Tuesday, 31 July 2007

The Journey Back Home

Yes I've been back almost 3 weeks... but unfortunately came back to a pile of work that makes you wonder if two weeks away from the office is worth all the e-mails and catching up you have to do.

Anyway, in summary: It was a whirlwind trip to Joburg. A blur of lunches and dinners. It was great to see familiar faces and places - thanks to everyone that made it out in the 'cold' weather to see us.

Whilst it's been just under a year, the city was still familiar, and we could still find our way around. Driving on the left side of the road again was interesting - I truly do miss the stick shift. Scary that I almost drove up the wrong side of Jan Smuts avenue in Braamfontein. Coming back here and driving on the other side of the road was a lot easier than I thought it would be.

Coming back was strange, too. Leaving home but going home. Guess that's what it is to be a 'permanent resident.' Now that our house is almost ready (I'll put up some more pics soon...) Toronto is now more and more home.

For those of you whom we were unable to hook up with, you'll just have to come visit us in Toronto ;)

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Summer in Toronto

July 21 is the summer solstice and the first official day of Summer here. And boy has summer arrived. This week temperatures have averaged in the 30C's with humidity making it feel even hotter.

There are so many public events happening, especially now that it has warmed up. Everyone is out and about. Canadians take full advantage of the good weather :) The sun is setting after 9pm these days, so sitting out on the patio chatting and drinking is the norm here. Every day after work, the streets are lined with tables and chairs filled with people enjoying the great weather.

Speaking of which, we are leaving this fantastic weather for the cold of Joburg's winter. We'll be back visiting for the first two weeks of July. So we'll see some of you soon!

In the meantime, here are some highlights of what we've been up to:

At the end of May, Toronto has an annual "Doors Open" event. This is one weekend, once a year when "up to 150 buildings of architectural, historic, cultural and social significance open their doors to the public for a city-wide celebration.

The program allows visitors free access to properties that are either not usually open to the public, or would normally charge an entrance fee. Many locations have organized guided tours, displays and activities to enrich the visitor experience." The whole idea is to get to know the city that you live in.

This year, Doors Open was on 26 May. We went to see the TTC Lower Bay street subway station. This is an old, unused subway station. Bay Lower is fully operational but is used today for work vehicles, moving trains from one line to another, train driver training and filming.

We were able to walk straight along the subway platform from one end to end. Not much to see, really, but fun to say we've seen it. A number of movies and commercials have been shot at this station, including films such as "Johnny Mnemonic ", "Don't Say A Word", "Mimic" and "Bulletproof Monk". There were movie posters up, and subway maps of New York lying around (used when filming a movie set in New York).

During the weekend of 15-17 July, the "Taste of Little Italy" festival was on. A section of one of the busiest roads downtown dubbed "Little Italy" was closed to traffic, creating a weekend-long street festival. There were *crowds* of people - sampling Italian food, listening to live music, game stalls, clowns, etc. Very family-oriented and festive. Reminded me of Lusitoland, except it's on the street.

A friend from back home stayed with us for the weekend, so we took him to taste a bit of Toronto life. We arrived at a good time, sampled some oysters, kebabs and then looked for a restaurant for dinner. We had to wait a mere 20 minutes in line for a table, but then a further 90 minutes for our food to arrive, it was that busy! I felt so sorry for the people waiting in line later on, I'm sure their wait must have been at least 2 hours just for a table. The food was good though and worth the wait.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Quick update on the house

Things have moved along nicely out in Vaughan. The exterior of our home now has been bricked. It looks like things will work out for a move at the end of August.

We had our pre-drywall inspection last week, and the drywall was up soon thereafter. Canada Post have also acknowledged the new neighbourhood, by allocating our postal code!

