Tuesday, 21 September 2010

About Your Vote

Just a short post from me this week and a bit of a respite for you, the reader, from my expat travels through Canada (note to Australian followers, I'll get down-under soon).

Normal service to resume next week.

In the meantime, an interesting thing happened to me the other day when collecting my mail. I received a letter from my home council in the UK informing me that I was now eligible to vote in the General Election - an election that had occurred back in May!

Although pleased at finally having managed to get myself on to the UK electoral roll after seven years of failed attempts whilst living outside of England, I was slightly amused that I was officially eligible to vote albeit three months too late.  I was also informed that I'd have to re-register as an overseas voter in advance of any future election outside of the next 12 months - in other words, go through the whole process again (assuming the current state of political affairs doesn't produce more electioneering fun very soon).

On the flipside, my Australian citizenship came into effect several weeks ago with the result that I was able to vote in the Aussie federal election.  In fact, I wasn't just able to vote but was compelled to do so by law - another first for this expat!

All very interesting, I'm sure, but I suppose the moral of this story is that it doesn't hurt to be proactive in keeping your records are up-to-date in your country of origin - and well in advance of any upcoming events of consequence.  That way you won't join me in succumbing to mindless bureaucratic delays and a reliance on the system maintaining your 'leave of absence', which will surely fail.  And all this from a bureaucrat himself.

If you're a fellow British expat, it would do you no harm to become familiar and in tune with this website - About My Vote - and, who knows, you might even get a say in the upcoming referendum on reforming the whole bloody system.

As the website proudly declares:
Yorkshire puddings, pubs, and having a good debate over a decent cup of tea with an old friend are just a few things you may miss while you’re overseas. But living abroad doesn’t stop you having your say back home…
As long as you don't register two months before the election, that is.

Back to those Canadian adventures next week...

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Monday, 13 September 2010

A Winter Wonderland or I'm that cold, I just lost two toes!

Ottawa is pretty easy on the eye. It's a nice enough place to look at, with historic Parliament Hill in the background, the downtown core to the fore with its functional office spaces, trendy market squares, friendly pubs and outdoor eating areas, a modern and tidy shopping mall, and numerous three-hundred year old government buildings dotting the cityscape. It is bordered by the Ottawa River to the north, while the historic Rideau River and Rideau Canal meander south through the city. Directly across the Ottawa River lies the City of Gatineau and the picturesque Outaouais region in the Province of Qu├ębec. In short, Ottawa is cutesy, it is manageable, and it is Canada's national capital.

As 2004 drew to a close and not long after our cross-Canada trek from Vancouver, we were looking forward to our first white Christmas in the city, eager to experience those wintry snow-filled scenes from American yuletide movies.  We had arrived to grey skies and relatively cool winds but no snow had appeared and we had witnessed none of the desperate, depressive scenes that the Vancouverites out west had led us to believe was life in Ottawa over winter.
I celebrated my 30th, walking arm in arm with my future wife through Byward Market. Whilst this city was no Vancouver with quite literally no mountains, we still convinced ourselves that we'd made the right decision in moving here to allow me to pursue a full-time career with the Canadian Government.

Winter on the Rideau Canal
A few days later, the snow arrived.  Infinite pale fluffy snowflakes blanketed the city for the following week, dramatically changing the view to create a picture perfect postcard.  Our dogs adored this new environment, making endless snow angels in the growing mounds of dry powder before chasing each other around their newfound home.

Then the cold hit, followed by the freezing rain.

Absolutely  f r e e z i n g
I can honestly say that I have never encountered anything quite so extreme as the drop in temperature that occurred towards the end of that December.  Overnight, local temps plummeted from a balmy 5 degrees Celsius to a frigid -15.  And this was just the beginning of a true Ottawa winter, with the temperature ultimately heading south to a dramatic -35 degrees Celsius. The wind chill factor would force this temperature down further to an Arctic -45 degrees. In fact, the bluer and more serene the sky, the colder Ottawa got. This city was for the hardcore and we were way out of our depth.

Extreme dogwalking
Extreme dogwalking
Walking the dogs in this environment was an interesting experience to say the least.  With the words of my uncle dismissing our plan to move to Ottawa reverberating around my head, I would buckle up my boots (which I practically lived in) with their metal spike attachments to ensure that I wouldn't slide about too much on the ice. The ice was rampant as a result of the freezing rain and thawing snow. The freezing rain would fall when the temperature warmed up slightly but came down as a thick slushy goo that would quite literally stick and freeze to everything it touched. The mid-day thaws would melt any snow but, by nightfall, only ice would remain. The result was a virtual ice rink from door to door.

Two dogs and too much frozen snow
Those gentle snowy fields and idyllic whitened streets of our dreams were a sham. The reality was a hardened icy crust that could prove lethal to a dogwalker being pulled by his two canine companions.  When it got truly cold, my eyelashes would freeze and not even my five layers of clothing could keep me warm.  Walking the dogs at 6am in the dark required a mental strength that was, more often than not, difficult to muster. My saving grace was a collective group of dog walkers that would meet in the local park after work and huddle together to keep warm in the cold. Smiles were given and banter was made as each man and woman struggled to banish the demons that demanded a speedy return to the warmth of their respective homes.

