Paying attention

Today is Day 14, housemate Michael tells me, of his Big Overseas Trip. Intrepid travellers with infinite curiosity, he and Judy are on their first leg of a trip that spans seven countries and three continents.

It’s their first time in Canada. Their exposure will be to a little pocket in the southwest corner (well, a fair-sized pocket, as we’ll have put some 3000k on the car by the time they leave), but they’ve had time for plenty of first impressions. Amongst all the hiking, restaurant-sampling, and noses-pressed-to-the-car-window, we’ve had hours of discussion comparing these two countries Rick and I live in and love.

So I asked them if they’d be willing to share some thoughts that I could include for the blog. I had in mind a paragraph or two, nothing to tax an already over-worked tourist, but there was no stopping either of them. The words cascaded from brain to electronic device. Today I’ll give Michael the floor, as he muses on the differences he sees between his native land downunder and this country he’s visiting.

He’s titled it (likely with considerable irony):      

An Innocent Australia abroad in Canada  

Over to you, Michael.

How do the two cultures of Canada and Australia compare – two wealthy, materialistic, confident countries on opposite sides of the vast Pacific? How are they similar and how different? From an enthusiastic but brief first-time visitor, an Australian spending three weeks in Canada’s western provinces, here are some limited, superficial perspectives.

Canada is 30% larger at nearly 10 million square kilometres, and with 35 million people has 50% more population than Australia. It presents a spaciousness and expansiveness obvious even to an Australian, steeped in the image of the endless plains of our  “wide brown land”.  

These aspects are striking:  

1) Its massive natural beauty.  Entering Canada from the west coast – the province of British Columbia – you can’t argue with the boast on the car number plates: “Beautiful British Columbia”. It has endless, diverse, breathtaking outdoors environments – lakes, sea, sea corridors, forests, mountains small and large, many permanently snow-covered, prolific wildlife, exquisite and unusual trees and flowers. There is remarkable access, by road, sea and air, to many places. Plus there are huge, very wild areas, accessible only to the seriously adventurous. Analogous to Australia’s campaigns opposing the depredations of mining and forest and land clearing, Canada has its own fight to stop oil pipelines, huge increases in oil tanker traffic and the transport of coal via the sensitive west coast, bound mainly for China.  

2) A soft, generous climate. Are we talking about Canada?!? Yes, certainly on the west coast and during the summer, with its long, spectacular twilights. The air is soft and caressing, the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold, the light is clear. Long days to enjoy it, from 6am or before till 9.30pm or later. Is this a karmic reward for Canada’s impossibly rigorous winters, especially inland. (What does “40 below zero” even mean? Advice to Australians – passionate skiers or dog-sledders excepted: come in summer.)  

3) Attractive, occasionally eccentric architecture. Compared with the miles of red brick bungalows with red-tiled roofs stretching across Sydney, the houses of Vancouver and the cities on Vancouver Island seem more gracious, more varied, more stylish. They also seem more    traditional, even though they are half a century or more younger than Sydney and Melbourne. There are signs of a long romance with that strange mock-Tudor fashion of whitewashed walls with black timber trims.  As well as appealing rough-hewn, home-made houses and holiday cottages, understandable given the still enormously abundant quantities of lumber.  

4) Frontier spirit that is still alive. Living among the enchanting islands and forests of the west coast, you are likely to meet some of the pioneers, the tough, immensely hard-working, independent self-made men and women who farmed and built enterprises in Canada’s harsh interior – the prairies of  Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. They’ve earned their right to a spot near the sea. But they don’t leap into it every day like the surfers at Bondi Beach in Sydney. Maybe it’s the sea temperature: often 12 or 14 degrees.  

5) Real retail therapy. If supermarkets and department stores inspire in some Australians anxiety and discomfort, even fear and loathing, consider the megastores and massive malls of Canada and the US, which combine to deliver a retail market of 350 million-plus – a bucket that relegates  Australia’s 25 million to a tiny, distant drop. West Edmonton Mall, in the centre of Canada, has 800 stores and the world’s largest parking lot. In Canada’s giant outlets, the range of products is far wider, while the quality of products, even fresh produce, is remarkably (and reliably) high. But here’s where “retail therapy” may actually acquire meaning. Staff in Canadian stores seem authentically to love their jobs and appreciate their customers. No request is too foolish, no inquiry too difficult. You are likely to emerge from a Canadian store – whatever you purchased, or decided not to – feeling better about yourself!    

6) Really good coffee – and food and wine. This traveller was wary about coffee, fearing the legendary bland or acid brew which was once offered in America. In Canada, if coffee was ever that bad, those days are gone. Their coffee is as good as any in Australia, New Zealand or Italy (make your own comparisons if your ethnic preferences are different). Good food in Canada is very, very good. Bad food seems hard to find (fast food is at your own risk). Wines are easily available from anywhere in the world – and the wines Canada makes match most of them. Eating out in the balmy summer evenings of Vancouver Island are moments to treasure!          


Thank you for the passionate travelogue, Michael. First impressions often get reworked, but they have a strong raw glow of truth. It’s part of why travel is so expanding. Each new part of the world is full of surprises, and we struggle to make sense of it and to be open to learning what can be learned. It’s been a treat for me to be both an observer and a participant in that process these last two weeks.

And I apologise for the lack of photographic evidence. We’ve taken more photos over the last week or two than my parents likely did in their lifetime, but all the wifi and cables and tablets and in the world can’t quite bring it all together. Magic enough that this post is being put together on a pocket-sized device in a noisy restaurant somewhere deep in the Rocky Mountains — although as I glance across the table I can see I may have alienated my table-mates with my typing and cursing (in about equal measure).


5 thoughts on “Paying attention

  1. Enjoyed this very much. Heather and Michael….Wish you 4 and Joyce could have made a quick trip to to see me…..and the Seattle area… maybe next time…. Love.

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. I recently spent several weeks in Vancouver with my 30 year old son who has been living there for the last two years. I totally agree with what Michael has written.
    The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful and the people are incredibly friendly and oh, so polite!! We drove to Okanagan area and went to a number of wineries and I was thrilled with the quality of their wines.
    I look forward to returning and seeing more of that lovely country.

  3. Well ‘you’ wrote/editied a fine blog, Heather. You’ve made it look so easy and from my perspective whatever were you cursing about? It’s very interesting. Thank you for the good read.

    See you tomorrow evening.


  4. Those spectaculars views of mountains, lakes, rivers and lands, that is exactly what your memory will be filled with after visiting Canada, Vancouver in particular. Polly48 is right with her description, the region is so lovely and people are indeed very friendly, happy to help at all occasions! I am always astonished by the diversity Vancouver offers regarding practically everything, whether it is food, drinks, culture, fashion, indoor or outdoor activities, …anything. People are always afraid the weather would be too cold to do things outside, even in the summer, but that is completely untrue! July and August are perfectly warm and nice. Some very nice tips for very active Vancouver travellers Summer Activities in Vancouver.

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