- Wall frames are up, windows are in
- Pot light fixtures in the kitchen have been installed
- Central vacuum rough-in has been installed
- HVAC (heating vents) and vents for dryer and kitchen range hood are in
- Electrical wiring for plugs and lights is complete
- Wiring for cable (TV and internet) and telephone has been put int
- Plumbing for water and drainage is in
- Roof has been shingled
- Oak staircase has been installed
- Basement and garage floors have been poured
- Gas and electricity board and meters installed, but not yet hooked up
- Insulation has been put in the walls and they have been drywalled
- Bath-tubs have been put in
- Garage door has been put in

You can check out more photos of the progress on the building in the Thornhill Woods subdivision on Westolivia Trail: http://s207.photobucket.com/albums/bb84/thw-pics/

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Not Just Wings

Canada celebrated Victoria Day (the British Queen's birthday) a few weekends back - Monday 21 May was a public holiday. Brendon and I decided to take a drive and go on a shopping trip across the border in Buffalo, New York. The promise of outlet stores and cheap designer shoes was enough to motivate me...

The Canadian dollar has strengthened to a 30-year high against the US dollar (CA$1 = US$0.95), and it seemed a lot of other people had the same idea. The drive there was pretty long, since an accident had created a backlog on the highways. So we took the scenic route and drove along the Lakeshore Boulevard (alongisde Lake Ontario). It took us about 4 hours but it was good to take it easy, and we drove through the smaller, obscure towns and roads.

Crossing the Border in to the US... took 2 hours. On reaching Niagara, we joined the long line of cars to cross the 'Rainbow Bridge' at the Niagara Falls. The wait to get to the booth was about 30 minutes. We handed in our passports with shiny US visas and completed immigration forms, and were then instructed to park and 'go upstairs'. The waiting room was pretty crowded and hot with precious few seats - at least we had brought our own magazines, snacks and water. We waited almost 90 minutes to be called up - we were the only South Africans there during that period - and were processed quite efficiently. We were simply asked what the purpose of our trip was, and how long and where we would be staying. While having our fingerprints and photos taken, we saw some people being escorted out (with their hands behind their backs...) . The US Immigration officer was friendly and I guess quite impressed that we had all the relevant forms completed. He asked where we had got the forms from (we didn't see blank forms anywhere at the border), so I told him honestly... "the airport." On my trip to Philadelphia earlier in the year, I had helped myself to some additional forms to save time on future trips ;)

Not much to write about Buffalo. Small US town. Unremarkable enough that I wasn't compelled to whip out my camera and take photos. The shopping... spectacular. Taxes are low compared to Ontario, and so are the prices. The selection and quantity of goods was scary, and it was so tempting - we had so much space... an entire trunk (boot) and backseat for purchases... ;) However, being a paranoid South African, I did not go overboard, for fear of being stopped, searched and taxed by Canadian customs.

There were tons of Canadians around everywhere we went - we just saw Ontario licence plates everywhere we drove. The most amusing thing I saw in the malls were waste bins completely full and with shoeboxes filled with old shoes strewn around them. Guess some shoppers were very eager to wear their new shoes!

In comparison to the 2-hour clearing of US Immigration, coming back in to Canada took 15 minutes, including a quick stop at the duty-free to pick up some cheap liquor. The line of cars was short and we were only asked where we live, and what items of value we were bringing back in to Canada (err... two bottles of rum? Well within our customs allowance.) A glance at our PR cards and a simple wave of the hand... and we were on our way home :)

The drive back was quick - under 90 minutes from border to front door. Guess we'll be making that trip again in the future ;)

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Greener Living

It's been an interesting few weeks ... here are some highlights:

A few weekends ago, I was attending a Yoga Conference in downtown Toronto. The 'westernisation' and proliferance of yoga here in Canada is both pretty scary and impressive at the same time. What was quite interesting was the number of 'green' and 'organic' vendors at the exhibitor section ... 'eco-friendly', 'organic' and 'yoga' go hand-in-hand here. The ironic part was that the 'Green Living Show' was on at the same time, but having booked and paid for yoga workshops the entire weekend, I was not able to attend.

On a side note, I was in a workshop on Kids Yoga, and recognised a South African accent amongst the yoga teacher participants. Small world. Turns out she's from Joburg, has been in North America for 17 years, and Toronto for 15 - and still has her distinctive SA accent. In fact, everywhere we go, we do pick up an SA accent here and there in the crowd :) I guess we will be hanging on to that accent after all.

As always, not much to report on the news front - Canada's biggest news stories are generally something relating to the weather... However, there's been a recent uproar over ... plastic bags, another area where SA seems to be 'ahead' of Canada.

