Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Vive la différence!

Surprising and not-so-surprising differences between life in the UK & Canada

On the whole, life in Canada is pretty similar to life in the UK. That was possibly the biggest surprise. Nonetheless, after our first month here we've noticed various things which are definitely different from what we were used to back home - some have a big effect and some are just minor differences which you may find interesting. So without further ado, here are 10 things that I've found different living in Canada.

1. Groceries and Food

I always thought that with the combination of American mass-market economics and the French food-loving influence, that it would be easy to buy groceries affordably and cheaply here. It was a big surprise to find out that the price of groceries here is somewhat extortionate! For example, a pack of 3 peppers (capsicums) (which works out cheaper than buying them loose) is $4.99 (just under £3) meaning they are about £1 each - twice the price they are in the UK. And cheese is horrendously expensive, varying between $20-$40 a kilogram (£11-£22) meaning a 250g block of cheese similar to those you might buy at home for under £2 will set you back more like £4 here. And that's for basic cheddar. If you want some nice French cheeses it's a lot more.
Another thing that's disappointing is the quality of the food, the fruit and veg is often tired and doesn't keep more than a couple of days. Carrots, Potatoes and Onions I've noticed in particular seem to keep an age at home, but here they are spoiled within a week. It is possible to find some foods cheaper here - and it is cheaper when you eat out, especially quick snacks and fast food. But it seems if you want to eat well and cook nice meals, you have to pay through the nose for it.

I am not sure why groceries cost so much more here, perhaps it's because everything is covered in ice in the winter so food has to be imported from the US (although Canada's agriculture sector seems healthy). Or maybe it's not that it's expensive here, but that EU food subsidies make it cheaper in the UK. Or maybe it's just the effects of the downturn.

Another surprise about the food here is the lack of a "Canadian" cuisine as such. People say, what is the food like in Canada, sadly the answer is, like everywhere else. You can go to a French restaurant and have French food or a steakhouse or diner and have more typically North American food - or you can have any other world cuisine - Thai, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Sushi/Japanese, Irish/English pub food, it's all here (although I haven't seen a fish and chip shop yet!)

But apart from a love of maple syrup (they even put it in baked beans!) and a few novelty things like Poutine (chips, cheese curd and gravy - a dish which seems more like it's from Yorkshire than Quebec!) there doesn't seem to be a Canadian style of food or any Canadian restaurants, which is a disappointment.

2. Apartments and Rent

Some things are cheaper, some are more expensive, and the good news is, rent and utilities are much cheaper here! We were amazed when we looked at lots of apartments around Montréal just how much space you can get for your money.

We saw huge 2 or 3 bedroom apartments with massive lounges and hallways, even balconies, for under £800. Our apartment is bigger than the ground floor of our house back home, yet it's only $690 (£387) including bills (electricity or "hydro" as it's called here, gas, and heating - water is paid from local taxes) ! Admittedly it's a less desirable area but considering we are in a city bigger than London (in size although not population) you would expect to pay a lot more. Interestingly, we have some friends here from the Dominican Republic who were finding the houses here are really small - so I guess everything is relative!

I suppose we will just have to get used to a different breakdown with our outgoings - more on food but less on the house!

The construction of the houses is different here too. Many houses are wood with a brick frontage - meaning we have been kept awake by noisy neighbours through the paperthin walls on more than one occasion. "Concrete construction" is a selling point specifically mentioned in property ads! Also, hardwood floors, not carpets, are the norm.

Another difference is apartment buildings here. If ours is typical, they all have a live-in janitor who clears the path, takes the bins out, does maintenance, collects rent and other matters. Ours is a Russian guy called Yuri. They also have a laundry room which means no need to buy a washer and dryer for every apartment. Although there can be some competition at the weekend. It's a good idea though - that I have not seen in England. Having a janitor is handy too and it means that there's always someone there if you have a problem.

