Ottawa, Canada Report of what it's like to live there - 08/14/10
Personal Experiences from Ottawa, Canada
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No, Cambridge (UK), Havana, Canberra, Santiago, and Jakarta.
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?
Washington, DC area. Most people drive to Ottawa so that they have their cars right away. There are direct, city-pair flights from IAD to Ottawa, however, and it takes about an hour's flying time.
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
U.S. Embassy posting.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is completely up to you, since it is an LQA post for U.S. Embassy employees. Most people choose to live in Rockcliffe Park, New Edinburgh (with about 10-20 minute commutes) or Westboro (20 minutes). Single folks tend to live in very nice condos downtown. Many live in a building two doors down from the embassy, giving them a few minutes' walking commute. Our military and law enforcement types tend to live way out in Kanata or Nepean, so they can have McMansions. They have 30- to 60-minute commutes, sometimes longer in the winter.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Great grocery stores, much like in the U.S. They don't have the enormous variety that you would find in a Giant or Harris Teeter in the suburbs of DC, but they beat every other country I've been in. The cost of groceries is breathtakingly expensive. We spend double what we did in DC. We usually spend about $700 per month for groceries -- and we are not extravagant eaters for a family of four with two toddlers. It was not out of the ordinary to have one or two months during the year when we spent $1000 on groceries.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
None. We drive 50 minutes to the Ogdensburg, NY WalMart and Price Chopper when we need to get things that are too expensive in Canada.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
All the usual suspects that you'd find in the U.S. except Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme. Tim Hortons is fine, though don't say that to Canadians --who have an almost religious-like fervor for their coffee and donut holes ("Tim Bits"). One of my Canadian work contacts looked like he was going to cry when I mentioned that I missed Dunkin' Donuts' coffee."What's wrong with Tim Horton's coffee?" he bleated.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Enormous mosquitoes during the summer. I mean huge! They seem capable of carrying off small children! Also, tiny little biting black-flies are also annoying in the spring and summer.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Our mail room makes a thrice-weekly run to the Post Office in Ogdensburg, NY. It works pretty well. We mail our Netflix disks on Monday and receive the new disk on Wednesday.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Widely available but prohibitively expensive. Many folks at post have brought nannies from other posts.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Many gyms, including a basic (but very good) one in the basement of the embassy -- with shower facilities available, too.
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?
Just like in the U.S.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
All denominations are widely available.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are three major national English-language dailies and a local one, too. Cable TV packages are popular, and they usually include all the U.S. networks as well as the upstate NY PBS station, so you don't even miss the Jim Lehrer News Hour.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
French is not really necessary in Ottawa, but it is helpful if you cross over into Quebec. But it is still not required. When Canadians find out that you are American, they will start to use "eh?" at the ends of their sentences much more frequently. They also spell certain words differently: grey, defence, and labour, for example. It seems to rub them the wrong way if you point that out.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Noting notable. It's very accessible. The only concern would be the heavy snowfalls that make pathways icy and bumpy. The city does a great job of snow removal, though.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All are very safe; trains are quite expensive. The average bus trip is C$3.25 each way. If you buy voucher tickets ahead of time, you can get a discount to C$2.50 each way for a daily commute total of $5. Parking around the embassy is $11 per day, so it usually makes more sense to drive if you can get two people in the car, especially in winter. Taxis are pretty expensive, compared to the developing world, probably the same as getting one in DC, perhaps slightly more -- given the exchange rate
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?
The Honda Accord is the most popular car in Canada, just like in the U.S. Gas is much more expensive in Canada than in the U.S., but many folks do have SUVs. You don't really need them in Ottawa, though, as long as you have good snow tires during the winter.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Really good high-speed internet is available, but it is really expensive due to a lack of competition and the high exchange rate. We get our internet, home phone, and cable from Rogers, and we pay C$160 per month -- which is about what they all charge. I see that you can get the same deal in DC with FIOS for $100/month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
The embassy provides employees with a BlackBerry, and offers family members (at your personal cost) extra phones as part of their overall agreement with our service provider. The price for the personal phones seems to be pretty good. Otherwise, many companies offer pay-as-you-go phones and a wide array of plans. They tend to be extremely expensive, compared with U.S. prices, given the comparative lack of competition and the high exchange rate.
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?
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
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?
