Back in the CSSR*

After spending just one week in the States, it’s good to be back in Canada.

I literally felt the muscles in my shoulders and neck relax as I passed through the Passport Check in Vancouver. It’d been a smooth border crossing, starting with the ability to fill out my Customs Declaration completely online, before I even got on the flight. So when I landed in YVR, I only had to go to one of the (many, open) kiosks, have my photo taken, and bring the printed receipt plus my passport and work permit over to the nearest Border Services Officer (no line, no waiting this time). Said Officer chatted me up as she checked over my documents, and sent me on my way with a “Good luck!” (in my work).

Contrast the experience of flying into the US, where I had to go through security twice, then fill out a customs declaration on the spot, then get interviewed by a border guard who growled at me while eyeing me suspiciously. Brrr.

I was supposed to catch a connecting flight from Vancouver to Victoria, which left me with three hours to kill in the airport. But when I reached my gate, I noticed an earlier flight (which I didn’t think I’d make, and thus didn’t book) hadn’t boarded yet, and was leaving in half an hour. On a whim, I walked up to the desk and asked if they could get me on that flight. Without rolling her eyes, or sighing, or telling me there’d be fees involved, the agent just said “Sure,” found me a seat, and printed out a new boarding pass right there!

From the Victoria airport, I decided against waiting for the first bus, and instead walked for about 15 minutes through forested parkland and farm-lined roads before coming to the main exchange, where a five minute wait had me on a bus heading directly downtown. The view from the bus stop was so good I had to take a few pictures; the shot at the top of this post is one of them. Forty minutes later, I was back at the apartment, safe and sound.

I’ve spent a lot of time knocking the Canadian Healthcare system here, and it has been the most surprising and frustrating part of the move. But so many things are better here than in San Diego: The roads are better maintained, the buses are cleaner, bigger (they have double-deckers here), and run more frequently. People are friendlier, as the cliché goes, but more than that, they seem genuinely interested in helping. Whether that’s the ICBC clerk giving you your driving exam, or the passenger next to you on the plane whom you solicit advice on local hikes from. That attitude extends into infrastructure — the roads, yes, but also even the water fountains are better designed, having spigots at the top now for easily refilling water bottles — and the way events are run, like the ASL interpreter at the Canada Day celebrations.

In short, I can relax in Canada because I feel I don’t need to do everything on my own, here. There’s help available (for the most part, see healthcare) if I need it. And that makes all the difference.

*Not a political comment, just a play on The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”

Three Things I Love About Living in Victoria

When I made the move from San Diego up to Victoria, BC, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been to British Columbia before, hadn’t even been to Canada except for a brief trip to Toronto in 2019 (which was great, despite it being November and thus cold as hell). I’d heard good things from people who’d vacationed on Vancouver Island, but stopping by in the place for a night or two is one thing, living there is altogether different.

So two months in, I’m happy to report that I love it here. I feel like I really lucked out with my choice of apartment and city; if anything, I’m kicking myself for not moving out here sooner.

Here’s three of the many reasons I’ve fallen in love with Victoria:

The Size

Even though it’s the largest city on Vancouver Island, Victoria is incredibly walkable. From my apartment (which is on the edge of Chinatown and Harris Green, near North Park, aka nowhere particularly interesting in and of itself, and outside the core) it’s a ten minute walk to the Save-On Foods, there are two coffeeshops within two blocks, and the Parliament Buildings (where the BC provincial government meets) are just twenty minutes hike south.

It’s not just the distance that make it walkable, of course. There’s gotta be sidewalks (check), bike lanes to keep the walkways free for pedestrians (check, there’s so many people biking around town), and cross-walks clearly marked plus lights so getting across the street is safe (check!). One of the main bridges between Victoria and West Victoria/Esquimalt has about one-third of its width dedicated just to pedestrians and bike traffic.

So far, I’ve only found one place in the entire city (and I’ve been walking 10-20 km every weekend, exploring) where the sidewalks end, and that was in a super-ritzy neighborhood on a one-way street heading down to the beach. I’ll forgive it. All this infrastructure and density add up to a city where you not only can walk everywhere, you kind of want to, because…

The Outdoors

It’s gorgeous out there!

Seriously, I swear there’s a park every few blocks. And most of the streets are lined with trees as tall or taller than the buildings. And they’ve lined most of the coast with public parks, so you’re never far from being able to see, hear, and smell (not always pleasant, I’ll grant) the ocean.

