy people.  The only ones not busy are the panhandlers and crazies, and even some of them seem to have a packed schedule of mumbling, cussing and stumbling into the road.  We had the advantage of the Magical Introduction Makers, otherwise known as children – wherever we go, we will make friends through school, playdates, kids clubs and random people our kids attract on the beach.  Without them, we would not have moved to the complex we chose because of the large number of children living there, thus immediately making some great friends.  Without them, bless their hearts, I think we would have struggled in the same way.  Without children, try setting up some contacts before you come; expat websites like Internations, or friends of friends who might be willing to lend a supportive hand.

Another factor was the job market.  Mr Budgie (Ed) was let go from his job after only a few months, which was a devastating blow.  Emigrating is an expensive business, and when you need that job, it is no comfort to read on the ex-pat forums that it can take 6-9 months to get a paycheck.  Dim is job hunting again after his last company went under, and it’s a depressing business.  He’s been going to a few workshops and at one, they discussed the unionized environment.  Through my work in HR, he has heard enough about my opinions of Unions, but his co-searchers at the workshop were surprised that the existence of strong Unions is often the reason fresh blood can’t find a way into the company.  “But I thought Unions were supposed to help!” cried one confused jobseeker.  They are, but they help those who are currently employed, and that means a lot of internal promotion and moves, and few opportunities for those who don’t want to come in at the ground level.  The flipside of that particular coin is getting a job in a non-unionized company, and losing the stability because they can let you go too easily.  One of the statistics Dim learned was that 80% of positions are never even posted – they are filled through networking or internal moves, so make sure you make friends, join professional associations and follow up contacts.

And finally, Food.  The Budgie Spirit is written by a Frenchwoman, and if anyone appreciates good food, it is the French.  I really sympathized with her initial reaction to the Vancouver grocery scene – over-priced, over-packaged foods in silly over-large stores.  We also suffered when we realized that our new life would not include as much chicken, no orange squash, no decent cheese and no chocolate.  We couldn’t even drown our sorrows because the wine was so expensive, and why would it be expensive?  It’s made right here in BC!

Gradually we came to terms, found substitutes where we could and learned to live without where necessary.  We changed our shopping habits to find the best value and discovered many wonderful new foods and dishes.  When we returned to England last year, the younger children could not even remember orange squash.  It helped that we were not passionate foodies, in the same way that we are not passionate about pubs or football or soap operas, the other major ingredients for expat misery and homesickness.  I covered this in “What You Can’t Get”, and it’s worth considering what is really important to you before you even make the decision to emigrate.

This couple had the worst experience of emigrating, but in no way failed.  They discovered a lot of great things about Vancouver – free stuff on Craigslist, yoga, the great outdoors.  I am still convinced that a smooth emigration is 90% luck, and you can plan as much as you like, but if luck is not on your side, you may have to accept a long, hard struggle, or a short stay and a quick return.  Don’t go burning any bridges – you might find yourself heading back over them sooner than you might wish!

Grow, Dammit, Grow!

This is the first page of our Migration Book.   We wrote it together to keep track of our feelings and dreams about our adventure moving to Vancouver.  On one page it says… “I’m going to have a GARDEN again!!”  Nearly 20 years of moving every 2 years has meant that countless times I have cut beds, made compost, dug in fertilizer, planted out and moved just as the soil gets good and the vegetables ripen.  I was really looking forward to getting a place with enough garden to make something special, and having enough time to do it.

Of course, our dream house is blessed with an aspen tree on one side, nearly 80 feet tall with roots that run through the lawn, surfacing every few feet like cresting dolphins.  So, raised beds it is, then.  My sister explained that, although we are on a similar latitude and the climate feels the same, one can’t just plant the same varieties as in England.  She bought me a book, Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades by Steve Solomon, which I read.

What it doesn’t tell you, but your neighbours will, is that everything is so bloomin’ late.  We’ve had a rotten couple of years, but even so, my innate English gardening sense goes off in March – “Brrrrring!  Spring Is Here!  Lambs are born!  Daffodils are out!  Plant something!”  I just can’t help myself – I gather the seed packets, and start preparing the soil.  Then I wait for soil to warm up.  Maybe Easter….. or late April….. I can wait until May…. Mothers Day, 13th May, still too cold….. my brother in law doesn’t plant out until late May, I can wait….. Where the F*!@ did June come from?  And why is it still cold?

