Monday, August 29, 2011

Social Insurance Number

Aka: If the U.S. government is “big brother” does that make the Canadian government “step-brother?”

One of the great things about moving to London a month before classes begin is that we have a lot of time to get all the “red tape” out of the way.  We have been using the International Student Handbook as a guide, making sure we accomplish everything needed.  Our student permits granted to us when we crossed the border allow us both to work while in school, but only on campus.  When reading up on working on campus, we realized that we would have to get a social insurance numbers from the Canadian government in order to be paid.

As I mentioned in a previous post, this is where the International & Exchange Student Centre was a huge help.  After reading through the handbook, we were still a bit confused about the employment contract we needed for the SIN.  At this point, we had still been going to our friend Don when we had questions about the moving process.  However, Don is Canadian so he was born with a SIN.  I suggested we stop at the IESC with our questions.  That is what they are there for right?  It was a slow day, since it was still a couple weeks out from the start of the semester, so we were quickly assisted with getting our paperwork together.

To apply for our SINs we needed to go to a Service Canada Centre, which is located in downtown London in the Dominion Public Building.  We decided to make a day of it and walk downtown to familiarize ourselves with the city and enjoy a warm summer day.  Having chosen one of the “off-peak” times to go, it was a minimal wait after checking-in until being called. 

Dominion Public Building

The woman who assisted me was nice and helpful.  Although, she opened by telling me that a SIN was very different from a Social Security Number, but her description of a SIN made it sound exactly like a SSN.   However, she is the expert, so I will just have to take her word for it.  One of the differences is that if/when we move away from Canada, we are still entitled to the money we contribute to Social Insurance out of our paychecks.  The government will give us that money; we do not just lose it.  That was a bit of a pleasant surprise.

Our trip was efficient enough to leave us plenty of time to do some other things while we were downtown.  We stopped at the London Public Library to get cards, I checked out a couple running stores, and we stopped at Smoke’s Poutinerie for lunch.  For those of you not familiar with poutine, it is a traditional Canadian dish of french fries with cheese curds and brown gravy on top.  Since I had never experienced it before, I opted for traditional poutine.  Doug was a bit more adventurous and had the triple pork poutine with Italian sausage, smoked bacon, and chipotle pulled pork on top.  It was delicious and very filling.  We both had to take half of our “regular” sized portions home for dinner!

Downtown Branch of the London Public Library

Smoke's Poutinerie

Traditional on left, Triple Pork on right

Overall, it was a day that went a long way to making us feel more settled and Canadian!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

International & Exchange Student Centre

Aka: Sometimes I forget we’re in Canada....

Shortly after being accepted to the University of Western Ontario, I started receiving letters and e-mails from the International and Exchange Student Centre.  Their website was extremely helpful when it came to planning the move and the immigration process.   I knew I wanted to make it one of our first stops once we got to campus.

After settling in a couple days, we headed over to campus to take care of a few things.  We needed to show our student permits to the Graduate Studies office so our acceptance was “official” and no longer “conditional,” get our Western student Ids, and I wanted to pick up our welcome packet from the IESC.

So far we had been relying pretty heavily on advice from our friends who already live in London, and had experience moving across the border.  I didn’t want to burden them too much, plus they had just left for a vacation, I figured this was a perfect time to use the resource of the IESC to answer some questions.

Turns out, we were probably the first new international students to stop by, as the 2011-12 welcome packets weren’t fully assembled yet.   However, the woman who spoke with us was extremely helpful, answered all of our questions, and encouraged us to come back in a couple weeks when we could pick up the updated new student handbook.

As we were waiting while she was assembling the parts of the welcome packet that she did have, Doug and I looked around the office.   This was when we admitted to each other that even after the moving ordeal and crossing the border, we still didn’t feel like international students.  Going from Michigan to Canada wasn’t like one huge culture shock.  It has been many little differences that we’ve just been adjusting to as we go.   Sometimes when I’m riding around town or out on a run I forget that I’m even in another country.  Then I’ll jog past a flag pole and think, “Oh yea, we’re in Canada.”

Oh, hey - that's right - we're in Canada!

Even so, I think the IESC will be a great resource to deal with the technical side of the move and adjustments.  For example, when it is time for me to apply for a work permit so I can have an internship and ultimately a job here in Canada, that’s where I will go for help.  That is what they are there for, and I intend to take full advantage of the resources available to me.

Actually, it was because I anticipated not feeling like a traditional international student that I decided to start this blog.  I knew the differences might be subtle (at least after the initial adjustments of a move) and I wanted to capture and remember as many experiences as possible.

Maybe I’ll feel more like an international student once I’m actually back to going to class and mingling with the other public history graduate students.  I will just have to wait and see....

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Real Canadian Superstore

Aka:  Cheese costs how much?!?!?

