Ottawa, Canada Report of what it's like to live there - 11/11/09

Personal Experiences from Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa, Canada 11/11/09


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Various cities in Europe, Asia, South America.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

With direct flights to London Heathrow and Frankfurt, it's pretty decent now. But generally, you're stuck with transiting through Montreal & Toronto which can be painful.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Off and on throughout the last 30 years. 3 years currently.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?


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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The suburbs (Orleans, Kanata, Barrhaven) feature the same banal urban planning with typical suburban houses spread out amongst a sea of big box stores. Although public transit is available, it is often inefficient in some of these areas. I'm sure if you drive around these areas, they are equivalently as banal and homogenous as any suburb in DC, Atlanta, etc. The more urban areas closer to the embassy (Glebe, New Edinburgh, Rockcliffe, Westboro) are considerably more expensive and feature your typical variety of 50-120 year old character homes. These neighbourhoods are much nicer to live in and very walkable to embassies and government offices downtown. There is a certain charm to them and they feature a far more vibrant lifestyle (think Georgetown but on a much smaller scale).Cost:Rockcliffe - 1 Million +Glebe/New Ed/Westboro - 500K - 1 MillionBurbs - 250K - 600KThere's also many condos springing up in the downtown core in the 200-600K range. For rentals, houses in the urban core are in the 1800-3500/month range and move pretty fast. 2 Bdrm Apartment in a good building/area is about 1500-2000/month.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Much cheaper than Europe but there is still a 10-15% premium over the US prices (and then there's the sales taxes tacked on top of that).

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

You can get everything here...if not...Ogdensburg is a 45 minute drive from downtown to the border. It's usually a function of price (i.e. the 15-20% premium depending on currency fluctuations and taxes).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

The particular Mexican, Lebanese, North Indian, Persian, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Carribean, and African restaurants I frequent are just as good as the best restaurants of this variety I've been to abroad (in those same countries!). Most of them are sadly not advertised in any touristy brochures so it is not surprising people could be woefully dissappointed with Ottawa's culinary offerings. Again, we don't have the quanity of restaurants you'll see in Montreal/Toronto...but given the diverse base of people in the city, you can find good quality cuisine of any type once you know where to find it. This is one of biggest misconceptions about this city!Fast food is readily available. Cost is probably more than what's available in equivalent sized US cities but I would imagine cheaper than Manhattan and on-par with DC.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitoes are quite nasty in spring/early summer around the urban area. More exotic bugs (black flies, etc) can be found in the more rugged terrain located on the Gatineau side of the river.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

I hear it gets driven up from Ogdensburg. Otherwise, Canada Post is no better/worse than USPS, UK Mail, etc.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Ha! It cost me 400/month for a cleaning service to clean my 2700 sq foot home twice a mouth. Actual domestic help would be 10-15/hour at least. Full-time, live-out nannies are 2400/month. Even fairly wealthy families living in million-dollar homes typically don't have much in the way of domestic help due to the cost!

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Many. Usually high quality...sometimes exorbitant cost but you're pretty much guaranteed to be within a short drive from one anywhere in the city.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATMs are widely available but probably cost a fortune for people with international debit cards. Credit cards are widely accepted but American Express is not always accepted due to the hideous fees they charge retailers in Canada. Banking in Canada will definitely be a step back for people coming from the US.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Anything and everything! You'll notice more Catholic churches here and there is actually a Catholic school board that is almost as large as the public school board.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Plenty...but likely more expensive than anything in the US. But I have a hard time believing there are things you can get in the US that you absolutely cannot get in Canada.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

English is fine everywhere, but French is spoken widely on the Quebec side of the border...and there are some unilingual French-speaking people, particularly in the smaller towns nearby in Quebec and east of Ottawa on the Ontario side.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Winter time is difficult but Ottawa does have snow clearing down to a science so it's not as horrific as it would seem to be. In the summer, it is probably on par with any other forward-thinking city in terms of accessibility.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Taxis are's basically 15-20 bucks just to take a cab anywhere in the downtown-ish area...and 40-70 bucks to get one from downtown to the burbs. Taxis and buses are safe with incidents being quite rare. However, public transit isn't exactly cheap and it can be inefficient if you're going off the beaten path.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Realistically, you could drive a Mini Cooper in the general urban area of Ottawa with All-Seasons on it and be fine. If you're really concerned, a good set of snow tires will do the need to buy an obnoxious SUV to handle winter. You don't need to go overboard and buy a Hummer!

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes...40/month...likely more expensive than anything in the US but on par with Europe/Asia.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Impoverished countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have better plans than we do! We are getting robbed because of the Rogers/Bell Canada Monopoly. The actual telecomms infrastructure is good and reliable. However, my iPhone 6GB plan costs me 70 bucks a month with voice and data combined...comparable to most other countries...again, you need to do some research to find deals comparable to normal wireless markets abroad.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

Not generally.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Lots available.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

That would be difficult due to restrictive labour regulations on non-citizens/permanent residents. Also, in Ottawa, many of the jobs (esp. government) require bilingualism which is a big negative if you don't speak French. Kanata is Ottawa's version of San Jose and until the downturn, was a very vibrant tech community. It still is in some respects but probably not as easy to find employment as it used to be.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Generally less-formal with ultra-casual in the more high-tech type employers.

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

Very good.

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2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Not much at all...but there is petty crime. Murder rate is much lower than most similarly sized cities around the world (including the US).