The Ontario provincial government has recently proposed measures to cut back the use of plastic bags - from an outright ban, to compostable bags, to levies for bags. The Toronto Star had an article debating whether or not banning plastic bags makes a difference - South Africa had the (dubious) distinction of being mentioned as one of the countries with a ban already in place. The stats are scary... "Ontario's 12.6 million residents use about seven million plastic bags a day."

I find it very annoying that cashiers at the grocery stores here double-bag almost everything, and put only two or three items per bag. In the first week of moving in to our apartment, we had literally a mountain of plastic bags. The only redeeming thing is that some of the grocery stores have recycling bins where you can return (any store's) plastic bags. It was quite funny the first time - we took our bag of bags and it completely filled the bin! The sad thing is, it seems no one else uses this service much. I guess it's because (unlike plastic and paper recycling) you have to make the effort of dropping them off yourself.

Perhaps a better solution is to offer *discounts* for not using plastic bags, rather than charging extra for them. An example of this is lululemon who give customers an 'environmental discount' of 50c on purchases (okay, it's not much, but it's something) when you either don't take a plastic bag, or re-use a bag. They will even give you a lululemon-branded re-useable bag with the company's manifesto all over it. For inspiring reading, check out the manifesto at http://www.lululemon.com/culture/manifesto

The No Bottled Water campaign is another one highlighting the wasteful nature of consumers:
"Think of the tonnes of waste, not from only the plastic bottles going to landfills, but from the carbon expended to get that water to your table. Think of the fact that Toronto tap water is tested thousands of times a year for purity. Think of the 1.1 billion people that have no clean drinking water of any kind."

So, Torontonians are just the same as Joburg residents - drinking less tap water, complaining about the quality of the tap water, etc.

What this highlights for me is... some things are the same wherever you go :)

Thursday, 10 May 2007

A Roof Over Our Head

Our home is coming along nicely - we now have a 'roof', and the framing is basically done.
Last week we went to select tiles, carpet, cabinets, fixtures, etc.

The selection is underwhelming to say the least. For paint colour, you can choose white, grey-white, pink-white or beige-white. Wow. For tiles and carpets, they all start to look the same after staring at them for a while. It was also really difficult to select based on a single tile.
The standard (read: basic) bathroom and kitchen tap fixtures are, as far as we're concerned, the best. The upgrades are just 'ugly' or 'fussy' - guess this works out for us, so we don't have to cough up any extra money, and we can change them later on our own.

Where we did upgrade - changing our upstairs hallway to hardwood flooring, upgrading to a thicker underpad for the carpeting in the rooms, a frameless shower in the ensuite and the kitchen cabinets.

Here are some pics of the progress thus far. We will go out again this weekend to see what's changed.

Front of the house (left hand side of the house on the corner):

Side of the house
Back of the house (right hand side is the kitchen window and sliding door)


Stairs from upstairs to main floor
View of neighbours across the road

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Leaving Toronto

So we have decided to take the leap and buy a home here in Canada. Home prices are continually rising, and we figure we'd better start sooner than later.

Real estate is pretty scary here - the cost of a home is out of reach of most Canadians earning average wages. From our (limited) observations, a "single family home" here is almost 4 times the price of a similar home in Joburg. A 3-bedroom single detached home will cost you at least C$250,000 (R1,6m) - and this is not taking location in to consideration. For an upper middle-class neighbourhood and outside of the main city (suburbs) , it's at least C$350,000 (R2,3m). Within Toronto, the prices start at C$450,000. As a comparison to our R650,000 two-bedroom townhouse in Douglasdale: something similar in a comparable neighbourhood in Toronto would sell for $395,000 (R2,5m). Unlike Joburg, the further out you move from the Toronto city centre, the more affordable it is. So, we looked around in Toronto and have decided to move to the 'burbs.

