1000 days in Canada (1/2)

On June 17, 2021, it’s been exactly 1000 days since I immigrated from Germany to Canada. Only three more months, until I’d be eligible for citizenship, and enough time to have a first look back and reflect on what’s different about living in Canada vs. living in Germany. First of all: no regrets! Living and working abroad has been an adventure so far, with all its ups and downs, experiences most of which I wouldn’t want to miss. To put everything into perspective, I’ll break down my very personal view into some aspects of personal life in this first of two parts of this article:

Culture, mindset, and language

Climate, weather, and nature

Transportation and infrastructure

And in part two of this blog post, I’ll cover the following: Cost of living, public facilities, services, and events, health and food.

*Disclaimer: I’m writing this from a perspective of someone living in Ottawa; people living at the coast or in the Midwest or far up north may see everything a bit differently.

Culture, mindset, and language

Sorry, I’m friendly

Let’s talk culture first. Canadians are known for their open-minded and always friendly attitude. Something that Germans may need a bit more of, you might think. And it’s true, people say “sorry” for literally anything, there’s plenty of friendly small talk going on between strangers, and before the world was covered in masks you could see more humans actually smile at you than you would back in Germany. Getting along with each other is easy.

At times, though, this comes at a cost. It almost feels like that Canadians (some, at least) passively-aggressively find their pressure release on the road, driving their cars. They don’t honk, or shout at your, but somehow when driving in Canada I feel more uncomfortable than in Europe or in the U.S. Everybody’s ignoring the speed limits, passing on all sides, tailgating.

Sometimes, as a German, you also wish for someone who just collectively complains about things with you. At work for example, it can almost feel healing when you can complain with colleagues about weird processes and regulations. Canadians don’t even seem to complain about the weather. Many don’t like the long and cold winter, for example, but they hardly complain about it. (And here we go, as a German I can even complain about other people not complaining).

Parlez-vous French?

Canada is officially bilingual – English and French. And while in the province of Quebec it’s almost impossible to get along with English only, it is impossible to ignore French anywhere in the country; especially here in Ottawa. Everything is communicated in both languages: road signs, grocery packaging, governmental websites, info sheets, official letters, public transportation announcements, and even the Prime Minister is giving his speeches in English and in French. Potentially a great way to work on your language skills. But other than that, it seems almost ridiculous from a foreigner’s perspective, and at times can be very annoying – when you’re calling a hotline, for example, and every single menu item is being read in two languages…

How far is one kilogram of Fahrenheit per gallon?

Ok, this would drive any European crazy. Including Brits. Units of measures in Canada are just all over the place and the mess makes it worse than how it’s done in the U.S. (where they at least consistently use one system). Canadians use both, the metric (officially) AND the imperial (historically) system, depending on context. They also use both, Celsius AND Fahrenheit to measure temperature. Again, depending on context. Some examples:

If you’re in the kitchen, use Fahrenheit (oven, fridge). If you’re outside, use Celsius (air temperature). Oh, but if you’re happen to measure a pool’s temperature (outside or inside), go for Fahrenheit again.

If you’re measuring large distances, use the metric system (street signs), unless it’s a train, then use miles. If you’re measuring small distances and areas, go for imperial (body heights, living space areas). Oh, but if you’re measuring a large distance in running, you need to know that a Marathon is 26 miles and 385 yards.

For masses and volumes, I haven’t found any logic yet, and it can get very confusing. Label prices of vegetables and fruits, for examples, are displayed in dollars/pound. When you compare prices on your receipt after purchase, it’s suddenly dollars/kilogram. Some products come in odd sizes because it’s weighted in one system but labeled in another (i.e., a standard piece of butter is 454 grams). Raw meat is measured in pounds, deli meat in grams. I buy milk by the liter, but baking receipts then suddenly go for cups.

From Reddit: A rough flowchart on how Canadians measure things

Climate, weather, and nature

Ottawa is a great place to live if you love the extremes of a continental climate. Very cold winters, very hot summers, and plenty of sunshine. That basically sums it up. Winters can be rather long, with a bit of snow starting end of October before really kicking in January, and in 2019 we still had strong snowstorms until the end of April. This year is my first with an actual spring; in 2019 and 2020, summer kicked right in after winter was over, around the end of May. Between June and August, it can easily get as hot as 35ºC or above, and Fall is just the most beautiful season of them all with Canada’s famous Fall Colors when all those maple trees turn into all shades of yellow, red, and pink. Once in a while there’s a Tornado coming around, or a flooding, or extreme snow masses.