Car park turns into ice rink overnight
Getting to work
The morning commute to work was in itself a major challenge. I'd purchased snow boots that zipped over my work shoes and my daily uniform consisted of a long battered overcoat, trouser protectors, thick mittens, a sturdy neck gaiter and/or scarf, and warm woollen touque - plus the necessary thermal underwear. I witnessed people mountain biking to work in the iciest of months, I saw cars frequently skidding out on the roads, and I joined patient 'locals' in their early morning sub-zero wait for the bus at the side of what remained of the road. Cars would be left running and vacant for a good thirty minutes before the drive to the office to warm up the vehicle and the famous ice-covered Rideau Canal was always busy with Ottawans skating to work on their daily commute. Yet I never heard one Ottawa local complain.

Our backyard
Life in the cold north
Ottawans are a hardy people, let there be no doubt about that. The two (yes, only two) winters we endured in that unbelievably chilly part of the world confirmed that you have to be born of something special to enjoy life like this. Our neighbours built outdoor ice rinks in their gardens and they snow-shoed and skiied in -25 degree weather. They wrapped their trees and shrubs up in cloth to protect them from the harshest winter months only to unwrap them late in May when the last of the snows had passed. Winter simply went on and on.  Whilst daffodils showed their faces in England in January, we spread blue salt around our house in the hope that a thaw would soon come allowing us to chip away at the thick ice covering our paths and driveways.

A seriously filthy car
I have two memorable experiences from that time. The first was watching a queue of more than 15 trucks follow two snow clearing machines around the streets of Ottawa.  One machine would slice the top off the growing snowbank at the side of the road, whilst the second would scoop up the resultant debris and spray the contents into the back of a truck immediately at its rear. Once full, the truck would break off and head to a destination in the city where it would dump its load that would likely sit there for the remainder of the winter in a rapidly growing pile.

A common sight
My second memory is of a close friend from Australia visiting us during our first Christmas. A keen smoker, he would brave the cold during visits to bars, malls and shops, and proceed to puff away on his cigarette of choice.  Two minutes later - and two minutes closer to frostbite - he would bitterly toss a large part of the cigarette away, unable to cope with the cold.  The still burning cigarette would be scooped up by a grateful homeless person who would sit back and see out the 'smoke'.  This would happen time and time again, highlighting the difference between us 'softer' folk from those warmer climes and the tough, enduring folk from this ridiculously cold land.  In winter, I despised Ottawa for its frozen heart and unforgiving nature but I never stopped admiring its people for their positivity and good nature in what was, for us, certainly no winter wonderland.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Crossing Canada

Ask most Canadians if they've ever driven across their own country and a large number will reply in the negative.  It is such a vast place that the majority of Canucks will have only ever lived in one province and possibly holidayed in one other. When we left Vancouver in November 2004, we could have opted to take the plane to Ontario, thrown the dogs into air cargo, and walked out of Ottawa International Airport less than four hours later.  But us being us, we decided the only option was take the Trans Canada Highway headed due east.
Murph and Mook on the back seat

Our Ford Explorer was packed full of essentials, including the obligatory travel snacks, warm winter clothing, additional bedding materials and, of course, our world-travelling dogs.  We somehow found space to squeeze two fully grown labrador retrievers onto the back seat.  But only just.  Picture a small cave-like cavity created beneath duvets and suitcases, add two obedient mutts, force the back doors shut, and we're away.  Easy really. Well not quite.
First, we had to plan a route that would avoid heading too far north on the Canadian roads. It was the end of November and heavy snowfalls were known to hit the areas along our flightpath as early as September.  We had heard stories of the bizarre chinook phenomenon striking Calgary, where strong winds would bring snow and ice, dramatically dropping the local temperatures from a balmy 25 degrees to a frigid -10 in a matter of minutes.  I'd only ever driven cars of the small variety, such as Ford Fiestas and Rover MGs, so the idea of navigating our car over snow and ice as we traversed the mountain passes of British Columbia and Alberta made me uneasy to say the least.

We also had to book dog-friendly accommodation for the duration of the trip.  The idea of dog-friendly hotels was, in our eyes as pet owners, a revelation. You might not end up with the finest room in town but it sure saved our bacon on umpteen occasions as we rocked up to a town or city and hoped beyond hope that a particular hotel would welcome our pups.  More often than not, we got a positive response.