Some adventures come along with a move, regardless whether domestic or international.  Once you have lived somewhere for a while grocery shopping becomes second nature.  You know which place has the best prices, best selection, is on the way home from work, etc.  Maybe you spend a few moments prior to leaving or making your list, checking the circulars to see what is on sale, but for the most part you know where to go and you have your routine.

New place means new stores and new routine.  London has Price Chopper, Valu-Mart, Loblaw Great Food, Real Canadian Superstore, No Frills, Walmart, just to name a few.  Many of these are a short drive/ride/walk away from our neighbourhood.  We are fortunate to have friends in London who could give us the low-down on all the stores, letting us know where we could expect to get the best prices and selection.  Also, they gave us a heads up on the price difference on things in Canada, so there wouldn’t be too much sticker shock.

So the Monday after move-in day found me heading to the Real Canadian Superstore with my parents.  Let me tell you what, this store was HUGE and overwhelming.  We walked into a large open area with the ready to eat dinner section, fresh produce, bakery, deli, and seafood all together.  Dazed, I wandered around taking in the selection as well as the prices.  I decided to start over in the grocery section, just take it aisle by aisle, and then head back to the open area to get my produce.

I am so glad I had my parents with me!  Mom went off to the other side of the store to check out the home/beauty/pharmacy/clothing/etc. side of the store, and report her findings.  Dad stayed and helped me compare brands and prices, not to mention figure out some of the metric system things that threw me off! 

The first thing you’ll notice about buying anything in Canada, all the packaging is in English and French since both are national languages here.   Sometimes it’s a mix of languages all over the box, other times one side is English and one side French.  Three weeks in, I hardly notice it anymore, but at first it was a bit confusing.

Next thing I noticed was the difference in dairy.  It is much more expensive here.  Doug and I used to frequently buy cheese shredded, sliced, and in blocks depending on what we wanted to use it for.  Now, it is all blocks to save money, and we are getting skilled with the grater and cheese slicer!  The next major adjustment is we now buy milk in bags.  Four liters of milk comes packaged in three bags.  There are specially designed pitchers to hold the milk, and you snip the corner of the bag to pour.

Milk in a bag!

These are just a few of the surprises I ran into on my first shopping trip.  In all the moving frenzy, I had forgotten to bring my reusable shopping bags, which are pretty important here.  While many places in the states will give you a discount if you have your own bags, all the places here will charge you for plastic bags.  I haven’t made that mistake again.

After taking my time going down all the aisles, picking up the essentials, and getting a feel for the differences, I started to feel more at ease.  We may make a few changes to the way we shop and eat, and there may be some things we always pick up when we are visiting the states, but I am still excited about the new experiences!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Renting a House

Aka:  Look at all this cool stuff!

As many of you know, Doug and I really lucked out as far as living space for our first year in London.  The professor with whom Doug is working has a colleague who is on sabbatical for a year, and needed someone to rent his home.   So when Doug was here for a visit on his own, he met the owners, looked at the house, negotiated a price we could afford, and assured me I would love the place.

Boy was he right!

The house is about 100 years old with a lot of character, but is has also been recently renovated, so it has all the conveniences of a new home.  Top that off with an excellent location, in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in the city, and it is much nicer than anything we would normally be able to afford.  Because the owners’ main concern was having someone they could trust in the house while they are gone, they are renting it to us for mortgage and utilities costs. 

As you can imagine, since they are only gone for a year, they left most of their furnishings here and it has been an experience moving our stuff in and around their things.  We decided to sell our Craigslist couches before leaving Kalamazoo, so those were a couple items we didn’t have to store.  As it turns out, the only furniture of ours that isn’t in storage is our bed, kitchen table, filing cabinet, and trunk.  All other bookshelves, dressers, and desks are stored in the basement.  (Yes mom, we finally got our stuff out of the garage this weekend!)

We are even using most of their kitchen things.  I mean, why pack up their stuff and unpack our stuff, only to repack our things and unpack theirs in a little under a year?  So I’ve had fun playing with all the little kitchen gadgets that they have and we do not, not to mention being spoiled by a gas range.  (All I’ve ever know is electric.)

The down side is, even though we have added a few touches by putting some photos and things around, we are still definitely living in someone else's home, and with someone else’s cat!  Our cat is happily vacationing at Nana and Grandpa’s place in Ohio and enjoying the great outdoors for the first time in two years.  Meanwhile we cat-sit as well as house-sit.  We suspect that the new cat, Honeysuckle, is missing her family and demanding a lot of attention as compensation.

So far, the house is working out really well.  The location is great, a quick bicycle ride or nice walk to downtown as well as campus.  The size is more than we need, leaving plenty of storage for our stuff as well as some of theirs.  And the big pluses – a dishwasher and washer/dryer, we are being spoiled for sure!

