Expat Chat – Interview with a British expat in Canada

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British expat in Canada

Interview date – June 2013

Photo of Donnalynn RaineyWhat is your name? Donnalynn Rainey

Where are you originally from? Originally I am from Portland, a small island near to Weymouth, Dorset in England.

Where are you living now? Currently I live in the West Island, about 25 minutes from Downtown Montreal, Canada.

How long have you lived there? Just a little over a year now.

Where did you live before that? I lived in Yeovil, Somerset, still in the UK only 40 miles from where I grew up. I honestly thought that was the furthest I would go.

What made you decide to make the move? We had been offered work here a few times in the previous years and we had always turned it down. There was enough work where we were and we saw no reason to leave. Eventually though the work started to dry up. It hadn’t come to a stop but it was starting to drip through rather than pour. Hours were being cut and stress levels were beginning to rise. When the offer came through for work again it seemed the perfect time to be brave and take it up.

Why did you pick this country? We were actually given the choice between Canada and Witchita in the States. I researched both of them quite thoroughly. I decided I could handle the cold of Canada but I absolutely could not handle the snakes and tornado season in Kansas, imagine if they combined? A snake tornado?! I could happen you know, one second you’re sat in your bathtub and the next your roofs been ripped off and there is a rattle snake in your toilet.

What are your future plans? Win the lottery, buy a white cat and a swivel chair, become evil and try to take over the world with my witty prose and my cat. Failing that, we don’t really have any. We are sort of hanging on in there by the skin of teeth and hoping the work keeps coming. We originally were only staying here for a year, that milestone past us and we are still here. We honestly don’t have a clue what we are doing. I might go on an RV vacation just to pass the time though.

Oh gosh look at that! I used the word vacation without even blinking!

Did you bring family and/or pets with you? No pets but I do have boys so they are sort of the same thing. They are just as messy and smelly the only difference is I wasn’t allowed to put them in freight on the way over.

How many kids do you have? If you stop and count them there are defiantly only three. Some days though it seems like I have an awful lot more.

Were they born in your ‘home’ country or in your adopted country? Or elsewhere?! They were all born in the UK. Our passports are all the same colour 😉

How have your children adapted to your move? The eldest and the youngest have been the easiest. The eldest has found a whole new set of friends and is very popular with the ladies due to his Harry Potter accent. I have suggested he starts to wear little glasses and let me send owls to his school but he is strangely resistant.

My youngest was just 2yrs old when we got here so in all honesty he is now at the point where he can’t remember any different, this is home to him. The first few days were hard on him. He was jet lagged, we didn’t have any of his toys or anything familiar and we were rushing around trying to get all our bank accounts and paper work in order. We got home in the afternoon of around our 2nd day and he started to cry. Not just small sobs, proper heartbreaking tears. He broke down and all he kept saying was I want to go home, I want to go home. My heart tore it’s self in 2. My baby was on my knee desperate for the familiar and there was not one single thing I could do about it, I was frozen. All I could do was stroke his head and let him cry it out.

After that we stopped with the banks and the paperwork, we piled them all in the car and headed to Ikea where we let them choose bedding, toys, carpets, curtains and everything else to personalise their space. It ruined our little savings we had to get started but it helped the boys enormously so it was beyond worth it.

My middle boy has struggled. We always knew he would. He has Aspergers so for him this massive change has been incredibly hard. It’s taken the whole time we have been here but he is finally starting to settle.

Do you speak the local language? If so, how long did it take you to learn it? I may be in Canada but I am in Quebec so French is incredibly important here. I am in a strange position, I can understand a lot of what is being said to me but I can’t get my brain to function to give me the words to reply. So I have a lot of odd conversations.

Last summer in a car park, a man pointed to the sky and said something in very rapid French. I couldn’t understand him and apologised, he started to wave his hands around and make noises like, crrrrrrraaasssshhhhh, cooooosshhhhhhhhhhhh.

Ohhhhhh I got it, thunder! Thunder is coming! So I nodded along and became the lightning, fffwwwooooshhhhhhhh!!! He nodded too and we stood there and crashed and fwooshed for a minute before smiling and heading our separate ways.

It goes to show, even if there is a language barrier, a crash and a fwoosh will get you a long way.

Have your children learned the language? What method of language learning worked best for them? The boys are doing great, they each get extra help at school and my eldest boy has a tutor to help him get through his midterms. The youngest is picking up bits and pieces although the other day as we left Costco I thanked the cashier and he asked me what Merci meant. I told him thank you and he replied, no, thank you means thank you. You are silly.

So I guess we have a little way to go there.

What three personality characteristics would you consider are necessary for a success expat life? Necessary? I would say determination, organisation and bravery.

Sadly I had none of those things. I have spontaneity, foolishness and curiosity. Curiosity will take you far. Unless you’re a cat. Then I hear it’s a very bad thing indeed.