I don't have any personal experience with this. I don't sense that there are a lot of opportunities for non-Canadian citizens, given that Ottawa is a government town. I could be wrong, though.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Same as in Washington or the state of Maine, or in any government offices in DC.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Crime is very low compared with other cities of a similar size in the U.S.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Healthcare has probably been our major source of unhappiness. We are not able to be part of the Ontario health system, and as a result, we find it very difficult to get in to see GPs and specialists. It took us a year to get on the rolls with a pediatrician, and he was less than impressive. Many folks choose to drive to the hospital in Ogdensburg to avoid the months-long wait for specialists. Our children were finally allowed to enroll as patients at the medical clinic at our local grocery store, but they refused to take my wife and me as patients -- so we have no doctor. The embassy has just created a medical unit, just like in the developing world! We will have a part-time MD and an RN who will be able to give shots and do well-baby checks. This will be operating from February or March of 2011 and will alleviate many of the concerns that we had during our first two years here.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Excellent year 'round.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Six to eight months of some of the most bitter winter weather I have ever encountered. Two to three months of a soggy, bracingly-chilly spring. One to three months of absolutely beautiful summer weather. One to two months of gorgeous autumn weather with piercing blue skies, crisp, dry air, and abundant sunshine.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
No international schools, but there are several private schools. Many kids go to Ottawa public schools. Most people seem to be fairly happy. My kids are too young for school, so I've not had any personal experience with this.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I don't have experience with this, but I also have not heard any major complaints.
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?
Preschools are plentiful and run the gamut in price and hours. Daycare is a real concern for those who have preschoolers and want to work. Some embassy folks have brought nannies from previous posts with them. It is prohibitively expensive to employ Canadians as nannies. Canada has agencies that will (for a fee) bring a nanny from the Philippines for you, but that is really expensive, too. We have been very very happy with our cooperative preschool, but my spouse is a full-time mom, so we can do the monthly cooperative duties. Single parents -- or situations where both parents work -- would not be conducive to the co-op environment.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Too many to name through the City of Ottawa's recreation department: from toddlers to teens. Very affordable, too.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large, but it is hard to tell, since most Americans just blend in with their Canadian neighbors.
2. Morale among expats:
Much better than when we arrived. Our management section has made great strides in helping us navigate the Canadian government's bureaucracy and utility maze.
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?
Just like in a small city in the U.S.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a great city for families and couples, especially those who enjoy the great outdoors and don't require household help as you would have in the developing world. Singles have been less happy, wishing they were in the more cosmopolitan Toronto or Montreal.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I've not heard much about this from gay colleagues. It is a small city, so it's probably like being a gay person in Akron, OH or St. Paul, MN.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
It's a hyper-tolerant city, almost to the point of parody, since the citizens and government bend over backward to embrace (and to create the appearance of embracing) diversity.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Living in a real neighborhood for the first time in our Foreign Service career. We know our neighbors and interact with them frequently -- unlike in other posts where we live behind walls, or our neighbors were so far above or below our socio-economic level that a real friendship was just not possible.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are many museums, live theatre, symphony, wonderful Gatineau Park just across the river, miles and miles of bike paths along the river and through the woods, great restaurants and cafes. Each neighborhood has a community pool that is open during the summer and staffed with lifeguard/activity leaders who watch over the kids and engage them in fun games, too.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Local woodcarvings, maple syrup?...we've not really found anything, to be truthful.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
This a cosmopolitan city that has lots of parks, parkways, off-road bike paths, public (river) beaches, and crystal-clear mountain lakes. also, excellent public transport that is safe and efficient, great museums, little traffic, and friendly locals. The city and inner suburbs are extremely walkable, which is a great change from other posts. Many embassy families enjoy seasonal rentals of lake houses, which come in all price ranges on the thousands of beautiful lakes throughout Ontario and Quebec.
11. Can you save money?
There's no getting around the fact that Ottawa is an extremely expensive city, especially now that the Canadian dollar has been around equal for most of the past two years. We have been able to save some money, but we live modestly and conduct our lives just as if we were in DC (no extravagant trips, no shopping sprees or frequent meals out). We save 50% less, though, than at our previous hardship post in EAP. Not a complaint, just an observation.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes. We were very unhappy when we first arrived, since the embassy gives you almost no support because everyone believes that a posting to Ottawa is just like being assigned to DC -- but with a housing allowance. This isn't the case, but that is the belief. Now that we have sorted out the suboptimal experience of LQA and finding medical care, we are glad we came. It's been a really good experience personally and professionally.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
malaria suppressants and surfboards.
3. But don't forget your:
hiking shoes, bicycles, winter boots and jackets that are -40 degree rated.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
LQA was not a great experience for us, and I'm not sure I would ever go to another LQA post. Ottawa is in the grip of a still-expanding property bubble, so many people are eager to sell their overpriced houses here. Not many people are interested in renting houses, so it ended up being very stressful to find housing. In the end, we found a very nice place to live in, and we've been very happy with our neighborhood. The winter here is like nothing I've ever experienced. Growing up in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., I thought I knew winter, but I didn't know anything. The first time my lungs froze (even though momentarily) was an experience I will not soon forget.