3. Living with snow and ice

The scale of the snow and ice in the winter here was a big surprise. I knew there'd be a lot of snow but I didn't picture 10 foot piles of snow by roadsides, or sheet ice across pavements(sidewalks) and people still walking on them as normal. I didn't expect the massive industrial scale snow haulage operation with snowploughs pushing it to piles at the sides then machines that suck up snow and drive it away in trucks and dump it. And I certainly didn't expect to see what I saw the other day - a man clearing the snow off his lawn with an axe! The thing is that snow stays around here for a long time. So the bits underneath get frozen solid into blocks of ice. Most of the surface snow has melted now as we approach the spring - but there are many lawns still covered with compacted ice. It seems if you want to shift snow, you have to do it while it's fresh! It's amazing how quickly you get used to it though - a matter of days for us.

The most impressive thing about all this snow though is that life goes on. The "20 year snowfall" that brought the UK to a standstill in February was nothing compared to weekly snowfalls in winter here. People dig their cars out and clear their drives (if they're not already covered with special "Tempo" driveway covers) and go about their business as normal. I don't imagine that "snowed in" is a phrase that gets used here, although - given some of the photos I found online, like this one to the left, maybe it does. Well, I don't think it gets used much in the city anyway!

4. The Banking System

Another thing that surprised me is how different the banking system is. The photo on the right shows my Canadian HSBC card on top and my UK HSBC card below (with some details blurred out). You can see that the Canadian cards don't even have your name on, are not part of any international card networks such as Maestro or Cirrus, do not have chips and do not function as cheque guarantee cards. There is a Canadian equivalent of Switch called Interac, but it is not well known or understood - you often have to say that you'd like to pay with "debit card" rather than Interac. And there's no chip and PIN. There is swipe and PIN - although it's a bit random, sometimes you get asked to sign instead.

We found it easy enough to set up a bank account, but found that in Canada you have to pay for a bank account - around $12 a month! We've resorted to having just one account instead of individual accounts and a bank account. And if we want a cheque book, we have to pay $28! So far, we've resisted on principle. Although it does mean we have to withdraw our rent as cash (over 2 days since it crosses our $400 daily limit). Oh, and withdrawing cash is fun too. If we don't use HSBC, Bank of Montreal or National Bank ATMs, we get charged $1.50 for the withdrawal.. from both our bank and the ATM's bank! They should abolish these charges like we did in the UK a few years back.

We had more fun and games when it came to setting up automatic bill payments. In the UK we have a great system called Direct Debit, which offers guarantees, allows you to see the payments you have set up via your online banking, and is easily set up with any company by just giving them your sort code and account number.

It's not so simple here. There is this scheme called "pre authorised debit" which basically allows the company to take a payment from your card each month without you having to authorise it. Unlike direct debit, the payment is not guaranteed, and if it bounces, you get charged by the bank, and the company, and you get a bad credit rating! So you are expected to know how much you will be charged (even for variable things like phone bills) and make sure the money is there. Not ideal.

To set one of these up they need the "transit code" and account number. There are two differences here. One is that accounts have two parts - the base account number and the last three digits which identify if you want the "chequing" or "saving" part of the account. Savings account seems to be an entirely pointless additional feature where you pay $5 every time you get money out of it, but you can earn interest at about 0.005% (not kidding!). Why anyone would want to use that I don't know. But you have to select Chq every time you enter your PIN on an ATM or card payment. Anyway, I digress. Once you have your account number you also need the transit code (a bit like sort code). But this is where things break down, because people don't understand transit codes or even agree on what they are. The number has two parts, the institution number - for example 016 is HSBC Canada - and the branch number. HSBC told me their branch code was 0001. I tried to use all this combined information to set up payments with my ISP, but they couldn't get the number to accept. They said what they needed was a cheque from the bank, which has all the numbers printed along the bottom. I went to the bank and got some blank (cancelled) cheques printed. Turns out reading the number on the bottom that the branch code was actually 10001. The branch don't even know their own code, so what hope do the general public have! Employers also need these blank cheques, so it seems that nobody trusts the numbering scheme and insist on seeing a cheque. Not very satisfactory at all!