What do you miss? So much. So, so much. I miss my sister, I miss seeing my nieces and nephews growing up. I am terrified they will forget me.

I miss the smell of the sea and fish and chips on the harbour. I miss the view from my balcony and my favourite wine which isn’t available here.

I miss my stuff; it’s all in a storage locker in England. I want to lie in the black bags full of my clothes and make bin bag angels.

I miss picking up the phone and being 100% positive the person on the other end speaks the same language as me and I can have a conversation with them.

I miss English weather. The unpredictability of it, the rain, the moaning about the cold when it’s only -2.

I miss friends.

I miss the familiar.

The problem with missing things is you have caught me on a bad day. Tomorrow I might just say my family and friends and nothing more. In a weeks’ time you could ask again and I would go on about the woods we used to walk in and how I miss the trees. Missing things comes in circles, homesickness hits you like a sledgehammer and you can barely breathe for missing the very air back home and then it’s gone and you are looking around where you are now and you are marvelling at how new and amazing it is and you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Missing things is unquantifiable. You never know when or what you will miss or how much, you just ride the wave until it passes and then you carry on enjoying what you have in the here and now.

Snow in CanadaWhat were the biggest challenges you faced when you moved? Would you like the honest truth? Our biggest challenge was that I was angry. I was lonely, I had no car, the buses were a mystery to me and I was stuck in the house with the kids for 14hrs a day while my husband went to work. We tried to walk over to the small mall just a 5 minute walk from the house one day, it was -24° with wind-chill and all we had were our UK winter coats. I sat and I sobbed.

I was so angry with my husband for moving us all here (you will notice at this stage I had absolved myself of any of the responsibility for the move) jet lag, a foreign language, an empty house (we moved over with a suitcase of clothes each, nothing more) and biting cold made me not a very nice person at all. We argued quite bitterly for a while until one day he asked me, do you want to go back? He didn’t say it but that sentence ended with the words ‘without me’. It was one hell of a wakeup call. Deal with the cold and start acting like a grown woman or lose your husband?

So obviously I left him.

Ha, no! I sat up, stopped feeling sorry for myself and I got on with it. I did insist that we went and bought a 2nd car that weekend though. If you are thinking about moving overseas that is the biggest bit of advice I can give you, whatever you do try and make sure you can be mobile. Being stuck alone at home can be a recipe for disaster.

How do you keep in touch with your friends and family in other countries? The same as most of us expats, Skype and Facebook. Thank the internet for both! Although if you are reading this younger sister of mine, please pull your finger out and install Skype on your phone! It’s only been a year, sheesh.

Where do you take your holidays? Ah, well this is where the ‘I feel super lucky’ part comes in. We haven’t really been on a holiday since we got here but we have been away for weekends here and there. We can jump in the car and drive down to Vermont in the USA for the weekend; we drove to New York City to celebrate my sons 13th birthday. We are travelling up to Quebec City in a few weeks and have plans to drive to Florida for a week or so, I also want to travel to Tadoussac and see the whales.

All these amazing places in driving distance, I sometimes want to shake people and say do you not see what you have around you? Appreciate it!

Please share a debunked myth or stereotype about your host country. As hard as I have looked I have yet to see a moose walking down the high street.

What customs do you find most unusual about your adopted culture? I wouldn’t say it’s unusual but the custom I love the most is the pool. Last year when we arrived everybody asked me what pool I would be joining? Honestly, I thought they were kind of nuts. What pool would I join? It’s the summer time, I might head to the pool from time to time but why would I join one, what did that even mean?

I looked around and in just my local area alone there were 5 community outdoor pools to join, they are everywhere in every neighbourhood. You sign up for the summer and it becomes a massive social occasion, our pool has BBQ’s, weekly family nights and activities, you met new people, there were diving clubs, swimming lessons, synchronised swimming and lifeguard lessons all summer. It is the absolute hub of summer life and I loved it I honestly cannot wait for the summer time to arrive and to spend my days sat around the pool listening to the kids playing. This year will be slightly different; I might knock down the sunscreen from factor 80. Last year I could spot my 2 in seconds, in a sea of bronzed bodies, they were the see-through English kids in the middle.

Tell us about local food you and your children love or hate. Ok, I am going to describe something to you and you are going to recoil in horror at your screen but keep an open mind. Imagine a large plate of French fries, smother them in a sort of chicken gravy then throw handfuls of cheese curds over the top so they sort of melt and stay all squeaky at the same time, it is heaven to taste and yet very unappealing to the eye. This is called poutine and is basically the sole reason I have put on 30lbs since moving here. You can jazz it up by adding pulled pork or chicken, my favourite has chilli, sour cream, bacon and spring onion. But the basic dish is fries, gravy and cheese curds.

Excuse me, I’m just heading to the kitchen.

