Posts Tagged ‘Emigrating’

We have now moved to our new flat and it is almost fully furnished, for free. We only had a 30 dollars bill at IKEA for 2 lamps, pillows and a toilet brush – not the kind of thing one would buy second-hand – and bit and bobs in thrift stores. We found a table next to our building’s dumpster and 2 chairs further down the road, so now we can have proper dinners. Two more chairs and we can have guests.

Some people from Craig’s list have been incredibly nice. A German anthropologist gave us her really nice futon bed and also a leather type storage box, that serves us as coffee table. She gave us a lift with both, and was sorry she didn’t have anything else for us for the time being.

Her husband was English and he had arrived in North America – San Francisco first – in the 70s. We told them our story and he asked ‘do you like it here?’, we nodded, so he replied ‘if you like it you will make it work’. I loved his conviction, and I think that he’s right.

We moved our stuff – and there’s always more than one thinks – in suitcases and bags up that hill and by bus. Little wonder then after all that lifting, carrying, cleaning, and upholstering; when teacher training started on Friday evening I was very sleepy. I spent the whole weekend in an incredible workshop with a master teacher, Michael Stone, psychotherapist, Buddhist and writer, who captivated us entirely with inspiring thoughts, quotes and facts about the body.

When I meet incredibly charismatic people, I understand how cults are born. Some people have that energy and intelligence, and they say just what you want to hear, with expertise and wit. Michael Stone’s latest book is called Yoga for a World out of Balance, in which he explains – and I oversimplify -that our society is behaving like an addict to certain set of narratives (consumerism, capitalism, etc.) and that like any addict it is taking more and more risks to get its supplies, driving countries to unsustainable extremes (poverty, mental illness, environment, etc.).

He offers two simple remedies: ethics and community. Restoring values is an individual task – changing intentions and actions – but creating a community isn’t.

Two mornings ago, I woke up and opened the windows and I saw how a heron was standing by a chimney pipe to get a bit of warmth on that cold day. I love herons, they have that old grumpy and yet majestic allure to them. Somehow they seem to be the loners of birds, you never see more than one at a time, probably because they are predators. They just stay around their area where the food is, minding their fishing business. So I always feel a bit bad for them, and there was something of a homeless sleeping on hot air vents in that heron: isolated and seeking heat in winter.

We’re not herons but we’ve been quite isolated here at the beginning but quickly we’ve found friends, via two communities: the expats and the yogis. Both are large entities and the way to connect these days is through the net and blogging. Both have been a lovely support network. I’ve been in touch with several expat bloggers and they have put me in touch with expats in Vancouver.

I met a lovely French expat and yogi two weeks ago. She has created her company helping out expats starting their businesses here. She has been really helpful and also gave me a secret and invaluable tip about cheese, and we might be able to buy affordable reblochon soon.

Jeff, one of my expat bloggers contacts reminded me that emigrating is a very humbling experience. To me, humility calls for gratitude. Since we’re here, we’ve been very thankful of the kindness of our friends back home lending us moral comfort, of the friends here who invited us over for Christmas and occasionally drive us around and lift heavy sofas, of the generosity of lovely strangers on Craig’s list and of the wisdom of senior expats and yogis.

I’ll finish with a quote from a yoga teacher yesterday, inviting us to a shift of attitude: ‘could we replace ‘what’s in it for me?’ by ‘how can I help?’

and I’ll leave you this week with another Heron:


Read Full Post »

”What’s for free darling?’

Lately, that’s what I ask Ed when he’s logged on to Craig’s List.

Last week has been, among other things, about counting our blessings. We have an empty flat to furnish, a shrinking budget and a firm intention to get most things second-hand. So far we have done better than we expected.

We have been transfixed by the Craig’s List free stuff ads, bidding on anything local. Also, on Friday we found out that in the back alleys of Kitsilano, people get rid of all kinds of good stuff.

We thought that thrifts were the best place to find decent second-hand stuff, but it turns out that, for the big things, Craig’s list and back alleys are the way to go. Our flat is now half furnished and we will be able to move in possibly on Wednesday.

So here’s a little inventory of the free stuff we got this weekend, just like that, ‘por nuestra cara bonita’ as they say in Spanish:

  • a sofa: from Craig’s list. It did cost the guys some effort and sweat to walk it to our new flat, but we now have something to sit and chill on. I will have some upholstering to do.