I grew up in West Texas, where the deserts of the Southwest meet the central prairies. Trees were few and far between; you were more likely to see briars and thorns growing in a yard than grass. Forests were things I’d read about, but never seen.

So to be dropped onto Vancouver Island, a temperate rainforest, is like a kid’s dream come true.

In one of my first weekends here, I grabbed a locally-written book about walking/hiking trails in the area (from one of the five (!) bookstores within walking distance) and I’ve been working my way through it. Granted, these are all managed parklands — no wilderness trails for me, yet — but hiking through them, I feel like a little kid again, exploring the fields around my house with a backpack and a compass.

There was a point last weekend when I was hiking through Highrock Park where, towards the top, I came to a stop in a little clearing. No one else was up there. It was just me, and the trees, and the rain. I couldn’t hear the city. No traffic, not even a dog bark. Simply glorious.

Not that I mind my fellow Victorians, though, because…

The People

They really are nicer!

One of the many things I worried about, moving up here, was that it would be like Seattle. I found Seattle to be absolutely dreadful; unlike Portland, no one at Seattle seemed to want to acknowledge my existence, let alone my humanity. I visited the library, and in that hall of cold glass and stone I made the mistake of trying to take the elevator between floors. When the doors opened, there were a handful of people in it, all spread out to occupy the whole space. When I asked if they could scooch in so I could get inside, they just stared at me, vacantly, like they could not even contemplate making way for someone else.

Brrr.

Thankfully, my experience in Victoria has been the exact opposite. Everyone’s been welcoming, and they don’t seem to mind that I’m from Southern California (another thing I worried they’d be cagey about). The folks at the bank actually seem to want to be helpful, which is a revelation after decades interacting with US banks. Even the people at ICBC — the equivalent of the DMV here — went above and beyond to help me out, giving me advice on how to get my complete driver’s record transferred so I don’t have to overpay for car insurance (!). And after just a single meeting of the Victoria Creative Writing Group I found a writing circle to join.

Conclusion

I’ve only been here two months, true, but so far I’m very, very, glad I made the move. If you’re thinking of making the change to Canada, have a look beyond the big cities of Vancouver, Montreal, etc. Maybe you’ll find your own perfect spot to explore.

Three Things They Don’t Tell You about Banking in Canada

So last week I tried to pay a bill from a US company using my Canadian accounts.

Big mistake. Huge.

And it’s a legitimate bill! One I want to pay. The company that helped me get my work permit has finally charged me for their services. I want to pay them as soon as possible. They deserve it!

And yet.

I went into the bank, spent about half an hour there, and in the end still wasn’t able to send the money. Why not? Well, let me share some of the things I discovered…

Nothing is Free

Back in the States, I was used to — spoiled by — all the free banking services available. Free checks! Free accounts! Free credit cards!

Not so in Canada. Canadian banks are apparently unable to tap into Wall Street’s billions to make them solvent, and so they actually charge for things.

There’s a monthly charge just to have an account. Any account. For each account.

You want checks? Yeah, those will set you back $50CAD just for basics.

Pulling money from an ATM? That’ll cost you, if you’ve gone over your transaction limit.

Yes, transaction limit. There’s a limit to how many times you can use your account, before they start charging you more fees.

So when I went down to the bank naively thinking I was going to wire the money, they sat me down and explained that each wire transfer (I needed to send three) would cost $50 to send. Not $10. Not $20. $50. A piece.

Needless to say, I did not end up sending the money by wire!

Nothing is Simple

My bank in the US was entirely online. Need to send a wire transfer? Fill out this web form, submit it, done. Need to pay a bill? Add the bill’s account info to this list of payees, choose how much to send, done. Everything, and I mean everything, was done via the online interface.

In Canada? Not so much.

At first, I thought it was much the same. I was able to open an account entirely online. Even managed to put money in it, once I’d figured out how to send an international wire (again, without having to go into a bank anywhere).

But then I got a notice that my account(s) would be closed if I didn’t present myself, in person, to a bank in Canada by X date. Said date was a full month before I was planning on being finished packing and moving up from California.

So I had a bit of a scramble to get everything packed and shipped from the US so I could get up here in time to walk into a bank and prove that yes, I am a real boy.

That turned out to be just the start of the things I needed to do in person.

Opening a credit card? Go in to the bank, because you don’t have any Canadian credit.

Sending a wire transfer? Go into the bank, we don’t trust you to do that online.

