Hackery, Math & Design

Steven Wittens i

Vancouver: Report

So, today I've been living in Vancouver for a month and a half. I've had time to get settled in, so I figured it was time for a little retrospective.

Maple Leaf

This whole thing started in the summer, when Bryght offered me a job and the chance to move to Vancouver. Over the next months, I worked for them remotely from Belgium, while the paperwork was sorted. On November 29, I boarded a plane, taking with me a backpack, a suitcase and a large bag. The contents? Clothes, towels, toiletry, lots of media (mostly DVDs and games), two bottles of beer and my trusty PowerBook.

Red Suitcase

Once landed at YVR, I had to go through immigration to receive my Work Permit. A lengthy wait, a call to Kris Krug and a short interview later, I was a legal worker in Canada. The first thing I saw when I left the airport was a huge snowstorm! The following days proved to be warmer, but not less stressful.

I needed to open a bank account, get a phone, get a social insurance number and get the keys to my new apartment. Simple, were it not that these actions were tangled in an obscure web of dependencies. I can't get a phone contract without a bank account. I need the bank account to pay my rent. I need an address to get a bank account. In the game of life, all dependencies are circular.

Some creative timing and small lies later, I was in possession of all of the above, and I'd only lost about a day's worth of time doing it.

Once that was over, things did get better though. Vancouver turned out to be a very lively, interesting place. My job at Bryght went well, and once I settled comfortably in my 11-18 work schedule, I got quite productive. It also helps that we have a great office with a gorgeous mountain view. In my spare time, I still did loads of Drupal coding (in light of the now released Drupal 5), but did get to see the city.

Harbor View

When the holidays came about, I was invited to Boris and Petrina's (collegues) crazy family christmas on Vancouver Island. The food and gifts were plentiful, the people were incredibly nice and I had a great time. Since then, the weather has remained relatively steady around 0-7°C, with some rain and occasional melting snow.

So that's where I'm now. In this time, I've gotten somewhat used to the particular quirks of Canada and its culture, but I still very much feel like an outsider here. There are plenty of differences... I'll name a few, good and bad. I'll start with the latter:

The Bad

  • Dealing with money is bothersome here. First, there's the fact that prices never include taxes, and that tipping is expected. So, it is hard to know in advance how much you'll pay. Secondly, banking sucks here. Banks charge fees on the order of $1-2 for simple transactions such as money withdrawal from a machine. Transferring money electronically between banks is tricky, so cheques are still the main method for paying large sums. In Belgium, cheques are extinct and online banking is easy, free and painless. Oh, and in Belgium, bank cards rely on secure chips rather than error-prone magnetic strips.
  • Commercialism is everywhere. There is a much higher penetration of stores, restaurants and clubs than in Belgium, and advertising is much more prevalent. Example: I ordered cheques from the bank, and it included an ad for another company that sold administrative stamps. There is a large emphasis on buying, gadgets, consuming and wealth. Eating out is much more common than what I'm used to, and more money is spent daily, for example on cab ribes. Finally (and this is mostly because I live in the city), generally everything is quite expensive here. For what I pay here in rent for a bachelor apartment, I could get a small house in Belgium.
  • Modern, fast-paced living is the keyword. Lunch is often a sandwich on your desk, and cups of coffee and soda are within reach constantly. There is an insane amount of traffic of cars and people at any particular time. This is further amplified by the young age of the city. Everything is new, and the city expands every day at a high rate. The few specks of left over antiquity are shadowed by huge towers of apartments and offices.
  • English dominates, both in language and culture. It's strange in a way, because Vancouver is quite multicultural, yet like most of North America, it focuses mostly on itself. There is a very big vibe that this is 'the place to be'. Europe is but a very distant location where people go on holiday or study, but very few people appear to be in touch with it. At most, they'll have some family roots in one of the European countries. The French half of Canada is nowhere to be seen here.
  • Lots of homeless. This is a specific problem with Vancouver, which I've been told is because the climate here is the most moderate in Canada, and hence attracts lots of people who live on the street. People asking you for spare change happens several times a day as you walk around. It is all the more disturbing because a lot of the city is very clean and new.
  • Lack of good bread. This might sound silly, but in Belgium (and the Netherlands), people tend to eat a lot more bread. We only eat one hot meal a day normally, while lunch is typically sandwiches. Because of this, we tend to eat higher quality bread with a much bigger variety of spreads, deli meat and cheeses. In Vancouver, the average supermarket bread is a sponge that you can squeeze like an accordeon only to have it expand back to its original form. It can stay fresh for weeks and tastes flat and dry. Now, I've managed to scout out some places that might offer better bread, but most of it tends to be speciality bread, usually heavy or flavored. Either that, or a simple baguette. But a proper, normal white or brown loaf seems impossible to find.
  • Draconian alcohol laws. Alcohol may only be sold in official government-run liquor stores and the selection is quite small (except for bars/restaurants, of course). No Pecheresse here...

Blue Sky

The Good

  • Amazing food is available everywhere. All the different ethnicities in Vancouver seem to have dozens of restaurants each. Chinese, Thai, Korean, Mongolean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Italian, ... The prices are very reasonable and the variety is great.
  • Friendly people. Compared to surly Belgium, Canadians and Vancouverites in specific are giddy with joy. Greetings involve the standard "how are you today?", service is much more servicing "hi, welcome to Foobar, what can I help you with?" and people are much more open and eager to meet you.
  • Very multicultural and tolerant. There are too many ethnicities here to count, and they all work the same jobs, have the same houses and drive the same cars. Racism seems a distant concept here, in my experience.
  • Beautiful environment. Coming from densely populated Belgium, where the highest 'mountain' is 594m tall, Canada is a treat for the eyes. Parks and mountains are just a small bus or boat ride away, and a lot of it is preserved as wild. And yes, there are bears up north.

Blue lake and mountains

Lake View II

Lion's Gate Bridge


Generally, in spite of the negative tone above, I'm very happy to have moved here. I've met some incredibly interesting people, have a great job where I work on what I like and I'm learning a great deal about business, culture, people and life in general. I do miss Belgium and the people there, although thanks to the Internet I can talk to them often and cheaply.

The final big question (that everyone seems to get asked, when moving here) is: will I stay, or move back eventually? Honestly, I still can't say. The only certainty is that I want to keep doing what I'm doing now, job-wise. But there are plenty of opportunities inside and outside of Canada for that.

So far, Vancouver has proven to be a great step for me, so all I can do is wait and see what life brings next!

Bryght  Canada  Vancouver
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