  • an armchair: one of our back alley treasure. We found it, looking rather dignified, right by a dumpster. I want to paint it dark grey and make some cushions for it.
  • a mirror: probably my favourite find – back alley again. It’s a nice and heavy wooden frame mirror. I really couldn’t have dreamt of a nicer one.
  • a shower curtain: Ashley gave me a shower curtain she never used.
  • a futon: a lovely French woman was giving away a bunch of stuff on Craig’s list and she gave us a real – and really clean – futon mattress. She had rolled it and protected it carefully for us to transport easily. She was a bit perplexed when Ed told her that it would travel on our bike. It was tricky but it made it there eventually.

  • a side table and a stool: also from the French lady.
  • a box spring: from Craig’s list
  • crockery: a previous tenant had left a box of crockery in the storage room. We have got glasses, bowls and plates.

Still on our list are a dining table and chairs, a TV and DVD player, a rug, lamps, a small dresser, a shoe rack and a bedside table. Somehow I’m pretty certain that we’ll get there this weekend  as it is the last of the month and people are moving out.

I could make a social comment about our disposable world. Instead I’ll take the freebies, give them a good and caring home, and I’ll strongly recommend this documentary on planned obsolescence. Some of it is in Spanish but it’s perfectly watchable as a lot of it is in English.

Read Full Post »

Well, everyone likes a tale with a twist, commercial fiction lives on this formula: disenchantment, epiphany, transformation, major setbacks, and happy resolution. Characters have got to earn their happy endind by flirting a bit too closely with disaster.

Yesterday, I was thinking of Humphrey Bogart in The Barefoot Contessa. His character, a disgruntled screenwriter, says : ‘Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies, when everything fits too well – the beginning, the middle, the end – from fade-in to fade-out.’

So here we are in our real life facing a twist that we didn’t see coming at all. Life after all seems to be the most cunning storyteller.

It was Friday and I was rather chirpy in the kitchen, making mango chutney. I knew that Ed was coming back a little later than usual, as he planned on buying a few bits for the weekend. So I didn’t expect him too early. The fragrance of the onions, tomatoes, mango and spices was filling the flat and I stirred the golden mix from time to time, pretty pleased with myself.

I heard Ed’s steps in the garden. I went to open the door anticipating that he would struggle with shopping bags. When I saw that he was carrying his tool bag and my eyes crossed his, I knew instantly that things were not right.

‘I got the sack’, he said, with a sad smile on the corner of his mouth.

Just like that.

The emotions flowed in their course: first shock, then indignation, disbelief, stupor, guilt, anxiety and so on, until we reached the final stage early on Saturday morning; resignation.

‘It’s not the end of the world.’ he bravely added later.

It did feel like it in the moment. The end of the little world we had crafted for the next few weeks and months. Back to uncertainty, our aspirations were blown away like cherry blossom petals on the pavement in spring.

It’s always amused me that our English-French cultural difference is the most striking in times of crisis. Ed stays cool and it’s his main task when the shit hits the fan: keeping his composure. Not showing weakness in the face of adversity. For me, it’s a blend of French existentialism, pessimism, socialist outrage and overreacting. In others words I’m a nervous mess. On Friday, the Titanic had sunk into our kitchen sink.

We irritate each other in our radical attitudes. He prompts me to stay cool and my jaw clenches. I’m fuelled on drama and he wants me to sober up! Sacre bleu!

We ate our butternut squash bhajis with the chutney in silence, our heads buzzing. I stayed up late reading the horror stories in the British Expats forum, about the sometimes harsh reality of the job market here.

Ed had posted about his premature redundancy and 19 people replied. A lot of them explained how this happened to them a few times. One was quite enlightening:

“Wow. You have described my past experiences exactly. I knew it had to be a North American thing. I am a plumber who is returning to Calgary in a couple of weeks. I have been let go from a few jobs like that. Mostly always on a Friday. Always the same reason. “We have no work.” After 2008 everything slowed down a bit and that is the year I also became a journeyman and I guess too expensive to hire.  I always found another job easily afterwards, but it seems like they would hire me telling me how busy they will be for 5 years blah blah blah. Get me to help finish a project, then out I go. No warning. So three months here, four there. ”

I read a whole thread about ‘disposable employees’, painting a grim picture of employers’ behaviour in Canada. Tales of disappointment, contained rage and bitterness. Conspiracy theories about why the Canadian government lets in so many immigrants. Some posts actually recommended people against coming here at all.