I am generally quite adaptable (but I also generally don’t like Winter all too much), so the hot summer and beautiful fall partly make up for that long and snowy season. Just not enough, so it is about time to try out a different climate zone soon – luckily, Canada has a lot of them!

There’s a fifth season here, too – bug season! As much as Canadians love their provincial and national parks, as much the bugs try to prevent them from enjoying. Mosquitoes and black flies can be crazily annoying and turn up in masses between late May and August. And if bug spray doesn’t work, you can actually buy bug jackets including head and face covers…

Canada’s famous for its large spaces and huge variations in climates, landscapes, national parks, mountains, coasts lines. You can visit the Grizzlies in Yukon, or the polar bears up in the Northern Territories, climb the Rockies, endlessly cycle the prairies, be amazed by Niagara Falls, sail two different oceans or the Great Lakes. Most of which I haven’t done yet during those first 1000 days, so there are many reasons to stay and hopefully start exploring a bit more soon.

Transportation: About distances, road conditions and huge cars

The country’s transportation system along with all its infrastructure and people’s habits may be one of the biggest differences between Canada and Germany. Owning a car is much more common (and often necessary) in a country where everything is spread out over a much larger distance. Public local transport is poor at best, expensive, too, and I’m not sure if that’s the cause or result of the high number of cars in private use.

Big cars, cheap gas, bad roads

Even within the city limits you’ll see quite a lot of big cars and pickup trucks. It’s not uncommon for Canadians to own a cottage somewhere outside the city, which may require cars with a certain loading or off-road capacity. Especially in the suburbs there’s enough space to park big cars, and gas prices are comparably low. When driving around Ottawa in my old VW Golf I sometimes also wish for bigger tires and better suspension, given the poor road conditions. After more than two years you kind of get used to it, but many of the potholes you come across even on the main streets would most likely cause a storm of lawsuits against the city if it was in Germany… so again the question is: are bad road conditions the cause or the result of so many big trucks driving around? A main factor is definitely the harsh climate. During winter, tons and tons of salt are applied to keep the roads ice-free, and every night the water will freeze and break up the asphalt.

Buses and trains

A public transport monthly pass in Ottawa is about the same price as it would be in Berlin. Only what you get is a bit different: no subway, no metro, no tram. Just a network of loud and dirty diesel buses, which is unreliable, unpunctual, inefficient, and slow. Public transport also is one of the few things, even Ottawans themselves rant about (public transport and the government). During my first winter it happened more often than not that I’d have to wait 45 minutes or more for a bus that was supposed to come ever 15 minutes.

Over the past years, Ottawa spent millions of dollars investing into a local train system. Eventually this will improve public transport but will still be very limited. Believe it or not: If you want to go to Ottawa International Airport from downtown, you will have to transfer at least once, and it’ll take you at least twice the time than going by car.

Canada has a bit of a national train system, too – which is actually a pretty convenient way to travel from Ottawa to Montreal, or Toronto, or Quebec City, or even all the way west to Vancouver if you want (and have 2 days of time for the trip). Those national trains may be not the fastest, but pricing here is reasonable, the comfort pretty good, and the boarding experience quite different from what I know I was used to in Germany: you’ll have to buy your ticket in advance and then have to wait inside the train station until the train arrived and passengers have exited; only then, everyone will be guided to the platform and board the train. Very much like boarding an airplane.

Traveling by air

Speaking of domestic air travel: a ticket across Canada in many cases is more expensive than a ticket to the Caribbean and sometimes even more expensive than travelling to Europe. Just as it is with internet costs and car insurance – some  things in Canada are just astonishingly expensive.

An interesting remark about transportation in Canada – some of the cities and communities way up north cannot be reached by ground transportation at all. You actually have to fly there, if you want to get there…

The second part will cover topics like cost of living, public facilities and events, health and food.

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