Need a debit card? Go into the bank and have them print one for you, because we’re not going to send you the one we promised.

Need that debit card to actually work? Hahaha, oh my sweet summer child.

Granted, every one I’ve interacted with at the bank has been lovely. Not rushed, genuinely interested in helping, just great people. But the fact that anything beyond giving my account information to other companies so they can auto-deduct money from my account requires at least three steps, one of which is always going into a branch, really slows me down. Speaking of which…

Nothing is Fast

Okay, I take that back. If another company has your debit info, they can take money out of your account very quickly.

But anything else takes lots and lots of time.

My credit card application took six weeks, seven tries, and an hour-long visit to the bank to be completed and approved.

The checks I ordered to pay the US bill will take two to three weeks to get here.

The debit card I was supposed to get when I opened the account never came.

Sending money back home to my wife takes a week (not the promised 48 hours).

Conclusion

In short, banking in Canada requires a lot more patience and time than I’m used to. Not that I can’t get used to it, mind you, and I know I should be grateful that — so far — everything has worked out, just not in a timely fashion. Things could definitely be worse.

But again, something I wish I’d known before moving here, so I could have better prepared myself for it.

You Can’t Ship That to Canada!

I have a love-hate relationship with Fedex.

On the love side, when I was searching for the best way to send books and clothes up to Canada, they quoted me an incredibly cheap price — less than $300USD — sold me boxes, and helped me re-pack some items. My first five boxes spent a week going through Customs, but they made it here safe and sound.

On the hate side is…well, everything else.

After moving into the apartment in Victoria, I went back to San Diego for a couple weeks, to pack up my remaining books and personal items (ok, I’ll admit it: toys). I ended up with seven boxes this time, which barely fit into our little EV. But I managed to get them downstairs, into the car, and then into the Fedex store — the same one I’d used before — to ship out.

The total was quite a bit higher this time — $800USD — but I paid it, confident that these boxes, too, would be treated well and arrive soon. Got on my flight the next day, feeling proud of getting that big thing done before I left.

So I was shocked and dismayed when my wife sent me a photo— as I was crossing from Vancouver on the ferry — showing those same seven boxes, stacked neatly outside of our house in SD, with no explanation from Fedex as to why.

I checked the tracking info for the shipment, and sure enough, it said they had been delivered (!) to San Diego, having been rejected by Fedex as soon as they picked them up from the store. The reason? “Improper Shipment.”

I confess I may at this point have uttered several curses which are not appropriate to type. With one stroke, Fedex had turned my accomplishment — getting my office cleaning out to make room for my wife’s family — into one more burden placed on my wife, who now had to deal with seven very heavy boxes.

This is the part of the story that, were this a movie, would be told in montage. Scenes of me on the phone with Fedex, alternating between tapping my foot as I wait on hold and raising my voice in frustration to the poor customer service agent on the other side. Scenes of me tapping away at my computer, hunting for information online that Fedex itself did not seem to possess (the one explanation they came up with — “your shipment was missing its commercial invoice” — was easily disproven when my wife found the commercial invoice taped to one of the boxes).

Finally, finally, we would get to the good part. I found an employee at the local (SD) Fedex who dug around enough to find out what really happened: It turns out you can’t ship your stuff from the US to Canada via normal Ground shipping. You have to use Express.

This is mind-boggling, to put it mildly. How does it help Canada to make me pay more to ship there? They’re going to hold onto it anyway, to inspect it at Customs, and I’m fine with that. Please, open my boxes and gaze upon my reading selection! Just…don’t make me pay $300 a box to ship it, huh?

But! This Fedex employee said as a way to apologize for the hassle, he could re-ship the boxes for me, Express, without charging me anything extra. The one condition was that he couldn’t have someone pick them up, my wife would have to bring them in. On a weekday. Before 6pm, so he could be there to process it.

And my wife came through! She had a Friday off, so she scheduled a contractor to come to give us a project quote, and had him load the boxes for her. Then she spoke with the Fedex employee about what to do, drove them to the Fedex store, and dropped them off! She sent me a photo of the receipt with one word: Done!

…Only it wasn’t done.

Because the very next day, I’m Facetiming with her, and what do we see? A Fedex truck pulls up to the driveway. Starts unloading seven very familiar looking boxes.

Confused, I had another look at the receipt she’d sent me. And sure enough: They’d shipped them Ground again.

At this point, our little movie would be no dialog, just a series of bleeps.