Oh, and I almost forgot!  We have a hot tub and a guest room with a queen size bed.  Guests are welcome!  :)

Our home for the next year!

Honeysuckle "Honey" the cat

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Crossing the Border

Aka: A Lesson in Over-Preparation

Hello faithful followers!  Sorry for the delay in updates, we went out of town last weekend, and apparently, I left my motivation in the states.  It finally found its way across the bridge and back to me!

I won’t bore you with too many minor details of packing and moving.  But let me tell you this, planning and organization is everything.  We had a small window of time in which to make this move and so things had to be just right.  When our parents arrived on Saturday, everything was in boxes and ready to be loaded.  We had two large trailers, and all of our things fit beautifully.   

We decided that crossing the border on a Sunday morning would be the best timing.  Turns out it was even better than expected.   The Monday after our move was a civic holiday in Canada, which meant that traffic on the bridge was even slower on a Sunday morning than it normally would have been.

Now here is the kind of scary part.  Many people have asked us what kind of visa or permit we would need to live in Canada.  Well, since we had both been admitted into the university, we could apply for study permits for the duration of our education.  Since my program is significantly shorter than Doug’s, I will have to apply for a work permit later to remain in the country and get a job.  After perusing the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website, checking the UWO international student handbook, and even visiting the Canadian consulate in Detroit earlier this summer – we decided that the easiest way to get the permit was to apply at the border when we were crossing.  Now since this is what everyone was telling us to do, we knew it was our best bet and it was unlikely that we would be denied.  But there is still this nagging voice in the back of your mind saying “you are here at the border, all your stuff in trailers, no where to live in the US, and technically they could deny you entrance and turn you away.”

So yes, I was a little freaked out.

We crossed over the bridge in record time, and approached the booth as a convoy.   They directed us over to the immigrations and customs building, were we all went inside.  Doug and I were prepared with work permit forms, letters of acceptance and financial aid from the university, passports, passport photos, a list of everything we were bringing into the country, and our fees.  We had gone over the CIC website repeatedly, and were sure we were all ready.

The guy at the desk asked for three things: our letters of acceptance, letter of financial aid, and the list of all our stuff.  As it was a slow Sunday morning, he spent half the time he was helping us talking to the person sitting next to him and ordering fresh Timmy's.  Half an hour later, he stapled a piece of paper inside each of our passports, showed us where to pay and told us to have a good day.  I was puzzled.  What about our forms, photos, and all the other stuff I had spend hours completing and compiling?  Didn’t need it.  As US citizens, they only needed letters from UWO and the inventory.  He didn’t even read it, or check the trailers!  For all they knew I gave them a list of our stuff, but the trailers actually contained guns and drugs! (For any Canadian government officials reading this – trust me, it was just our stuff….)

So after less than an hour total we were cleared to go and off for the last hour of our drive from the border (we crossed at Port Huron/Sarnia) to London!

Although we weren’t given any trouble at the border, Doug’s parents were actually stopped on their way back the same day!  Apparently, the boarder guards didn’t believe that they could have moved us and not needed to take anything back in the trailer with them.  They were flagged, pulled off to the side, and asked to open the trailer.  Who knew it was harder to get out of Canada with an empty trailer, than into it with a full one!?

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Aka: Heather Finally Stops Procrastinating

I do not know how many times I have mentally brainstormed, written, and rewritten entries, topics, and photo ops for this blog in my head.  Somehow, my procrastination has gotten the better of me, as I have been relishing my time off and completing only the bare minimum of tasks.

But with grad school looming mere weeks ahead, I decided it was time to tackle the writers block that materialized whenever I attempted to put my thoughts onto paper (or word processor, as the case may be.)  Procrastination will certainly not be my friend in the upcoming year, and I could sure use the writing practice on a friendly audience!

As I mentioned, I have a multitude of ideas about which to write, so (hopefully) for these first few days the entries will be plentiful.  Moving in and of itself is a big ordeal – especially the first move after you get married - who knew two people could acquire so much stuff in less than two years?!  When you are moving to another country that presents a completely new set of hoops to jump through, not to mention dealing with the back to school run-around of being a new student.  London is a big city, and I hope to take full advantage of living in a metropolitan area, perhaps even provide a few attraction suggestions if any readers should decide to come for a visit (hint, hint…)

Also, if there is anything in particular that someone is curious about – the move, Canada, being an international student, the university, weather, etc – I’ll accept topic suggestions as well.  Those will be great when the writer’s block hits hard core – when I am eating, sleeping, and breathing the War of 1812 or SoHo architecture, and am dying for any sort of respite.

Finally, I think this blog will be a great way to chronicle what I’m going through.  There have been so many emotions – excitement, fear, anticipation – and I don’t want to forget what a wonderful time and experience this has been so far (and hopefully continues to be!)

So, once again welcome, eh!  ;)