After much deliberation, we have chosen to buy a semi-detached home in the city of Vaughan.
Vaughan is the "city above Toronto" in the so-called "905" area (where Toronto is the "416" area). The numbers refer to the telephone dialling codes (i.e. Joburg would be the 011 area and Pretoria would be the 012 area). Based on the 2001 census data, Vaughan was the municipality with highest growth in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), and 6th highest in the 2006 census. Although Vaughan is north of Toronto, it's much of a muchness in terms of distance to work - Brendon and I both work in the northern part of Toronto, and in fact we will still be within 15 kms of our workplaces. The only difficulty will be public transit, as we will be in York Region which has its own transit authority.

We have chosen an area called "Thornhill Woods" (you can read more about the area in the GTA New Homes magazine or here) where there is a lot of development - the area having been established as recently as 2001. Our home is in phase 2 and is set to be finished and ready to move in in September this year. This works out well for us, as our current lease expires at the end of September. We have signed an Agreement to Purchase, and then starts the fun of figuring out Canadian mortgages and real estate law. On the plus side, we will soon have to go to the builder's decor centre to select fittings, finishes and 'upgrades.'

Then there'll be regular drives out to the site to check on progress - we'll keep you posted as things happen!

This was our lot a few weeks ago...

This is it 4 few weeks later (this past weekend):

Monday, 23 April 2007

Seasonal Temperatures

We have just had a fabulous weekend, with temperatures in the 20's. Unseasonably warm.
Yet, this week is set to cool down again, to... unseasonably cold. I've come to the conclusion that seasonal temperatures mean very little in Canada (well, Toronto at least). We did not have a White Christmas, but instead celebrated a White Easter.

Speaking of which, Good Friday is a statutory (public) holiday here, but Easter Monday is not. It was strange not having the extra long weekend, especially since SA has so many holidays around April/ May. Easter Monday means banks and government agencies are closed, but us plebs still have to go to work. I do find it ironic that the US does not even have a Good Friday holiday, whereas India does. Well, now I know... I almost made a huge mistake by giving my staff the day off on Easter Monday.

My Easter weekend was upset by the news of SA's loss to Bangladesh in the Cricket World Cup. We drove out to Guelph (about 120 kms north west of Toronto) to visit Anita (my sister-in-law) and family and heard the news on arrival there. Arrghhh!

Anyway, cricket is very low on the horizon of Canadians, even though there is actually a Canadian team in the World Cup. This team is very representative of the immigrant population ;) Well, with so many South Asians in my office, at least I have people to chat to about the cricket, who know what I'm talking about. (Try explaining the game by comparing cricket to baseball that the North Americans do understand!) The worst part is not having freely available access to watch the cricket matches. In order to watch, you need to subscribe to the CBN cable channel which launched a special channel package for the World Cup - a grand sum of $180 (about R1200).

Oh well, we're apparently not missing much. Good luck to the Proteas on Wednesday!

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Seasonal Changes

At last.... Winter seems to have passed. However, the weatherman has predicted some light snow for the upcoming Easter weekend, so it's not yet time to pack away the coats and gloves. Some work colleagues have scared me by telling me there have been years with snow still in May!

The past week had some beautifully warm days. It was quite amusing to see Torontonians eagerly strip off their jerseys and coats, and rush out of the office early to bask in the sun at some outdoor cafe. Funny how 12C in spring is 'warm', but 'freezing' in autumn!

The snow has all melted away, with only a few large lumps of snow in some parking lots. All it took was one weekend with mild weather (i.e. above zero celcius) and sun, and all the pretty white snow disappeared, leaving the ground wet and squishy. With the milder weather has come rain and grey overcast days. I can hardly wait for full-blown Spring with its promise of colourful, sunny days.

What is a bit strange for me, is feeling so 'down' at this time of year. I'm used to an energetic start to the New Year, but with the cold weather here, it's hard to get motivated and moving.
Our apartment, while not much smaller than our old place, feels more cramped because it's long and therefore dark as there are only a few windows at the front and back. I really do miss the sunshine, and I'm craving the summer - although most likely I will be complaining about the humid heat in a few months' time... ;)

Daylight Savings kicked in a lot earlier than usual, with Canada following the US's early switch in an effort to conserve energy (So Toronto is now 6 hours behind SA instead of 7.) Now, in early Spring (April) it is still light until 19h00. By July it'll still be bright until 21h00... it's going to be strange leaving work late with the sun still shining!