I read them avidly trying to find one with which I would relate most and that would sooth the anguish. I started realising that one word was creeping up in the comments of the people who had a good experience here: luck. A lot of senior members of the forum simply stated that sometimes, it just boils down to being lucky or not.

You can hardly construct any kind of scientific theory on this observation, maybe statisticians, some chaos physicists or even the psychologists of risk  would be willing to give it a shot.  Astrologists might have their ideas about the ‘being at the right place at the right time’ phenomena. I could also draft a catalogue of luck cliches – you make your own luck, etc. – and it wouldn’t make it a bit more convincing. But at this stage, in this gamble we have taken, it’s all about keeping those fingers crossed.

We will see what the next chapter has to reveal. Diderot’s Jacques The Fatalist would say that it’s all written, Sartre would argue that our fate is the sum of our decisions, but I’ll stick once again with Sinatra who sings Luck Be A Lady Tonight.

So hang in there, dearest readers, it’s not the end of this story yet. We’re not close to a moving denouement and whatever happens, you can rest assured that there will be a sequel, a spin-off or a French adaptation.

Just wish us luck!

Read Full Post »

It’s been a while since my last post and there are various reasons for that. First of all, our landlord was on holiday in Mexico and the wifi box died just before Christmas, leaving us incomunicado until their return on the 1st of January. Now I’m catching up and this post is longer than usual, but you have a print button on this page!

Then, well, we’ve been busy. Our lease for the flat here ends this month and we had to find a place pronto. It’s an interesting approach here when looking for a flat. You physically need to go around the neighbourhoods you’re interested in, in search of ‘2 bedrooms’ signs. Then you call, then you visit.

We saw a couple of flats and went for the second one. It made us nervous to decide so quickly, but it looked like the best flat we could find within our price range and criteria. Good places get snapped up very quickly and when you get to the end of the month only the leftovers and the pricey ones are on the market.

Living Room

One of our main requirements was to have loads of daylight. After three rainy winter months in a basement flat with mainly artificial lights, we feel we’ve earned the right to the real deal. The other one was an outdoors space. We need a bit of fresh air after our cabin fever winter. Also, we wanted a guest room. This stems from a few months on the road in the summer, couch surfing, we thought that it would be good to have some space for our friends to come and visit. Last but not least, good location was critical, and I’ll explain why in a bit.

We found all of this in our new flat. There’s a balcony, for summer barbecues, plenty of daylight, and a small guest room. The flat is tiny –  45m2 – but we just really liked it and the location is fantastic, in Kitsilano, 2 blocks from the beach, 3 blocks from shops and restaurant, and yoga studios. This mean we can practically walk everywhere, which is a priceless luxury in this part of the Northern hemisphere. Walking in North America seems to be reserved for the homeless, students, eco-warriors, and backward Europeans like us.

This is what I like about Vancouver, although it’s a big city and transportation can be a real ordeal, there are a few real neighbourhoods where you can find the village life we are used to in Europe. Kitsilano is the most attractive one because of its proximity to the beach, the outdoors swimming pool, the views of the mountains on the other side of the bay and the non-franchise shops and restaurants – that in itself makes any place in North America special. This is where most people want to live but can’t afford to if they have a family or if they want a bigger space.

My theory is that you will enjoy your weekends a bit more if you are in an interesting neighbourhood. Where we are now is miles away from anything, in Point Grey. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong and we go for fantastic hikes in the Pacific Spirit park.

However, going anywhere requires courage, patience, motivation, a pair of reliable hiking boots – for the very steep hills-, a good sense of humour, more patience, dedication, delusion, will power, a bus timetable – that is probably sold on ultra-secret black markets somewhere by scruffy cats wearing eye patches, because we  haven’t found one yet – and on slush- fest days like today a bag a salt if you want to make it home with all your limbs.