Somehow, my wife convinced the Fedex driver not to leave the boxes with us. Somehow, he said he’ll take them back to the warehouse and they’ll ship them Express this time.

So my books and speakers and keepsakes are…somewhere, right now, in a kind of shipping purgatory.

The moral of the story? If you’re moving to Canada, and you want to take more stuff than you can pack on a plane, just get a moving pod. It’ll be cheaper, and a lot less hassle.

Why Victoria?

Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal…These are the big, bustling, Canadian cities that most folks have heard of, the ones that most new immigrants head for.

So why did I choose to move to Vancouver Island, instead of Vancouver?

To be honest, after living here full-time for just a few weeks, my reasoning is already shifting. As the Oracle says in the Matrix:

…you didn’t come here to make the choice, you’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.

But! I’d like to set down my original reasons for picking Victoria, in the hopes that my research can benefit others who might be contemplating a move to Canada.

Our Requirements

My work is remote, so in theory we had the whole of Canada to pick from. In practice, though, we had several constraints on where we could live.

No-go Ontario

Our first, oddly enough, was our dogs. We have two of them, one a German Shepherd/Lab mix, the other our “pocket pitty,” a 45-lb pit bull mix.

It’s the latter that gave us the constraint. You see, the province of Ontario has banned pit bulls, full stop. You can’t breed them, you can’t bring them into the province, you can’t keep one as a pet. If they think you’ve got a pit bull, they can seize it, and make you go to court to prove it’s not a pit bull. If you fail, they kill it.

This is a ridiculous law, and I hope it gets repealed soon. Most dog bites are from small dogs, who (obviously) are more likely to feel threatened by people and thus lash out. Pit bulls themselves were originally bred as “nanny dogs,” to watch over children. Children.

Anyway, since we’re looking for somewhere to live long-term, even if we weren’t going to bring the pups up immediately, there’s no way we could settle in Ontario. So Toronto, Ottawa, all those communities were out.

Non, merci, Quebec

Ok, so what about Montreal? Or Quebec City? The home of poutine, what’s not to like?

Here we had two more constraints, both related to my wife.

The first is that she’s got Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD). Basically, the words you say aren’t the ones she hears. It’s like she has an autocorrect constantly running in her head, and it’s just as inaccurate as the one on your phone. So the prospect of having to brush off (and perfect!) her high school French was daunting. I speak French, so could help her out, but who wants to live in a city where you have to depend on someone else all the time to get basic things done?

The second constraint was simply the weather. I know, everyone knows it’s cold in Canada, and my wife’s no wimp. But she had major jaw surgery twenty years ago, and still has metal screws in her face (under the skin, goodness). In cold weather, those screws hurt.

So Quebec was out.

The Rent is Too High

That left British Columbia. I know I’m skipping over the Maritime Provinces — see the problems with Quebec, above — and Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba — ditto, with a side of “I’m from Texas, I don’t need to live in Canada’s version.”

We looked at a couple of different cities. There’s Vancouver itself, obviously. Further east you’ve got Kelowna and the Okanagan, and Kamloops north of them, both regions that are supposed to get less rain than the coast without the severe winters of the eastern provinces.

All three were enticing, but here again, we had constraints that narrowed our options for us.

For one, the plan shifted from both of us going up at the same time to just me, so my wife could stay behind and move her mother up to San Diego (that’s a whole other blog post). Naturally, she would keep the car, not only so she could get around San Diego, but also because our vehicle — a 2021 Chevy EV — is currently under recall for battery issues. And you can’t bring a car into Canada if it’s under recall.

No vehicle ruled out anything that’s not sufficiently urban to have a walkable downtown core. So Kelowna and Kamloops were both out, as being too car-dependent.

That left Vancouver, and though I’d heard good things about the city, I soon discovered one thing everyone said was completely true: The rents are absurd.

Not so absurd that there are a lot of places available, mind you. I started checking rental sites — a half dozen or so — multiple times a day, looking for units in areas where we thought we’d want to live. If anything came up at a reasonable price, it was usually gone by the time I contacted the building manager. Anything that lingered was out of our price range.

We had an extra set of constraints there, because we wanted to keep the house in San Diego (so my wife’s mother could live there). So we had to be able to afford both the place in Canada and the house in SD. Our already tight budget got tighter.

I was starting to despair of finding a place in time, when I got the idea to look at Victoria.