Also, we wanted a Canadian credit card (since some companies don't like international ones!). Even though I've been with HSBC UK for over 15 years, apparently I have no credit history with HSBC Canada and am ineligible for a credit card. Despite HSBC International assuring me otherwise.

So there you have it, the wonderful Canadian banking system. My friend Paul assures me it's just as bad in the USA - apparently an electronic transfer consists of somebody at the bank printing a cheque and mailing it across the country!

5. The phone system

Sadly the phone system is not much better than the banking system. I have managed to rack up over $300 in phone charges in the first month, partly because it's very expensive, and partly due to me just not understanding the system because it's so different. In the US & Canada, both caller and recipient pay for every call. The caller pays to connect to your local exchange (in my case the Montréal 514 area code) and then the recipient pays to connect from the local exchange to your phone. So that means that every call you receive is charged to you as a local call - or if you are away from home - every call is charged to you as a long distance or international call!

I was completely caught out because my package only included 100 daytime minutes - but that covers making and receiving calls. Also I bought myself a calling card (where you dial a local or freephone number and then your number) to make my calls cheaper to the UK. What I unfortunately failed to realise is that I was still paying for these calls from my mobile company as well. Turns out they are no use with a mobile. I actually asked my mobile company what they recommend for international calls. They basically said, don't use a mobile phone. So now I have set up Sipgate VOIP to use on my Nokia over wi-fi and also via the X-Lite desktop client, at least I can send and receive calls to the UK a bit more cheaply now.

It's been quite difficult though, because they offer unlimited calls at evenings (after 7pm) and weekends - but when you need to either call Canadian businesses, or to the UK which is 4/5 hours later - this is not much help. Daytime minutes is what I need. I managed to buy a package which gives me 350 minutes instead of a hundred, but it's still not ideal. They offer all sorts of other bundles which "save you money" but you have to pay for them. $5 if you want your evening discounts to start at 5pm not 7pm. $10 for voicemail and caller display (oh and if you don't like that, tough, because they block call forwarding to other voicemail services - as I found out when I tried to set up SpinVox). So now I have no voicemail, because I can't justify paying for it. Great. $10 for "unlimited call receiving" (I have to pay for that?!). $7 for making international text messages affordable. And so it goes on. I'm looking at a package of around $80 a month to get what I need, and that's without voicemail. The only good things are the fact that you are not tied into a contract (if you have your own phone and buy just the SIM) and also the data service - 1Gig for $30 - having web access on my phone (and Google Maps) has been a godsend. More on that in a future post.

6. Opening hours and consumer power

Opening hours are different in every country, but we've noticed some big differences here. Like most cities, many shops and services in the centre are open into the evening, especially on Thursdays and Fridays where opening hours are sometimes as late as 10pm. Pubs and bars don't seem to be subject to much restriction on their opening - as is the case in the UK now too of course.

One thing that really surprised us though is that everything closes at 5pm on a Saturday! Imagine it's Saturday night, you want to pick up a few beers or a bottle of wine. Well here, you can't - even the off licences (the state-owned SAQ) close at 5pm.
On the other hand, on Saturdays and Sundays, some supermarkets are open from 8am to 10pm! And post offices, very sensibly, are open until 9pm every weekday. None of this rushing to the post office before work!

While I'm on the subject of shops, something that I have noticed that seems different from the UK, is that manufacturers and businesses don't seem to have responded to consumer demands as much as in the UK - or maybe consumers just aren't as demanding as in Europe? For example, recycling is here but has not permeated society to the same extent as in the UK (sadly there doesn't seem to be any recycling in our borough). Another example, it is very hard to buy free range eggs or free range chickens here. When you do see them, they are very expensive. There doesn't seem to be the same demands upon food manufacturers to label everything, make things from healthy ingredients, and be honest about what's in the product.

I also get the impression that if you have a problem with a service or product, that your rights are not as great or as recognised as we enjoy in the UK. It's not like the US with stores having real jobsworth attitudes about entitlements and regulations, or checking receipts - but there seems to be a difference. I don't have a lot of evidence for this impression yet - so I am prepared to change my mind, I may be wrong!

