We flew from Cuba with Air Rouge, Air Canada’s budget airline, as few full service airlines service the place and whilst we had images of the squalor, elbowing and general rudeness of Ryanair in our minds, we were pleasantly surprised from the off. The wonderfully helpful and cheerful Taylor in the premium cabin took note of our rather ‘spoilt kids’ need for comfort and variety after a month in Cuba and did what ever she could to make us feel comfortable. This mostly involved keeping the booze and food coming, both of which were good and we became happier by the minute. It was the perfect start to the Canadian adventure.
It was almost less perfect when we got carried away in the lounge in Toronto when waiting for our connection and where so close to missing our plane, the guy at the gate said down the phone ‘You can stop off loading their bags, they are here’. That is as close as you want to get to missing a flight.
After so long in hot, non English speaking countries, why Canada? Our primary reason was to visit our lovely friends, Larry and Sandra, who we met in 2010 in the Antarctic and had then met a number of times in Sydney, London and Las Vegas. What we hadn’t done is see them in their natural environment of Vancouver and despite, their nervousness about us visiting at that time of year, we had decided this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Arriving in the snow was a bit of a shock to the system, especially for J whose wardrobe was very much a summer only thing and had only Birkenstock’s to keep her feet warm in 0c, so first stop was an outlet mall. Talk about from famine to feast. From empty shops with grumpy staff to an orgasm of consumerism, staffed by people who are so helpful and charming it can feel a bit creepy to a stiff Englishman. It made us feel giddy.
The other shock on arrival in Canada was the cost of everything (besides all the goodies in the Outlet Mall). Mostly in Cuba and Colombia, as long as we didn’t go to international hotels or the very best city restaurants, it was pretty easy to stick within budget, without really thinking about it but in Canada it is all but impossible. The prices on the menu are high, but the cost at the end is so much higher. There is normal tax, liquor tax and then the tip. The tip thing is all very odd. In Oz and the UK, mostly you tip for good service. In Canada, poor service demands 15%, good service 18-20% and exceptional service 25%. On top of that, chambermaids expect $5 per day, taxi drivers at least 10% and pretty much everyone who provides a service expects something. The English in me wants to push back on this, but the only people to suffer from that would be the pleasant, hard working people who, in accordance with Canadian labour law are allowed to be underpaid by the employer who takes the profit. It’s all a bit odd and shit. Luckily we have a slush fund to ensure we can do most of things we really want to do that don’t fall in the normal daily budget.
On the upside, mostly this results in good service, though it can feel a little insincere at times (FWP). I’m not sure what is better; insincere politeness or genuine grumpy shits.
If I were to describe Canada with one word, it would be easy. By that, I mean the word is ‘easy’, not that it would be easy to come up with a word, though it is easy to come up with easy.
Firstly, whilst our Spanish is now ok to get by with, it hurts my head to think so much about just talking about normal stuff, so to be able to just talk without thinking (not something I admit to too often, but something my friends will agree with) is a real delight.
Secondly, it is a proper first world country so everything works. In the west we take much for granted; getting drinking water out of taps, having public transport that is understandable and reasonably efficient, safe roads, shops with everything you could ever need or want, restaurants selling every type of food etc. The last time all of this came together for us was September last year in Berlin so we really do know how lucky we are to be in such an environment.
The difference in places was hugely apparent on night 2, when we went for dinner followed by going to La Boheme in Vancouver (though we did get Cuba flashbacks when we were confronted with the not so faint smell of sewage in the first place we went to. We left). Being surrounded by the better off element of Vancouver society, watching a highly polished performance was a world away from our last cultural experience, watching ballet in Camagüey but not so different that I could resist some very ‘long blinks’ during it, which could be also described as a very expensive way to sleep.