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3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

I've found care at the Ottawa Hospitals and good clinics in the downtown core to be comparable to anywhere else...with emergency care as quick as you'll see anywhere. If you need an MRI for a non-urgent prepared to wait. But seriously, the doom and gloom about our health care from others is quite overblown IMO. I have a great family physician and for any serious medical issue I or my family members have suffered from, I have received excellent care and didn't have to pay a cent...except for meds (where my company plan can cover the portion not funded by our provincial plan).

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The biggest misconception is that it is cold year round! Normally, December 1 - April 1 represents winter, when there is typically a decent amount of snow & ice on the ground. Temperatures range from -5 to -20 celcius. Fall is beautiful and is typically from about Sept 15 - Nov 15 with temperatures ranging from 20 to -5 celcius. Spring is often very short as we typically get a couple of weeks of 15 to 25 celcius weather before the heat and humidity arrives. Summer temperatures range from 15 to 35 celcius. Heat waves often resemble summertime in any East Coast US city. Many people like the fact that there are 4 distinct seasons in Ottawa.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Private schools are available but are atrociously expensive. However, public schools in the Glebe, New Edinburgh, and Rockcliffe neighbourhoods are considered very good due to the generally more affluent base of people they draw upon...and, IMO, are just as good as any good public school in the US.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Although funding cuts are always floated around, these programs do exist in schools and some do a better job than others.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Daycare is in short supply and is generally costly. Given that the government provides a benefit to new mothers up to 1 year, there is a real shortage of daycares taking in children less than a year. Home-based care is generally in the 800-1000/month range. Daycare in an actual centre can range from 1000 - 1800/month...and these are non-profit facilities!

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Lots of different, skiing, skating in the winter. Football (US & Euro), baseball, volleyball, etc. in the Spring-Summer-Autumn months. I cannot see how this could be an issue for anyone other than those expecting Beach Volleyball and snorkelling in the dead of January!

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Large enough but not huge. The embassy/diplomatic crowd is pretty stuffy and probably on par with what exists in most places. And like the political/parliamentarian types, they typically stay within their own little social circles and don't generally mix with the "locals" so much...probably further skewing the impressions people get of this city.

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2. Morale among expats:

Depends. If you really do take the time to explore the city (and not the usual stereotypical tourist traps) you will definitely enjoy your time here much more. Like anywhere, it really helps to know someone knowledgeable about the city.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Compared to Pittsburg, Portland, Liverpool, Frankfurt, Minneapolis...great. Compared to Paris, Chicago, NYC, and even Montreal/ is on a much smaller scale with less variety. But then again, Montreal is only a 1.5 hour drive away.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Families: great. Couples: depends. Singles: depends. If you are expecting Manhattan, you will be dissappointed. But realistically, you can find pretty much any cuisine you'd want in Ottawa restaurants. Again, if you adjust your expectations to that of any mid-sized US/European city, I'm sure the nightlife is on-par with what exists in places like Austin, Portland OR, RTP, Canberra, etc. Again, if you live in the suburbs, you will think this city is pretty boring...but if you try to live closer to the trendier, more happening parts of town...your opinion of the city will be vastly different. I cannot emphasize this point enough to people!

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Again, it depends. In the more urban neighbourhoods, it is widely accepted and gay/lesbian people can and do integrate quite freely and openly with the non-gay/lesbian types in the city. Going out to the 'burbs or areas with concentrations of certain ethnicities typically results in a much frostier reception. But overall, I would think it is better than most places in North America.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

In general, no. Unlike in Europe and in many places in the US, religious and visible minorities are well-integrated/represented throughout the city. The wealthier areas tend to be more WASP-y with the suburbs and lower income areas featuring a pretty diverse mix of people. You do still hear pretty ignorant remarks about people of different backgrounds and the more WASP-y environments aren't always the most welcoming of people of colour/different religious beliefs. But while racism/prejudices are more subtle...people are, by-and-large, far more accepting of different ethnicities than what I've seen in other cities around the world. NOTE: as per Obama's election...Ottawans are in love with all things American now and went completely gaga over his visit to the city! In the Dubya days, you'd better think twice about announcing your US heritage...esp. if you are a Republican!

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Great outdoorsy type stuff to do on either side of the river. Again, once you know of the right restaurants to go to, this will also be a source of fun and interest. There are the usual array of galleries and museums but I've found they can be a bit of a dissappointment compared to what's available in other capital cities (DC, London, Paris, etc). Contrary to what people may think, there is a pretty decent nightlife in the Byward Market, Elgin St. area, and Westboro...just stay away from the student meat-market type places as there are quite a few of those given the concentration of post-secondary institutions in the area. Ottawa is a very green city with a nice, liveable downtown that doesn't feel like a concrete jungle. Due to the influence of the French speaking population, it is as much European-influenced as it is US-influenced.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Maple Syrup, "poutine" and other unique French-Canadian cuisine, and, IMO, very nice artwork from local artists (heavily influenced by the outdoors/nature surrounding the city).Also, I think Ottawa has a nice eclectic collection of boutiques that offer some nice local/Canadian designers (at reasonable-ish prices).

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9. Can you save money?

Compared to Tokyo, Manhattan, London/Paris...yes. Otherwise, probably not.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes. I think the city is vastly underrated and gets a disturbingly bad rap from some people (esp. some of the posters on here!).

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Nothing. Given the diversity of seasons we have, I doubt there's anything you can leave behind...except for maybe surfboards as there's no real surfing anywhere nearby.

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3. But don't forget your:

Winter clothing, boots, snow tires as you will be quite surprised as to the amount of snow we get.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

I am shocked by the negative reviews on here about Ottawa! I find if you spend some effort to look for it (or talk to someone with knowledge of the city), you will probably be able to find whatever you need. Restaurants, nightlife, housing, parks, and facilities are probably more than adequate for 99% of the population out there.

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