Spider babies on jasmine

Tangentially, children…

Sometimes I wander off the point a little.  My friends and colleagues are used to this, so you, dear reader, must get used to it also.  Today’s post is not about emigrating to Vancouver or the wonders of British Columbia but about parenting (the last time I did this was Eating the Elephant).

We like our children to at least attempt to be helpful.  I am a traditional parent who, when I see a pack of squabbling weasels, will find work for them.  I give out chores.  Yesterday Laurel, eldest weasel, was mooching about in a teenage way, while I was shifting a truckload of top soil into the vegetable garden.  “Laurel” I yelled “Can you bring me the seed potatoes which are sprouting on the windowsill?”  She did.  She took my seed potatoes, carefully sorted into groups by variety, piled them all into one container and brought them to me.  “Which ones are the Warba?” I asked “Huh?” she said.

Later I was marking out a circle for a new bed.  I asked her to make a string compass – peg, piece of string, hammer peg in ground, lay paving stones in circle marked by end of string.  She created her compass from a stretchy piece of fabric, and marked 2 lines on it.  One half of the bed was measured to one line, then she got bored and moved to the other side and used the other line.  It’s an interesting shape, but it’s not a circle. Huh.

In the evening, I asked her to make some cookies for lunch boxes.  “If you want to make triple chocolate ones, swap 2 tablespoons of flour for 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder” I suggested.  This evening, after dinner, she was nibbling at one.  “These are very solid and bitter,” she complained “must be all the cocoa powder.”  “How much did you put in?” I asked.  “I swapped the flour for cocoa, like you said.” “What?  ALL the flour?” “Duh, yeah. Like you said.” “I said 2 TABLESPOONS!” “Huh.”

Then she went off to practise a bit more slouching.  Huh.Image

In Defence Of Sushi…

Raw fish, anyone?

One of the things I find hardest to convince our UK guests is that Sushi is Great.  Every single one of them has politely (and occasionally not so politely) declined my invitation to pop into one of the numerous Japanese restaurants in the Vancouver area for a quick lunch.  Why?  Because sushi = raw fish = Yuk.  No matter how hard I plead, explain or beg, no one believes me that Japanese food is really so much more.  Then I saw a comment from an English friend on Facebook; “Tried sushi today. Tasted a bit like Marmite.”  I was amazed how defensive I was, and how quickly my husband leapt in to stop me making a comment back which I might have regretted.  So just for you, before you come to Vancouver, here is what I have learned about sushi in 2 years.

1.Vancouver has a reputation for some of the best sushi in the world.  Why wouldn’t we, with a huge variety of fresh fish leaping out of the sea and rivers onto our plates?  So if, like me when I arrived here, you are a sushi virgin, Vancouver is the place to learn.

2.  Find yourself a Sushi Instructor.  In Vancouver, this can be pretty much anyone – a colleague, a friend, a 3-year old child; they all eat it and they all know what is good.  I love going out for sushi, because I can try something new each time, and always have someone with me to explain what it is – “You’re ordering conger eel – you might like to reconsider…”

3. You can go out for sushi and not eat anything raw.  My first sushi instructor was a colleague at work, a tiny little German lady, who can put away more food in one sitting than I have ever seen.  She loves the All You Can Eat places, like Kisha Poppo or the lovely Ninkazu or Richmond Sushi, all in Richmond, and she knows how to order fast, order the right amount and order from the crazy tick sheets left at your table.  She also does not eat raw fish, and finds plenty on the menu to suit her.

4. It’s not all cold.  Chicken Teriaki, gyoza dumplings, miso soup, udon noodles, fresh tempura – all hot and all delicious.

5. Sushi itself is an art form in food.  Sushi involves sticky rice, pressed into a block, or used to roll around the central ingredient.  A piece may include nori (a sheet of seaweed), a variety of fillings (raw salmon, freshwater eel, avocado, cucumber, deep fried prawn, spicy sauce, chopped scallops, roe) either inside the roll or balanced on top.  It is presented beautifully, garnished with hot wasabi sauce and pickled ginger, drizzled with different dressings, on a beautiful plate.

It's so pretty...

6. This is no ordinary raw fish.  Sushi fish has to be the highest quality, usually frozen before use to kill parasites.  Don’t make the mistake one of my friends made, at a party after too much whisky when craving sushi – he and the other guests decided to make some from a bit of salmon he had in the freezer and the results were disastrous.