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Cheese Steaks and Cream Cheese

My first adventure south of the border, and using my Canadian Permanent Resident (PR) card...

My company has an office in Horsham (about 30kms north of Philadelphia), where most of our senior management are. I went out there for a short 2-day trip last week (8-9 March). The trip there was more eventful than the trip itself.

I was booked on a flight leaving at 7h20 on Wednesday morning, and being the paranoid South African passport-holder, I arrived promptly at the airport at 5h15. The way things work when you fly out to the US from Toronto's Pearson International Airport, is that you clear US Customs and Immigration before you board the plane. Canadians have no idea how privileged they are when entering the US - they have their own separate line and they basically get waved through with minimal questions and hassle. Thankfully I was not asked too many questions, having secured a 10-year US B1/B2 visa (visa for business/pleasure) and having only a small carry-on suitcase didn't raise any flags.

We were herded on to the plane at about 7h00, only to be told that we would be delayed till about 8h15 as our plane needed to be de-iced before takeoff. We were in a really small plane (something like 12 rows of 4 people!) with no screens, so the flight attendant has to demonstrate the safety procedures - which he did with much aplomb and gusto. At least he had a sense of humour. De-icing done, we went out to the runway... and then were told that Philly had closed their airport due to poor visibility in the snowstorm, and that our flight had been cancelled.
It was quite amusing, as the passenger in the seat next to me had put on his mp3 player and earphones, and dozed off. We were in the first tow, so when the door opened to let us off, he woke up startled and asked, 'What happened?' Oh, I was so tempted to just tell him we had landed at Philly....

Anyway, all 38 of us were then given the option of being pushed on to the next flight leaving at 11h30, or trying to make other arrangements. I opted to take the next flight and spent the next three hours wandering around the airport and then dozing in the waiting area at the gate.
We boarded at about 11h15 and were then told that the snowstorm was continuing and Philly Airport (PHL) had asked that we delay slightly and aim for 'wheels up' at 12h30. And then... our flight was cancelled yet again! We had the same flight attendant and he was very apologetic - I had to wonder if the final decision to cancel the flight was PHL's or Air Canada's.

We were then told that we had to go back through Canada Immigration to 'repatriate' ourselves, since we were officially in the US, having passed through their immigration. What a pain - it was really busy, with long queues - almost an hour long wait. When the Canada Immigration officer asked where I was arriving from, I said... "The runway." And then she asked if I had bought anything to declare! (Yes... a magazine.) I realised afterwards that Canadian residents are only given a duty-free allowance for a minimum 24 hours absence from Canada. So my first use of my Canadian PR card was a non-event really.

So all-in-all I spent a grand 8 hours (one whole business day) at the airport. Grr. On arriving back at my office, I spoke with our Horsham office - apparently it was not a heavy snowstorm at all, but just constant snow. Sigh - the sissies at PHL closed their airport for 2-3 cms of snow! So the next morning I once again trekked out to the airport (with a strange feeling of dejavu), for the 7h20 flight from Toronto Pearson International... No hitches this time, and we landed on time. Whew.

Anyway... Philadelphia... seemed like a quiet city, didn't get to see much of it though :( I had a rental car to drive up to the office, and took the scenic route through the city centre, mostly avoiding highways. This was a bit painful, as the roads are set out very much like Pretoria, with a grid of one-way streets. Luckily it was just after rush hour, but traffic was busy nonetheless. I found it strange and confusing that, in streets with traffic in both directions, cars were parked in the median between the lanes - this means that you have pedestrians running around all the time, and you need to be so much more aware of a car door suddenly opening in front of you. Brave people.

Our office is in a sleepy suburb, where there's not much to see or do. So I drove back out to Philadelphia the Thursday night, as there's an outlet mall there ;) I must say, it was interesting in that the demographics are similar to SA - this being a bit of a shock to me, having been in Toronto now for so many months. I am now used to seeing many Asian and Oriental faces everywhere.

I arrived back in Toronto on Friday evening, and it felt like coming home. This time, clearing Canadian Immigration was a breeze - no lines, a stamp in my passport and a wave of the hand.