The Obvious Choice

And I’m glad I did. Victoria ticked all the boxes: Walkable downtown core, where I could get all my chores done on foot. Reasonable rental prices in modern buildings, so we wouldn’t break the bank. Available units, so we could move in when we wanted. Close to Vancouver, so in a pinch I could commute to network up there. And far enough south that it’s the only weather station in Canada to record a winter without going below freezing.

So Vancouver was out. Victoria, and Vancouver Island, were in.

Better All the Time

In hindsight, the choice was obvious, but at the time we fretted. We’d never been to any part of British Columbia, so we were judging everything from other people’s reports, scouring Google Maps, and watching video walk-throughs sent to us by building managers.

Since coming here, though, I’m glad we picked Victoria. Vancouver is gorgeous, but so big and expensive. Everything feels so accessible here; I can walk out my door and fifteen minutes later be in a park with bright flowers and tall trees, where the sounds of the city vanish. Or go down to the coast and gaze across the Strait at the Olympic Mountains. Or pop into one of dozens of coffee shops for a warming cup.

So if you’re looking to make the move to Canada, I urge you to do your research. Have a look at the laws of the province, to see if any are going to rankle. Set a strict budget for renting, and stick to it. And have a look at cities outside the big ones; you might find something smaller fits you better.

Three Things They Don’t Tell You About Moving to Canada

It’s taken six months, but I’m finally here, in Canada, for the long term.

Immigrating, even from the United States, is no joke. Things have gone relatively smoothly for me, but even so, there’s been a few surprises along the way. Since they’re things that folks usually don’t tell you when you’re thinking of immigrating, I thought I’d set them down here, so future immigrants can come better prepared.

So here are the top three things I wish I’d known before moving:

No Health Care

I know, Canada’s a single-payer system. Universal health care, and all that jazz.

That’s true, but what’s also true is that Canada’s system is really 10 different systems, because each province handles health care on their own. There’s no single, federal system you can carry with you from province to province.

Instead, when you first move to a province (waves) you have to sign up for their health care system. Does immigration tell you this? No. I had to learn from a co-worker.

To sign up, you’ll need a SIN. What’s a SIN? It’s a Social Insurance Number. That you get from the federal government, at a Service Canada station. You can’t get it till you arrive, work permit in hand, though. Good luck getting an appointment; they’re backed up 4-6 weeks, depending on where you land. For mine, I had to go stand in line for four and a half hours in downtown Vancouver, and I only got in because I showed up right when the Service Canada centre opened (even so, I was in the back of a line that stretched out their door and around the corner).

Ok, you’ve got your SIN. You’ve submitted your application to your province. You even did it online, because you and your province are fancy like that.

Now you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

…you see, the provinces are all backed up. So they straight up tell you it can take 3-6 months for you to get onto the province’s health care program. And even if you do get on, if you leave the province for “too long” (say, to take care of a family member back home), they’re drop you, and you have to start the process all over again.

Till then, you’re in legal limbo.

Wait, you say. This is Canada, how can they do this to people and call themselves a free country? Well, you see, it’s because you have:

No Power

That’s right. You can’t vote. You can’t run for office. You’re a person that works and pays taxes but has absolutely no input into the political system. You basically have no rights, save what they dole out to you.

This was brought home to me when I was waiting in line to go through Immigration at the airport. It was a large room with bad lighting, and chairs arranged in four rows, all facing a set of raised, plexiglass-enclosed cubicles. There was no signage, and no one said anything to me as I entered. I sat in the chairs, because everyone else was sitting in the chairs. I didn’t know what else to do.

Every so often, the figures behind the plexiglass would call out a name. Someone from the front of the line would stand, excitement on their face, and present their papers, to see if they would get through. We’d shift forward a few chairs, and settle back into waiting for our own turn.

It quickly became apparent to me that most of the would-be immigrants in line with me did not speak English as their first language. They seemed to have a language in common — they appeared to be from East Asia, but I don’t know enough about those languages to guess which one they spoke — as I saw multiple unrelated groups chatting with each other or asking questions.

It also became apparent that the Immigration officials had no translator, and no patience for those who did not speak English fluently.

I heard them yelling at people to get out. I saw them throwing translation cards at people. They taunted them, made fun of them, and generally verbally abused anyone that didn’t have a simple, up/down, fluent-English case.

It was terrifying.

They didn’t physically assault anyone, while I was there. But I realized they could have, and then what would I do? I felt rooted to my chair, afraid to speak out or help, because it would threaten my own ability to immigrate.