Is there anything that is ridiculously cheap or expensive compared to where you used to live? Everything, everything is more expensive. As an example a chicken in the UK would cost me around 7 pounds for a decent enough chicken. Here, if you would like one that isn’t so pumped full of water you have to clean your oven afterwards because of all the spitting you are looking in the region of $20 plus tax.

Cereal was another shock, a box of cereal in the UK, less than 2 pounds easily. Here nearly $7 a box. That’s around £4.50 for your Shreddies. Plus tax. Everything is plus tax. The price you see is not the price you pay; two different taxes are added on at the till. It certainly was a culture shock.

What do you most appreciate in your new country? I appreciate the opportunity it has given my kids. I’ve really seen them mature here, there is so much more for them on offer all of the time. Summer is spent by the pool, winter spent ice skating or sledding. Families are important here and you are never short of a family activity somewhere. We spend more time together here than we ever did in the UK. My eldest has blossomed in to this confident happy young man I wouldn’t have known a year ago. I love knowing that they will always have these experiences and memories to fall back on and that we were able to do that for them.

How did you make new friends in your new home? Desperation. I wish I could tell you I was exaggerating for dramatic effect but no. Desperation came about from being stuck in the house. My eldest had started school, my middle boy had yet to and the 2yr old was bouncing off walls with nothing to entertain him.

I turned to the internet and found Facebook groups for mums in my local area, Please, I begged, please. Does anybody know of a local toddler group in this area? The gods of fate were smiling on me that day and with luck the woman who ran the group was on the page and confirmed that yes, real live adults are here at these times, please come along.

Sheer desperation drove me out of the house early on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning, I found the bus stop and we rode the bus down to the small village. Once we arrived I relied on my hand written piece of paper to guide me to the church hall and we trekked through the snow. I was numb but determined. One we found the church we walked around it 3 times trying to find the way in and there was nothing. By this point it was nearly 10am and the group started at 9am, I was close to giving up when somebody walked out of a door and took pity on me stood there bedraggled in the snow. He showed me the magical entrance and we dragged ourselves in and down the stairs. I opened the door to a massive hall filled with toys which my poor neglected 2 year old fell upon in some kind of toy frenzy and a woman approached me smiling, “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know I should have waited until the older one was at school but I just couldn’t take it anymore.” She bought me in, gave me coffee, invited me out for a curry that night and let me swear, it was a match made in heaven. Desperation pushing me through that door turned out to be one of the best things I did here and introduced me to a group of women I am very grateful to have in my life.

Tell us a bit about your own expat blog. How long have you been blogging? I have only been blogging a few months and there are perhaps not as many entries as there should be. Life gets in the way and I don’t update it the way I would like. I am told it’s funny, people say nice things and I appreciate every single one. Also, it’s probably not safe for work. There is perhaps more swearing than there needs to be. It’s evolving, there is not set pattern as to what I talk and ramble about, just things that have gotten me thinking or things I want to get off my chest. It’s a general life blog I think, with humour thrown in. I enjoy the commenting and the interaction with people but I am terrible at the networking and promoting!

Why did you start blogging? I started because quite often I would lay in bed at night and in my head whole chunks of text would write themselves. I thought it was about time I got them out of my head and on to a page. Also it served as another connection with people back home; they like to think they have gotten rid of me but the wonders of the net means I am never far away. I had intended it to be about expat life solely and adapting to Canada, turns out I just love a good moan really!

Has it contributed to your well-being in any way? Yes and no! Yes because I love it. I love venting out all my weird little frustrations on to the page, I love that I have a legitimate reason to lock myself away upstairs with my laptop and I love this whole new world blogging has opened up. It’s huge! The blogging arena is so stuffed full of interesting people and things to find out.

No because I get stressed I’m not writing enough or putting enough effort in. I would love to say it’s because I’m so terribly busy and important but it’s not. It’s because I’m laid on the sofa sniffing the toddlers head and watching endless reruns of ‘Bob the Builder’ with him, then of course in the evenings there is all that wine to drink, it’s a whirlwind for sure.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Donnalynn!

Find Donnalynn on social media and her blog link here: Blog: Facebook: Twitter:

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  1. Thank you so much for a brilliant read. Your honesty is refreshing. I lived in Canada many years ago for a brief time, married a Canadian some considerable time later and we are now facing the possibility of moving there. Your insights are very much appreciated. Thanks again.

    1. Thank you, I really think changing countries is one of the hardest things you can ever do but can also be the most rewarding. It’s certainly given me a taste for the adventure.

  2. This is the best expat interview I’ve read in a long time! It had me giggling one minute and getting choked up the next. Thank God I’m not the only one that is gobsmacked at the price of cereal or who likens my sons to animals! I’ve been in Canada two years and still can’t get my head around poutine though, the description sounds like a recipe for a heart attack!

    1. Poutine is definitely something you have to try with your eyes closed, it’snot a pretty food. Unfortunately it has become my go to comfort food, that and Reeces. Why it couldn’t be watermelon and carrots I do not know!

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