I’m writing this sitting at our new kitchen table. The boys are settled in the family room behind me, watching a ‘Star Wars’ DVD, and I’m able to look out the window at rain falling gently on our back garden – a garden which very quickly becomes woodland as it slopes away behind the house. It does feel good to be here now, although there is still some way to go before we will be able to call ourselves ‘settled’.
Our ‘new’ kitchen table is, in fact, one of the few things which we haven’t bought new. It was actually bought at a garage sale a few doors down our new street, and in a transaction somehow typical of the first few weeks here, it was bought from a teacher at the boys’ new school; a woman from Dundee. I had always assumed that there would be a British expat community here, and by extension, a Scottish one, but it has been truly remarkable how many Scots we’ve met in the first few days – our neighbour wasn’t even the first person from Dundee we’d met.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a small town where everyone knows each other, but sometimes it’s hard to shake off that feeling – it took us about two days before we started bumping into people we knew. Prince George is, in fact, a city of around 80,000 people, but it is also a community in a way that a similar sized British city would not be. I think that this is partly because it is remote from other large towns, and partly because there seems to be a natural sense of community here; as I have already mentioned, people are friendly and welcoming; this gives a clear sense of being part of something, even as newcomers.
This has been brought home to me most clearly by my brushes with fame – as you know, these letters are being published in the local newspaper, and not a day has yet gone by without someone asking me if I’m ‘that guy from the paper’. This is a curious sensation; for all the time I was in paid employment, however well I did my job, no-one ever stopped me to ask if it was really me. It is obviously gratifying to be recognised and complimented, but there’s more to it than that – it gives me a feeling that there is a real continuity in this city – not only is there a daily local paper, but there is a clear impression that most people read it, or are at least aware of what is in it, and therefore knows what is happening in their city, and having come from an environment where people seemed to be becoming more disconnected by the day, that is a welcoming prospect.
I’d like to tell you that we have spent most of our time since we arrived getting to know people and settling in, but the truth is that having arrived with a grand total of 6 suitcases to our names, we have mostly been shopping. I imagine that, taking the global economy into account, you’d expect me to say that shopping in one country is very much like shopping in any other, but there are certain observable differences, some of them very definitely Canadian.
I suppose the most obvious of them is that Canada is a bilingual country. This is not readily apparent in the middle of British Columbia – we are almost as far away from Québec as you are – but while you don’t hear French spoken on the streets, you do encounter it in the shops. Everything – and I do mean everything – is labelled in both languages, which does bring you up short if you are looking for baked beans, and all you can find is a row of ‘Fèves’. It’s probably too early to tell what the average Prince George shopper thinks of having everything in two languages, but as an outsider, it seems to me that this situation has an unusual impact.
Without the French language on everything, it would be extremely easy for manufacturers simply to view Canada as part of the US; to run Canadian operations from the same office and in the same way as those for Houston, Texas or Boston, Mass. Because there is a legal requirement to do things differently here, there is a subset of the global economic juggernaut which is uniquely Canadian, and it seems to me that it helps to foster a sense of Canadian identity. It may not be a universal point of pride that there are two languages on the shelves at Save-On-Foods, but it is a unique selling point.
There is another obvious difference to the Canadian supermarket experience. If your shopping list contains both cat food and beer, you will be visiting two retail outlets. There is no alcohol whatsoever for sale in the grocery stores (and they’re ‘stores’, not ‘shops’: shops are something else entirely). This takes a little getting used to for the Brit who is used to buying everything from malt whisky to car insurance at Tesco. It feels ridiculously inconvenient to me, of course, but judging by the shocked faces when I explain the British way of doing things, I wonder if there isn’t something to be said for it.
If you do want to buy beer, then, you’ll have to visit a liquor store. Now, I don’t know about you, but this expression conjures up all sorts of images for me. Or it used to – I braved one of these exotic sounding places, only to discover that it’s just an off-licence. A very big, government-operated off-licence, but that’s what it is. There are privately run operations, but they have to buy their alcohol at the price the government outlets sell it at. The fact that there are any profitable independent liquor stores gives me great faith in human nature.
I’m at the end of another letter home, and I haven’t even got to coupons, never mind the lack of online home shopping. And there’s so much more to tell you, as well. It’ll have to wait until next time.