So no, the province doesn’t have to help you get your paperwork in order. And no, they don’t have to give you health care when you arrive. You have no political power, so they can write you off.

No Credit

Speaking of power, you don’t have any credit power, either. Because your credit history, back in your home country? Doesn’t matter here. They can’t access it, so you effectively start over from zero.

This might not seem like a big deal, until you try to get a bank account, or rent an apartment.

(I say rent because if you try to buy you’ll pay upwards of 20% extra as a straight-up tax when the sale closes. If that doesn’t discourage you from buying, then you’re probably rich enough you can smooth over the difficulties I’m outlining here)

Here’s the catch-22: You can’t rent an apartment without a bank account. Your landlord is going to want to know you can afford to rent the place. Without a credit history, your only recourse is to show funds in a Canadian bank that can pay for it (and also be used for automatic withdrawals every month). They’ll also likely want a secured bank draft for any deposits, once again drawn on a Canadian bank.

But you can’t get a Canadian bank account without a residence. Naturally enough, the banks want to be sure they’re only opening accounts for folks that are actually Canadian residents.

And even once you manage to solve that problem, if you’re thinking of maybe buying a car or getting a nice, points-based credit card, think again. You don’t have any credit history, so you don’t qualify for anything. In some cases, you not only won’t qualify, you can’t even apply without a Canadian phone number (oh, did I mention that? you’re going to want to swap out your home cell for a Canadian one. what’s that? you’re not ready to tell everyone and every account your new number? too bad)

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry I moved. Vancouver Island is absolutely beautiful, the folks who live here are quite welcoming and friendly, and it’s nice to be living in a place with reliable public transport again (because I don’t have a car, you see).

But immigrating hasn’t been easy, and I’m still working through the kinks. I’m still waiting on access to the province’s health system, for example, and I just now got a Canadian cell.

So to others thinking of moving to Canada: Go for it. Just be prepared for a bumpy ride if you do.

Greetings from Canada!

Wow, it’s been — six months? — since I posted anything here. That’s the longest gap in years, maybe ever?

I can explain. But in the words of Inigo Montoya, “No, it is too much. Let me sum up.”

Starting in late October (2021), I had a series of shocks, some personal, some work-related, that basically brought all my writing to a halt. No progress on the novel, no short stories, nothing. I stopped submitting, stopped revising, stopped even thinking about the work.

The break gave me the mental space to deal with everything that was happening. It also let me re-examine some of the ways my life was structured, in particular where I lived and how that fed into my own anxieties.

In short, I’ve moved to Canada. Victoria, BC, to be exact, on Vancouver Island.

I’ll post more about the experience of immigrating — which has been an adventure, even for as short a hop as this one — but a recurring thought I have as I walk around town is: I should have done this years ago.

Some history: Back in 2004, when Bush II won his second term, a lot of us liberals talked about heading out, to Canada or Europe, as a sort of “vote with your feet” protest. Some of us (not me, obviously) did it, and some of us stayed behind.

At the time, I thought of staying as a type of defiance. I was sticking it to the Republicans — many of them in my own family! — who chanted “love it or leave it.” I insisted I was just as patriotic as they were, I just thought patriotism meant taking care of people — women, children, etc — that the GOP wanted to leave behind.

But now? Now I wish I’d followed the instinct to leave. I had a friend that moved to Vancouver, and while we stayed in touch he keep urging me to move out, that the city was beautiful and there was plenty of work for engineers like us. I laughed it off, but now I wonder. Getting into Vancouver in 2004 was still affordable (!), my wife and I could have built a life there before housing prices went through the roof and the number of doctors went off a cliff.

Better late then never, I suppose. Because it is beautiful up here, between the mountains and the forests and the sea. Victoria reminds me a lot of Galway, Ireland, in both the good and the bad ways, a blustery, scruffy port town with green growing everywhere you look.

And now it’s home.

Written with: Ulysses

Under the influence of: “The Bends,” Radiohead

I Went Camping Again and All I Had was This T-Shirt

Let’s try this again, shall we?

“Where’s my backpack?”

It’s Friday evening. We’ve just unpacked the car on this, our second weekend camping trip.

And my backpack is missing.

The backpack that contains everything non-food I brought for the trip: my clothes, my sunscreen, my toothpaste. A jacket for chilly mornings. A hat for when we go hiking. A book for reading during downtime. Extra solar-powered lights, so we don’t have to setup the tent in the dark.