Next trip, I will have to make a point to stay a bit longer, perhaps have Brendon tag along and stay for the weekend. I would love to make a trip out to King of Prussia Mall ... the second largest mall in the US, and the largest on the East Coast. Another side trip would be out to Lancaster to see the Amish way of life.

And no, despite the heading, I resisted the urge to buy a Philly Cheese Steak. And I can get Philadelphia Cream Cheese any time here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Better in SA

So I've come to the conclusion that all is not that great in Canada... here are some of the minor irritations I've encountered so far (and I write some of this with tongue-in-cheek):

GSM (Cellular)
GSM coverage here can only be described as adequate, and nowhere near as extensive as in SA. Go one level underground or inside some buildings, and you lose your signal! One of the networks here even has a TV ad that boasts it's a great thing that your cell call doesn't get dropped when you go in to an elevator. Radio interference is very common - when changing cell towers, you can hear the annoying feedback on your radio (remember when that used to happen in SA... *years* ago!) In fact, only two service providers in Canada actually use GSM technology (like in SA and the majority of the world) - the others use CDMA (analogue) networks.

A talk radio station was recently discussing the low use of cellphones in Canada - a national wireless penetration rate of approximately 58%. The high costs were cited as part of the problem. Something completely foreign to me is that you pay for incoming calls and incoming SMS's above a certain limit. This does seem to be falling away though - many of the providers are now offering packages with "free unlimited incoming calls." There's hope yet.

An interesting thing is that Number Portability was only implemented here on March 14 - granted, it's much more comprehensive than SA's MNP. Here, landline and cellphone numbers are interchangeable/ portable, and not just between service providers.

Another interesting comment I read on another blog (on Apple's announcement of the iphone, says "If there’s one thing Canada lacks it’s a good ol’ battle between Telecommunications providers." So take heart those of you in SA, you're not alone and at least the cell coverage is world-class!

Public Health Care
Not all is well with Canada's much touted public healthcare system - there are no "medical aid" companies and "private" doctors and hospitals. All doctors and hospitals essentially are paid for by the government and you don't pay for services that are "medically necessary".
Essentially, you need to find a family doctor, or go to a walk-in clinic... but there is a known problem of shortage of family doctors, with about 15% of Canadians not having or being able to find a family doctor. Most doctors are simply not accepting new patients, so you have no choice but to go to a walk-in clinic.

Going to a walk-in clinic means long waiting times to see a doctor, and not seeing the same doctor every time. In January, I had to wait three hours to see a doctor to get a simple prescription, and this after three attempts at the walk-in clinic (I was turned away twice as there were just too many people). When you're actually quite sick, this wait time is just ridiculous. And if you're not ill, you're more likely to get sick from sitting in the waiting room! I felt so very sorry for a mother with her sniffling and coughing toddler - the wait must have felt like forever.

A documentary called "Global Currents" aired end of last year highlighted the problem of immigrant doctors - many of whom are unable to get residencies and thus certified to work in Canada. There is a set amount of money allocated for health care, so more doctors means less money per doctor. There are few residencies made available each year, compared to the number of doctors available. This sounds like such a mess, but I guess at least all Canadians have decent health coverage one way or another.

Parking and Parking Fines
Parking... what parking. Unlike SA, parking downtown in general is not free nor freely available. Parking by-laws are actually enforced here - there are dedicated police "Parking Enforcement" vehicles that cruise around. Don't even think about parking where you shouldn't - you will get a ticket.

The cost of parking is insane. Downtown underground or covered parking is $8 (R48) per hour during business hours!!! Metered street parking (if you're lucky or early enough) costs from $1.50 (R9.50) per hour. Add that to the cost of driving, and public transit is all that more amenable, and of course, environmentally friendly ;)

Gas (Petrol) Price
The price of petrol is not regulated here as in SA. This means that you spend a bit of time driving around trying to find the "best" price before you fill up. To me, this is just a meaningless, pointless exercise. What this also means, is that you are even more so at the mercy of fluctuations in the price of oil and other external factors, with immediate price increases instead of the once-a-month adjustments in SA. Particularly, there is speculation of collusion as the price jumps up during schools' March break and at the start of summer, when people travel more by car. In fact, the price of petrol in Ontario has gone up 30c (about R2) a litre since we started driving - in December, we paid on average 73c per litre, in March we are now paying 102c per litre.