-8 degrees and getting colder
With the accommodation set and the route ahead planned, we took to the road and farewelled Vancouver.  With 18 months of fond memories and good living behind us, we got on our way to Ottawa following the dream of a perfect job. Vancouver and its temperate climate, given its proximity to the mountains and the ocean, would become a distant memory whilst on the other side of those mountains was the real Canada - freezing winters complete with deep, deep snow. We were driving to one of the coldest cities in Canada (Ottawa has the fourth coldest temperature recorded in a capital city after Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Astana, Kazakhstan; and Moscow, Russia) and a mix of excitement and nervousness was kicking in.

Our journey took us seven days in total, encompassing five provinces and numerous towns and cities, and went something like this:

    On the road to Kamloops
  • Day 1 (Vancouver to Kamloops) - We headed north-east via Chilliwack into the British Columbia interior and the direction of Kamloops, approximately 3-4 hours away. Driving over mountain passes and through isolated communities, we soaked up the adventurous nature and spirit of this road trip. After spending the night at a local B&B, we woke to a breakfast of thick and heavy French toast the next day. Decided never to eat French toast again. Milo somehow managed to tread on a sharp object resulting in a heavily bandaged paw. This would prove to be a constant hindrance on our journey east.
Milo's broken paw

Sarah and the pups in Jasper
  • Day 2 (Kamloops to Jasper) - We continued in a north-easterly direction, passing out of a quite mountainous region of British Columbia into the province of Alberta and on to the community of Jasper. This is one of the most scenic areas in Western Canada and felt utterly remote.  We were in the midst of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and right in the heart of grizzly bear country. We saw elks and moose lumbering around the town and its surrounds in the late evening whilst walking the dogs.  We would have preferred to spend more time in this region but a tight schedule meant an early start the next morning.
The Canadian Rockies

    A frozen Lake Louise
  • Day 3 (Jasper to Swift Current) - One of our longer days and the route took us directly south along the Icefields Parkway. Surely one of the top ten drives in the world, we motored past frigid glaciers, ice-cold raging rivers, and dense forests reaching as far as the eye could see. We took in tourist 'greats' including Lake Louise and the resort town of Banff. We eventually exited the Rockies and said our final farewells to Canada's western mountain ranges, driving through Calgary and on to Swift Current, a place with no obvious river and certainly no swift current. We stayed at a travel lodge, froze our butts off in the poorly heated motel room, and had our first experience of plugging the Explorer into an electric socket in the wall of the hotel (to allegedly keep the car from freezing).
The Icefields Parkway

    Dinner at Swift Current
  • Day 4 (Swift Current to Winnipeg) - A tedious, monotonous drive consisting of flat open spaces with really not much to see.  Welcome to the Canadian Plains. We were both missing the mountains at this point and wondering if this is the real Canada and, if so, whether it's not too late to turn back. We have seen an increasing number of indigenous people in the remote communities we pass through. The ocean has become a distant memory. The final destination for the day was the city of Winnipeg, set in the province of Manitoba.  This is province number three and is a random city of a million or more souls located in the dead centre of Canada.  What is also quite random is the disproportionate number of beautiful people here.  We were told it was something to do with the large amount of East Europeans migrating to this part of the world in the last century bringing their beautiful genes with them.  This explanation is decidedly 'iffy'.
    Life on the Canadian Plains

    Those crazy truckers
  • Day 5 (Winnipeg to Thunder Bay) - A testy day's driving on a frequently icy road. Unsure how the car and I would handle the conditions. It felt like the vehicle could leave the road at any given moment as the surface was covered in blowing snow interspersed with numerous slick patches. There always seemed to be a high volume of crazy truckers careening down this highway and, after a brief stint at the wheel, my 'better half' hands back the driving responsibilities to me, pleased to be freed of this onerous burden. We left Manitoba, entered Ontario, and it felt like we were almost home.  However, Ontario is a vast place and the reality is that it takes us two more days of driving to reach our final destination.

    Interesting driving conditions
  • Day 6 (Thunder Bay to Sudbury) - We have driven through a multitude of towns and places in the past week with bizarre names such as Minniwanka, Regina (queue the obligatory vagina jokes), Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat and Wa-Wa. Dinner was spent in Thunder Bay situated on the edge of one of the Great Lakes of Canada, Lake Superior. The terrain had changed and was increasingly rocky with immense forests of fir, often dappled with lakes and rivers. Although still quite flat, this area felt very Canadian. We spent the night at Sudbury, arguably one of the ugliest cities in Canada and hopefully not typical of the general area.  Accordingly, we got going as early as possible in the morning.

    Parliament Hill, Ottawa
  • Day 7 (Sudbury to Ottawa) - The last day of driving on this epic trip and we were on our way to Ottawa.  The countryside was surprisingly plain but we remained upbeat at the prospect of our new life in the national capital.  That said, niggling doubts continued to dominate our minds. Our conversations were characterised by positive talk of our new home and negativity towards Vancouver and the life we had given up. Looking back, it was the only way to deal with the reality of such a radical move. Reached Ottawa in the late afternoon and drove along the Queensway (the principal highway through the city), getting our first glimpses of the city.  We had officially arrived and part two of our adventure was about to begin.

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