Even the lower parts of my camping pants, which can detach via zipper to become shorts, are in there.

My pants are literally missing.

We searched the car multiple times. Checked in every other bag. I even looked in the cooler, in case it had somehow been shoved in there along with the food and soda.

It was gone.

Later, after we got home, we saw it laying on the floor of the garage, waiting to be loaded into the car. Left alone, like a kid picked last for a basketball team.

So I had to go the weekend without it.

I slept, ate, hiked, all in the same clothes for three days. My scent was…not good, let’s say, by the end of things.

And while we were hiking through the desert, with scraggly succulents clawing at my legs, I dearly missed the lower part of my pants.

Hiking through a grove of Joshua Trees

But everything else? We made do.

I borrowed my wife’s hat for hiking, and she used a spare umbrella we keep in the car.

I borrowed her rain jacket for the mornings, to keep off the chill (It didn’t rain in the desert. She brought it as a spare, which turned out to be excellent foresight).

We shared sunscreen and bug spray.

And avoided people, of course, because it’s still an effing pandemic.

So all that other stuff? Turns out I didn’t need it. Not once.

And other than that, the trip went well! We found a way to foil the bees (bug spray to repel them + a water bowl off in the distance to attract them). We took the pups for a hike around and up some rock formations (in a day-use area, on-leash). We ate the food I spent all Friday cooking, at one point munching on some chilled paninis in the shadow of a boulder after a short hike out from the car.

We are, it seems, actually getting better at this.

The view from the bottom
View from the top
View towards the next rock formation over

Sleeping is still an issue. Between loud campers and smoke, it’s difficult to get a full eight hours. Cooking is fraught, between the invisible burner and the bee invasion.

And we seem to get caught in traffic every time we go. We apparently leave at the exact right time to get jammed up in rush hour, every weekend.

But this trip was better. The missing backpack was the biggest thing, and it turned out to be not much of an issue at all.

We’re already planning our next trip out.

Beware the Thirsty Bees: First Time Camping in Joshua Tree

We went camping in Joshua Tree for the first time this weekend.

My last camping trip was over thirty years ago. I was seven or eight, and I spent the entire three days refusing to use the filthy communal restrooms and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

It was not a good trip. I never really thought I’d ever try camping again.

But the pandemic has shifted things there, as it has in so many others.

My wife and I love to travel, but there’s no way we can risk staying in a hotel or taking a plane anymore. She has a clotting disorder, and I have asthma, two of those “co-morbidities” they blame when someone dies of Covid-19. We’ve been social distancing since March: No friends, no family, no exposure. We can’t risk our health staying indoors with other people for any length of time.

But camping’s not indoors! So long as we’re able to drive there — buying gas while masked up and wrapping our hands in a waste-disposal bag before touching anything — we can stay, outside, and keep other people at a distance. Low risk of exposure, high risk of hearing coyotes howl at night (but more on that later).

Beyond wanting to travel, though, we have an emergency waiting to happen, in the form of my wife’s mother. She’s in her upper 70s, and lives 1,500 miles away, in Arkansas. If she has an accident, or any kind of health incident, it’s up to us to get there and take care of her and my brother-in-law (who has special needs). We can’t fly anymore, so we’ll have to drive. And neither of us want to try to drive that whole distance without sleeping.

So camping is the only safe way for us to travel, for any reason.

Being proper nerds, we did a lot of research first. Read blog posts about camping with pups (we have two), how big of a tent to get, where to go for your first trip (close to home, which is why we chose Joshua Tree), even what pants to wear. We bought everything that was recommended, we loaded it all into the car, and we set off.

Ah, what fools we were!

And still, we were not prepared.

Not prepared for how loud the campground gets at night, when everyone returns from hiking and sets about drinking and smoking and cutting up. Long past midnight, we’d hear people singing and carrying on. Both nights we were there, I finally broke down and asked people to keep it down till morning, so we could sleep.

Not prepared for how long it really takes to setup camp. At home, when we practiced, we had everything up and ready in 30 minutes. But out there, at night (once), or in the heat of the day (the second time), it takes longer, and it feels much much longer. Between getting there, setting up the first night, then deciding to switching campgrounds the next day, then packing up for good the last day, I think we spent most of our time just setting up and tearing down.

Not prepared for the, um, toilet situation. I’ll spare you the details, but basically we couldn’t use the communal toilets, so we brought our own. And…let’s just say “leaving no trace” is good for the environment but not enjoyable in any shape or form.