Then of course, there's different prices depending on whether or not you're willing to pump your own petrol ("self serve"), or pay a few cents extra *per litre* to have someone do so for you ("full serve"). Now is when you appreciate those pump attendants :)

As a side note: Ontario recently had a major petrol shortage - you would have to drive around to a couple of stations just to find one that has petrol, and even then, you were limited to the amount that you could pump. There is still a problem, as some gas stations display their price as "00.0c" which does not mean free petrol ;), but that there is none.

Need I say more. The weather has extremes here. However, on the up side, you really do appreciate the warmer weather and I can now really justify having a "Winter wardrobe" and a "Summer wardrobe."

The weather is usually the top story of the day. The Weather Network's self-proclamation is that it's "devoted to Canada’s favourite topic of conversation -- the weather!"

Internet Banking
South African online banking is so much easier and efficient. I can pretty much transfer money from my SA account to any other SA account, given the bank name, account number and branch code. However, Canadian internet banking has limited functionality - adding beneficiaries (payees) is a mission, to say the least. You cannot do this online, but have to call in - even if the person is at the same bank! Perhaps this is only true of my Canadian bank, but it's annoying nonetheless.

Another great SA banking feature I truly miss, is SMS notification of transactions - I guess this also relates to the lower use of cellphones (see above).

In Conclusion

This being said, I am loving it here in Toronto - these are minor annoyances compared to the convenience of 24-hour grocery stores, shops open until 9pm in the week, clean and safe streets to walk on, public transit that almost eliminates the need to drive, affordable high-speed internet connectivity ...

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Living in a Freezer

So it's been a while since I've sent any updates. I could blame the cold weather or work - not sure which is the bigger evil :P

It's been pretty darn cold - temperatures going down to -28C with wind chill. The City of Toronto has been issuing extreme weather alerts for the cold - this happens when there is a forecast of -15C without the wind chill factor. In fact, I think it's warmer inside my freezer than it has been outside for the past few weeks. Ironic, since I see that the SA Weather Service has done likewise, for high temperatures. I guess you just can't win. However, I think it's probably easier to get indoors and wrap up and stay warm than it is to find aircon and relief from sweltering heat. You can always put more clothes on, and yes I've never before worn so much of my clothes all at once!

The weatherman reported last night that there have been 31 consecutive days below freezing temperatures. It's the longest cold snap since 1985 but not a record. The average temperature for the past 31 days has been -9.9C! While this sounds horrific, it's actually not been bad at all. I must say, after the temperatures drop past -5C, cold is just cold. It then becomes a matter of how long you can stay outdoors before you lose feeling of your nose!

Clearly I am getting used to the cold weather here though. Today's high temperature is 4C and I think it's "warm" :P So while we had a late start to Winter, when it did arrive, it did so with a vengeance. I have to say, I'd rather it be very cold for a concentrated period of time, than have temperatures see-saw between "cold" and "mild" for an extended period.

On the work front, things are steady - I've settled in and passed my three month 'probationary' period. From what I can tell, this means I now have "dental" (benefits) and am considered less of a credit risk to credit card companies and other lenders :P

With my US visa now sorted out, I'll be heading down to Horsham (near Philadelphia), Pennsylvania to meet with colleagues in the US office, and then in a couple of months to New Delhi to meet colleagues in our India office.

I'll keep you posted on the upcoming weather and travels ;)

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Snow is Over-rated

Real Winter finally came to Toronto with a blast of freezing rain and ice pellets last Monday morning. The temperatures have finally dropped below 0C, and it's "normal" Canadian weather.

Actually the late winter has been quite upsetting for Canadians - it seems many people here are dependent on the winter season for income. Blue Mountain resort (north of Toronto) had to send a whole bunch (about 1300 people) of their seasonal employees home because of the lack of snow and therefore business. Toronto City programs for ski and skating lessons were cancelled, snowblowers were not being sold...