Halfway Up Our Golgotha

We never see anybody else walking to the bus in our millionaire’s row neighbourhood. I’m sure that the people who live on the steep hill street and see us from their kitchen window go up and down everyday, and now have come up with imaginary names for us. They probably say, ‘Look, here are Emilie and Arturo, again. I wonder if they have found the dodgy pirate cats market yet, otherwise if they ever make it up there, they’ll wait for the bus for at least 20 minutes. Somebody should tell those poor crazy Eurotrash sods.’

Anyhow, location was key in our choice. It has become even more exciting as now all  4 of our friends will be in Kits as well. Graham, one of them, suggested a house-warming. What a great idea: the 6 of us in our empty flat barbecuing Whole Foods sausages and bison burgers in the dead of winter.

Pine Tree from the Balcony

We have no furniture here. We are going for the second-hand option as much as possible. I find it so difficult to find crockery NOT Made in China – i.e. that ‘might contain lead’ – but I’m determined and armed with patience. Otherwise, it’s actually quite easy to get stuff for nothing or almost nothing here. I browse through Craig’s List everyday, and there are tons of IKEA futons and tube TVs for free. People dump them for flat screens. Tube TVs, says Ed, are actually more eco-friendly.

We can’t have pets in our new flat. It’s too small for that anyway. We realise how much we miss pets here. Fortunately, Ashley and Simon have the sweetest cocker spaniel called Mac – who has travelled all the way from Scotland. I wish Charlie would come on a holiday from time to time and scratch our new second-hand IKEA futon like in the good old days. He’s too busy trying to learn how to meow something that sounds convincingly like ‘Pata Negra’.


The feature that captures most of my imagination is the guest room, and it’s because I know that some of you will cross the pond, or the border and visit us this year. I’m glad to say that my cooking is improving and that I’m mastering the art of brunch with whole wheat pancakes, eggs benedict and Canadian farm bacon. You can walk to the beach, stroll on 4th street, or get a yoga pass for 23 dollars a week, if you’re in the mood for a good stretch. Also, for the two-wheel junkies, cycling is ideal, but get ready for the hills!

Read Full Post »

Love by Sandra Le

Every year I notice how it can take time for the Christmas spirit to really kick in. December comes and you think ornaments, presents, biscuits, tree and gourmet menus, but you still feel like you’re faking it. However it blooms slowly and then one day it suddenly happens, and you’re almost overwhelmed by the cheer.

Yesterday, we had one of the best presents we could wish for, Ed received a job offer for a site starting today. After a few weeks of uncertainty and trying to keep that chin up as best we could, it just happened, when we least expected it, as most good things do.

It felt like suddenly everything was coming together and the adventure could really begin. However today, I find that this thought is slightly unfair. We have been living quite a fantastic adventure since we left London in August. It’s always easier to be grateful when things work out according to plan, but what really makes it all worth it is the wait and the patience we’ve had before that. This is the real adventure, the rest is anecdotal. The ‘happy ever after’ is just one line of a 15 pages story. It’s just that everything shines brighter under the spotlight of achievement and we tend to instantly value success more than the hardship that preceded it. That tip of the iceberg  oversimplification: ‘it was so tough but we’ve made it’.

I had a brilliant yoga class three weeks ago and the teacher was bright, funny and inspiring. She had read an article about how we tell stories when we live a traumatic or memorable experience. Just after it happened, we tell the story for the first time. This narrative becomes the template for all subsequent times. After ten years, we still tell the same story and exaggerate it slightly more each time.

This is how we sometimes create our own narratives, we capture the facts in the emotions of the moment and no longer have to question either the emotions or the facts. I wonder how we will retell our first months here. We could probably stick to the November was a difficult time to arrive here story: businesses were slowing down before Christmas, the weather was grim, the odd were against us, etc. but suddenly it all worked out. Just another Cinderella tale.

Yes, it has been challenging at times but it was very normal, the uncertainty made it look worse than it was. An expat friend in San Francisco reminded me yesterday that it took him 7 months to find work.

Picture by Inigo Garcia Ureta

We read a lot of the stories in the British expats website. The other day a woman who had moved to Calgary was posting that she and her family wanted to go home after only 5 months. She was telling a Dickensian story of their experience here and said that they were seriously thinking of going back to the UK. The interesting thing is that lots of people got back to her and things got really intense on the forum. We could feel people had real strong feelings on her story.