And not prepared for the bees! Those thirsty, thirsty, bees.

They swarmed our water jug. They swarmed our food while we were cooking. They swarmed our toilet (I told you it wasn’t fun). And they were aggressive, too, the little buggers, as if we owed them something. Sometimes the only way to get them off was to run by the water jug, whose sweet smells of moisture would pull them away.

Our campsite, before the bees descended on us.

So after coming back, I’m stiff, I’m sore, I haven’t slept well in two days, and any buzzing makes me clench.

But we’re going back in two weeks! Why?

One, because we have to. We simply have to get better at camping if we’re going to be able to come to my wife’s mother’s aid when she needs us.

Two, because this was just our first trip! We were bound to mess it up, no matter how much we prepared.

And we can fix a lot of what went wrong!

Choosing the right campground from the start (we’ve already reserved it) means we won’t have to waste time breaking down and setting up twice.

The backdrop for our second and final campsite. Unbeatable, right?

Making meals ahead of time and bringing them along (rather than cooking) will mean less water exposed for the bees to swarm on (and less fuss setting up camp).

Taking a pavilion with us will mean we have some shade from the sun, no matter what time of day it is.

Using the rain fly on the tent will keep out smoke at night, so we can breathe.

Packing less ice in the cooler will make it lighter, and easier to find things we pack in there. And that means more room for things like water and soda; we packed water bottles, but left them out of the cooler, which is a thing so foolish in hindsight I want to reach back in time and slap myself for it. No soda meant that my wife’s headache from sun exposure and dehydration joined forces with caffeine withdrawal to take her out for the latter half of our last full day there.

And leaving the pups at their “camp” (an outdoor boarder) will mean we can explore the park this time, taking trails and hikes that they aren’t allowed on (which is all of them, I mean they want to keep it wild and let the animals that live there feel safe, so dogs aren’t allowed anywhere except roads and campsites).

The trail starts just outside our camp, but we can’t go…

So we’re doing it again! Wish us luck; or better yet: Got any tips to share for two tenderfoots who are trying to get this right?

Seattle

I’ve spent the last week up in Seattle for a conference. It’s not my first time in the Pacific Northwest (I’ve been to Portland once or thrice) but it is my first time in the Emerald City.

Overall, I’ve had a good time, but there’s been some…bumps…along the way.

First Impressions

Things got off to a rocky start.

A young woman demanded I gave up my seat on the commuter rail in from the airport, not by asking, but by standing in the aisle, glaring at me, and then saying “Well?!”

Later, when I tried to get in an elevator that was about half full, the guy blocking the doorway just stared at me, and refused to let me by, even after I asked him if I could get in.

And I’ll not mention the number of cars that tried to run me over as I was crossing the street (at a crosswalk, with the light green).

This was all the first day. People I met later on (at the conference, when eating out, etc) were cool and friendly, but that first impression…lingers.

Architecture

I’m not sure what I was expecting Seattle buildings to look like, but I definitely wasn’t expecting this thing, which looks like it’s going to fall over any second now:

Or this, which looks like someone framed out half a building and decided “eh, it’s good enough”:

I mean, I like ’em, they’ve got a cool sci-fi vibe to them. But damned if I can explain ’em.

Hills

Ye gods, Seattle is hilly. San Francisco, eat your heart out.

You can see why I never had any trouble meeting my Apple Watch’s Move demands each day.

Weather

I’ve discovered December is the wrong time to visit Seattle.

Not when I throw open the curtains in my hotel room, hoping for some morning sun, to find this:

I think I’ve seen the sun once all week. Suddenly I understand how grunge music came from this place.

MoPop

I can forgive everything, though, for the Museum of Pop Culture.

Housed in another building that looks like it just dropped in from a sci-fi movie lot, this place is amazing. I spent three hours there on Wednesday night, and it still wasn’t enough.

How could it be, when they’ve got original models used in filming Aliens:

And Gimli’s helmet:

And Shuri’s gloves:

They even did up the hall where the Doctor Strange props and costumes are exhibited in mirrors and glass, so it looks like you’ve stepped into the mirror dimension:

Wow.

Conclusions

I definitely want to come back. There’s a technical bookstore I want to browse, a bunch of machines at the Living Computers museum I want to play with, and too many breweries I want to patronize.

But I’ll wait for the late spring, maybe summer, when I can actually, you know, see things.