7.  It’s good for you!  Hallelujah! Fast, reasonable food which is actually good for you.  Some westernized rolls like California Roll or Philadelphia Roll contain mayo or cream cheese, but the majority of the menu is low fat, high in minerals, high in protein and makes you feel great.  Even the deep fried stuff like Tempura is fried in a light batter in very hot oil and drained well.

8. It’s reasonable.  Most All You Can Eat places charge between $12 and $15 for lunch.  My current favourite place offers a bento box (soup, chicken teriaki, rice, tempura, gomae spinach in satay sauce, gyoza dumplings) or a lunch special of soup, ebi sunomono (refreshing cold noodles with prawns) and a roll for $10.

9. There are enough rules to please the greatest foodie.  There are all kinds of rules of etiquette for eating sushi, and if you like, you stick to them.  Or you can do what everyone else does, and just eat it and enjoy the food.  No one will mind – this is Canada.

And finally, for my English friend, the bit that tastes like Marmite is the nori.  When you get here, look me up and ask me out for lunch;  I’m working towards credits for my Sushi Instructor qualification.

If you still don't want to eat sushi, how about knitting some?

By Jingo!

Last week we took my brother and his family to the Rodeo.  They were visiting from the UK and the Lynden Rodeo, at the end of the Northwest Washington State Fair just across the US border, is fabulous.  It’s not too big, not too glitzy, just a local event for those who appreciate a cold beer, a corn dog and some curly fries while watching grown men and women eating dirt.  You can even do a bit of shopping at the few stalls, and get yourself a rhinestone studded belt, a ten gallon hat and some light-up boots, plus a giant pair of longhorns to hang over your door.  The cowboys and cowgirls are on the circuit, competing around the US and Canada, and the standard of roping and riding is just breathtaking.  Not bad for $12 admission fee.

Anyway, the start of the competition is a parade of the flags of the sponsors, then the flags of the military services, then the flag of the Prisoners of War and Missing In Action.  We all stood and sang the national anthems of Canada and the US.  Now, here’s the point – I love the Canadian National Anthem.  It’s catchy, stirring, easy to sing and very rousing.  Canadians are not as jingoistic as their immediate neighbours and, as with everything Canadian, if you don’t want to sing it, you don’t have to.  But I love it, and the girls sing it regularly at school so we all joined in and belted it out.  As we finished, the guy in front of us (also Canadian) shouted “Yeah!  Let’s play hockey!” and turned to us for a high five.  I think I heard a sharp intake of breath from our guests, and maybe felt a little shudder – how awfully colonial and thoroughly unBritish.

From a new immigrant’s point of view, there is definately more patriotism in Canada than in the UK, and some may feel uncomfortable with that.  When we first arrived, we noticed how many people wore teeshirts, hoodies, hats and badges clearly displaying “Canada” or the flag or just the maple leaf, and it seemed a bit weird.  However, as new immigrants, we are also profoundly grateful to our new country for welcoming us with open arms and I think, in a city of immigrants, that goes for a lot of the residents.  It is refreshing to feel that it is not uncool to be proud of your country, but also nice that even long term Vancouverites were surprised by the outpouring of loyalty that the Olympics produced.  Bottom line?  It’s a great anthem, so enjoy singing it and let the cynics find their own path.

Here Be Whales!

Here be Whales!

Where did the summer holidays go?  We were looking forward to it so much – 10 weeks of lazy days and slow starts, picnics and barbeques and camping, and now it’s nearly over.  This was our third summer in Vancouver; our first year the older girls started school in April and finished in June, and neither Dim or I were working until late August so we had a blast.  The following year we joined the ranks of Happy Campers, booking the girls into a few activity camps, including their first residential.  This year, with both of us working Monday to Friday, we went a bit overboard, with the result that the girls are more tired than they were when they broke up; karate camp, riding camp, day camp, science camp, not to mention the cost.  I guess we’ll learn to balance it next year and give them a few days off.

One of the highlights for me was a whale watching trip from Steveston, Richmond.  Despite the rough start crossing the Gulf to the San Juan Islands (too rough to pour and drink a coffee – barbaric!), when we arrived at the Islands, the sea was like a millpond.  We joined the ranks of tourist boats watching a superpod of 40-50 orcas, fishing for Chinook salmon, and we watched for nearly an hour as they popped up, dived, played and fished.  We live in a truly fabulous place, and I have never felt so lucky.

We took the trip with Seabreeze Adventures who also do river trips looking for seals and sealions.