7. Friendly people

This leads me on nicely to one of the best differences about Canada. People are incredibly friendly here - more than America, more even than Australia. On more than one occasion when we've stopped in the street and looked lost, someone has jumped in and asked us where we're looking for and if they can help. I'm not so sure that would happen in London. On the bus, if you're not quite sure when to get off and the bus driver sees you looking hesitant, he'll be sure to clearly shout out what each stop is. And if you ask for a specific location as you get on, he'll shout out and remind you when that stop comes around as well.

Strangers talk to each other! This is very novel coming from England where we are very private by comparison. We've had some great conversations with other citizens, on buses & metros, in bus stops and in shops, people will readily strike up a conversation or share a comment or observation with strangers. People are very polite too, for example waiting in neat lines and respecting order of arrival at bus stops.

It's nice to see that one aspect of US culture that hasn't seeped through is the strictness and jobsworth attitudes you sometimes see in stores or establishments there. People are willing to bend the rules, such as rounding down in the customer's favour when paying cash. Another example - when I went to my mobile phone company's store to give them our address, I was able to have them update my wife's account as well, without any ID for her at all. Now that is bending the rules to an extent I haven't seen in the US let alone in the UK!

8. Advertising in Montréal

There's a few things different about the advertising in Montréal. Firstly it's all in French, as I mentioned in my last post, this is required by law. This has actually proved really useful though as I am exposed to French daily. I carry a small French dictionary and look up words I don't know, so I can increase my vocab every day. They also have a great advertising/electronic information system on the Metro trains. It doesn't just tell you abou the next station and what buses you can connect with, but has lots of adverts and info - not just commercial ones but also information about events that are coming up, thought provoking quotes, interesting facts and all sorts. One of the most interesting advertising campaigns I've noticed around Montréal is the one I've shown to the right. Here is a translation:


A Montréaler. That's someone who stays in Montréal.

Montréal - A life close to everything.
It seems that the city is trying to fight the trend where more and more people are moving to the so called "North Shore" and "South Shore" - basically on the banks of the river rather than on the island of Montréal - and commuting to the city from there. I saw another sign which was even more designed to to influence people's thinking, "Don't put a bridge between you and your children. Live in Montréal. " These signs are everywhere around the metro and around the city. I'm not sure if it will work, but it's interesting.

9. Cars and driving

One surprising thing about cars here is that they don't have numberplates on the front. I think it's the only city in the world where I've seen that! I'm not sure if this fact is related, but I haven't seen any speed cameras yet either...

I haven't driven in Montréal yet, but one difference I've noticed on foot is how easy it is to cross the road. More than any country in the world, cars stop for pedestrians. You just have to stand by the side of the road and traffic will come to a stop for you. You can even step out into the road and the cars will stop for you and patiently let you pass - I've never seen anything like it.

10. Measurements

Another interesting difference in Canada is the way things are measured. I know we have a weird combination of metric and imperial in the UK, well due to their mix of French and US influences the Canadians have a very strange mix too! Let me explain:
  • Weather temperatures are measured in Celsius, but for cooking Fahrenheit is often used.
  • Distances are measured in kilometres, but floor areas are measured in square feet, and land in acres.
  • Heights of people are measured in feet and inches, and people's weights are measured in pounds.
  • Food is sold in grams and kilograms, but in quantities equivalent to imperial units - for example you would buy a 454 gram pack of butter.
  • Nails have their length measured in inches but the weight of the box measured in grams.
  • Drinks come in pints and petrol(gas) comes in litres. (At least they got that one right!!)

It all keeps you on your toes, that's for sure. You can read more here. Apparently in 2005 the Ontario government reintroduced teaching of the imperial system because people were graduating unable to use imperial measurements at work!

Well there you have it, that's the differences I've noticed so far between life in the UK and life in Canada. Nothing major, but it's the differences that make living abroad all the more interesting!

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