Most people told her that 5 months was not enough to decide to go home and we agreed with this. When I moved to California 12 years ago, I hated it most days for over 6 months. When I had to go back to Europe after my one year visa had expired I was truly distraught, I didn’t want to leave. When we move to a new country we tell each other a lot of stories about what we are doing here. But I think it’s healthy to question them and see what kind of emotions really come with them.

My cat Charlie has travelled a lot because of my lifestyle. He hates travelling, he resents every bit of each trip, and every new place he goes to, but he has a feisty attitude to life. He’s a stubborn little beast, and anywhere he goes, after a week or so, he rules – that’s why he was kicked out of the cattery in August. Emigrating is not his thing at all, but he adapts and always finds a way to get what he wants, by sheer determination of getting his bit of tuna and the best spot on the sofa.

Picture by Inigo Garcia Ureta

I always thought that emigrating was my thing, which made me feel quite smug, when a few weeks ago, I was so homesick I would have jumped on the first plane back to Europe. Since being here I’ve wanted to feel at home, to look at the horizon, see the mountains and feel full of pride: ‘isn’t our city wonderful?’ I faked it most of the time, I knew I wasn’t quite there yet but tried hard, closing my eyes very tightly like little children make a wish before blowing out their first birthday candles.

This week I’ve being feeling that I didn’t have to fake it that much and try that hard any longer: I really like it here. Now we can rest safe in the knowledge that we will be able to stay for some time and there’s so much we haven’t seen yet!

and a bit of Sinatra to celebrate joy:

Read Full Post »

What often happens when you start again from scratch, is that you’re friendless in your new place.

The other day I was thinking of how I’ve met my friends in other places. In France, my friends are people who used to be neighbours or who I went to school with. In California, I met my friends through my lecturer’s job at UCSB. In Madrid, my friends were my flatmates and people who I worked with. In London, I met almost everybody through work.

It’s a known fact that the way one makes friends really varies according to age. Also the older you get, the more difficult it becomes to meet people, because by the time they are in their thirties, most people don’t need new friends.

When you emigrate and you’re not in the work market yet,  you need to ‘date’ again. You meet total strangers for a drink. You chat about a bit of everything avoiding platitudes as much as possible, and somehow you kind of hope they’ll like you. Then when you part, comes the time to exchange email addresses and phone numbers and you suddenly find yourself oddly nervous. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode where Jerry is friend-dating Keith Hernandez, the baseball player.

This process seems rather unnatural, slightly forced, because we always remember our friendships as being more organic. This makes one feel rather desperate and needy. If you don’t play the ‘dating’ game, however, your social life might be close to non-existent and you’re likely to get cabin fever very quickly.

The obvious approach is ‘meetup’, it’s a friends ‘dating’ site. It is probably easier to meet like-minded people if you have a quirky pastime like Napoleonic wars re-enactment. The meetup option is quite simple in theory because you join groups based on activity, sport, or nationality. Here you’ll find mostly outdoors meetup group: snowboarding, skiing, kayaking,  diving, you name it.

Our first meetup, a week after arriving was a British expat one. You go to the overpriced imitation of an English pub, you wear the name tags, and you hold your pint trying to look cool as opposed to needy and desperate. You even make a bit of eye contact and smile, and above all you avoid being too cynical about it all – which can be a bit of a personal struggle.

In our British expat group, the organiser – a Canadian-British chap called Fil – shows some good matchmaking skills. At our first meetup, he introduced us to a Scottish couple and we ended up talking to them for most of the evening. They’ve moved here 2 years ago from Aberdeen and have had similar experiences. They also arrived in November when it was pouring with rain most days and that the job market had ground to a halt. Now they have their jobs and know the ropes, but they hadn’t forgotten the vulnerability and the uncertainty of the early days. So they are showing much patience for our new immigrant’s rants and they give us tons of little local tips.

We’ve seen them a couple of times since, and  they have invited us over for Christmas at theirs. This is the kind of thing that means the world to you when you’re a fresh immigrant. In my various emigrations, I’ve always tried to organise Christmas with the international crowd. Flights are dear around Christmas time, and not a lot of people can afford the luxury of spending the holidays at home with the family.