Brendon and I went in to work late that Monday, although we did debate not going in at all. In my office, about 70% of people just sent out mail saying they were working from home. It was pretty scary being out on the roads on that morning. The first snowstorm of the season... Torontonians were out of practice and not prepared for the road conditions, especially since the Winter snow had arrived much later than usual. People had put off buying windscreen washer fluid (which instantly tripled in price at all petrol stations!), and putting on snow tires. The Ontario Provincial Police reported over 600 accidents that day, but mostly bumper bashings from cars skidding around. Pretty crazy.

The public transit systems were late and overcrowded - when there are bad weather conditions people opt to take public transit, as they don't want to risk it out on the roads. Ironic for me, since I'd rather drive when it's cold. I guess the point is that you can be really careful, but it's always the other idiot who isn't and smacks in to you. In summer we'll probably revert back to taking the bus and subway - I am definitely missing (and I can feel it physically) the daily walking.

I have to say - snow is overrated. When the snow first comes down, it's all pretty and white, but after the snowploughs, salters, de-icers and shovelers have been at work, and the cars have been driving on the roads, it looks really ugly out there with all the mud in the snow.

I passed my driver's test on Tuesday afternoon - thank goodness there wasn't another snowstorm to make the roads slippery and dangerous. The area I did my test in is the airport, and is pretty 'industrial'- not many people or traffic. The roads there are wide enough for two cars, but no lines on the road, so you can pretty much drive in the middle, which helps with the snow on the side. The test itself was very quick - just a drive around the block, one three point-turn and reversing in to the parking back at the test centre. Whew. I'll have to tackle the highway test in a year's time again, in order to become a G-class driver.

Lastly, a little personal anecdote regarding my first experience of this horrendous winter weather... Brendon tells me, "Some idiots pour water over their windscreens to clear it" and I'm thinking... "What's wrong with that?! Sounds perfectly logical to me." I guess when you've never lived in a place where water can freeze on contact with the windscreen, stuff like that just never occurs to you...

Monday, 1 January 2007

Happy New Year

Wow, 2007 has finally arrived, and 2006 has been such a roller-coaster.

We saw in the new year at Nathan Phillips square, in downtown Toronto outside City Hall, along with 40,000 other people who came for the free concert dubbed "Canada's New Year's Bash." It was a wet evening but interesting to be surrounded by tens of thousands of other strangers at an alcohol-free concert - the people here don't go half as crazy as South Africans at New Year's. The other interesting thing - that I was also told about at our company holiday (Christmas) party - is that the hosts of parties are criminally liable for their guests if they are allowed to drive under the influence. Sheesh... talk about corporate responsibility. It obviously works, since the road death statistics here are minor compared to SA. And I guess that's what happens when you live in a litigious society.

The mild weather is holding up, and instead of a snowy Christmas, it's been mild and New Year's was wet. Yesterday it was 11C and boy, I'm not complaining :) The cold weather is coming though, so I'll probably see some snow soon.

So in summary, I..
- lived without my hubby for 6 months of the year
- got to practice yoga with the living Ashtanga guru (Pattabhi Jois) in London
- resigned from my job at IS, the first company I ever worked for
- saw my brother married to his best friend (finally)
- stood by my best friend as she got married in Croatia
- sold my car (my little 206!)
- moved city, country, hemisphere - from Joburg to Toronto
- got a job (so similar to my old one) at a new company, Afilias
- bought a new car (a Nissan Versa - called Tiida outside of North America)

2006 was also a year that I
- cried the most (those farewells and weddings)
- flew the most times on an airplane, internationally (twice to London, once to Croatia, twice to Canada; next time I'll use the same airline and earn those loyalty miles!)
- threw away tons of useless stuff accumulated over the years
- got rid of most of my clothing and shoes (*sob*)
- finally cleared out my old room at my folks
- used the most bubble-wrap and foam ever
- packed up a house and shipped off everything in two weeks
- spent the most money (flying and moving is an expensive exercise)

So in ending, some New Year's wishes:

During the year may you have...
Enough happiness to keep you sweet.
Enough trials to keep you strong.
Enough sorrow to keep you human.
Enough hope to keep you happy.
Enough failure to keep you humble.
Enough success to keep you eager.
Enough friends to give you comfort.
Enough wealth to meet your needs.
Enough enthusiasm to make you look forward to tomorrow.
Enough determination to make each day better than the day before.