I’ve noticed that a lot of my friends in Europe are people who have lived abroad. We have this in common; having been uprooted and planted somewhere else. Emigrating changes you profoundly in many ways, and it’s one of the best ways to practice your adaptation skills. It’s a very humbling experience, through which you will invariably rediscover that old friend: gratitude. You learn to be more appreciative which keeps cynicism at bay – although occasionally it does feel good to scratch a sarcastic itch.

This afternoon, I’m going on a yoga date with someone I’ve met through yoga blogging. Blogging oddly enough is a great way to meet new people. It is a community where you end up finding out lots of like-minded people all around the world.

I’ve started feeling better about being here with the merest hint of a social life. Call me cheesy – and I’m prepared to take that hit – but wherever I’ve lived, what really made the place work for me was the friends I’ve made there. You really know how true this is when you leave after 1, 3, 6 years and you organise a leaving do. Aren’t they the best and the worst at the same time? All your friends are there and this is the last time you’ll see them for some while.

Who knows how long we’ll stay here, but this Christmas I will be toasting friendships old, new, and yet to be.

And again some related music:

Read Full Post »

Most people I know who have emigrated, have asked themselves that question at one point. It can happen on the first jet-lagged sleepless night, it can be a week later, two weeks, a month. It just tends to happen at a low point, when you have lost the enthusiasm that has brought you here in the first place.

I never fail to remember Bruce Chatwin, who knew that feeling very well, and who was himself quoting a letter of Rimbaud in Egypt: ‘What Am I Doing Here?’. One only truly asks oneself this question in situations like this. Why leave everything you know behind and start all over again where nothing is certain and no one awaits you?

So here we are, in Vancouver and it’s been more than 5 weeks now. It seems longer than that, and it’s probably because we have spent a lot of our time here waiting. Waiting for the bus, for the rain to stop, for the snow to melt, for a phone call, for an email. Emigrating and job hunting are an endurance race, and the adversaries are frustration and pessimism.

We had a lot of that last week as we went through our ‘we-hate-it-all-here and it-was-better-at-home’ phase. The city, the country even, conspired against us – and we hadn’t leaked any diplomatic gossip in the public domain. Our rants about it all became increasingly comical and we started speaking in absolutes about all kinds of minor inconveniences. The bus was ALWAYS late, it ALWAYS rained when we wanted to go out, companies NEVER replied to job applications, shops ALWAYS played the same cheesy Christmas music. Then, there were all our little fixations: the price of dairy and meat – chicken in particular -, growth hormones,  and our eternal lament about cheese.

Our love affair with Vancouver had turned bitter and England suddenly felt so sweet, so perfect. We reached a climax in our constant indignation on Friday morning when shopping for food. In less than a month, we have created shopping routines. Routines are reassuring when everything is unfamiliar. One of my favourite was to go to Parthenon, a European deli, to stock up on decently priced Italian cheese, Swiss chocolate, spices, and all the things that become a real treat when you live in North America.

Our heart sunk when we read the sign posted on Parthenon’s glass door. ‘Closed until further notice’. Our favourite deli had been the victim of a criminal fire. It was the end of our little world as we had newly fabricated it. I was haunted by visions of devastating flames melting the gorgeous gorgonzola and the almond chocolate, grilling the salami, pastrami, and the chorizo. We started to imagine some kind anti-deli organisation committing crimes against European delicacies.

When we realised the intensity of our reactions, we understood how homesick  we were and that the cultural shock was striking. It had nothing to do with Vancouver, Canada, its weather or cheese. The truth was that we were missing home, family and friends and that we felt like outcasts.

By admitting to this, we suddenly started to feel much better about the place. On Saturday, the weather was the best we had ever seen here. We walked along the beach somehow liberated.

Honestly, homesickness is a bastard. It is a real sickness, it makes your stomach ache and it poisons your soul with negative obsessions. Most of the time, you just can’t help it and sometimes the best you can do is fight it with humour. It’s good to remember that as with all sicknesses – a bad cough, a migraine, a heartburn – it will just go, and inevitably it will come again. It’s all part of the process.

We’ll have some bad days and we’ll wait for the buses under the rain, but they will be no worse than bad days in London. When the sun shines again however, we remember exactly what we are doing here, it’s because it’s possibly one of the most beautiful places there is and we have a lot to discover in this country.

Here is a guy who thinks that in Canada ‘you can blame just about anything on the weather’:

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »