Food and Shopping



A big difference for Mary and Len when they came in 1975 was the style of shopping. Mary said “In England we would shop every day, in the corner stores, as they called them. At the end of each row of houses would be a shop. We never used to get pieces of cheese wrapped. We would just get a slab of cheese. They would cut off a pound of bacon. It actually was nice at the corner store. It was more personal. Except for the produce. They wouldn’t let you help yourself, so they would slip you some mouldy ones.” Len says “I had never heard of a perogie or a cabbage roll. The funny thing I found with food here was to have something sweet as part of a meal, like a fruit salad with jelly. To me that was dessert, or what we would call ‘afters’. In England food was placed on a plate for you. In Canada so much food would be put on the table and you would help yourself. Each plate would be enough for one person and there would be 10 of them on the table. In England the host would give you your plate without even asking if you liked it or not.” Mary remembers “The first time we went to the Safeway in Alberta it was funny. The people would have their shopping carts all piled up and we whispered to each other that they all must be from out of town and stocking up for 6 months. Then we found out that they were only shopping for the week!” Len adds “And I couldn’t believe how ‘spicy’ the food was. Those days in England they didn’t put any spices in the food. I had never even tasted garlic! I had no idea. The first time I tasted a wiener I couldn’t believe anyone could eat anything that spicy! I got to enjoy it though. We couldn’t believe the variety of cooked meats at the grocery, the kinds of hams and all these things I had never heard of. In England we just had ham, and that’s it. The variety of food was really incredible. I used to go down to Woodward’s to the delicatessen and I would just wander around a look at the food. It’s not like we couldn’t afford it in England. We just didn’t have it. Very, very plain. It’s not like that in England any longer though.” Susan and Jeff remember that beef was very expensive when they lived in Britain, so they relied on chicken more. When they moved to Canada they found that chicken, cereal, cookies and dog food were much more expensive than they were in the U.K. When they moved to Canada they liked to buy the Hutterite chicken and bacon from vendors who would come to Jeff’s work place. They didn’t mind paying more for the chicken because it was so nice.

The thing Ruback misses most about Pakistan is his mother’s cooking. He fondly remembers typical weekend breakfasts in Pakistan “We would have fried potatoes, okra, halwa poori, which is a parata version of bread that we made at home. Also the pita is different, softer than you find it here. We made it fresh daily. Sometimes we had it with butter, sometimes with honey. In the summer we would have mangoes. The mangoes at home were plentiful and very good.” Fatiha agrees “The mangoes you get here do not resemble the mangoes we would grow back home. At home they were much bigger and more flavourful. I miss those mangoes a lot. Cheesecake was new to us, certain desserts here are not like desserts we would eat at home.”  Azi says “Spices in Iran are different from here, the taste of Canadian food is different. Ham and sausage in Iran would be saltier than here, here it is sweeter. Pickles in Iran are just salty, never sweet. The first time I tried pickles here that were sweet it was very surprising. We cook with saffron a lot. Here it is not popular, and very expensive, so when anybody goes home to Iran for a visit I get them to bring me some saffron.” Ruback remembers that fried goat brain was an occasional treat that his father liked. Len says that before they moved to Canada that pig’s brain was his young son’s favourite breakfast. “He probably wouldn’t eat that now. We ate all parts of the animal, the kidneys and the liver and the heart, even head cheese.” Although they personally don’t care for them, Reza and Azi say that sheep heads and sheep legs are very popular in Iran.

20171207_131401Sally from South Africa misses their version of beef jerky. “We call it biltong, and it is dried strips of seasoned beef, but it’s not like the beef jerky here.  We use different spices. We love it. There are a couple of South African butchers in Calgary, so we can get it here but it’s really expensive.” Sally also finds that the variety of food here is huge. Sue says that when they left the U.K. in 1998 there were no big grocers like Costco or Super Store and no one was using coupons.

Bo says “The thing I miss the most about the Netherlands is the food. Although there is a Dutch store in Calgary (and I go often, they could probably live on just my business) there are just certain treats that aren’t the same here. The red stuff that they call licorice here is not licorice, it’s just candy. I like real licorice, and it doesn’t have to be the salty stuff. There are certain things that I have for breakfast and if I run out of them I don’t know what to do. There is a breakfast cake, kind of ginger spice cake – there’s a lot of fiber in it and it fills you up. It’s very healthy. There are certain sweets that you put on bread called hagel slag or fruit hagel, which are like sprinkles.20171207_123444 Stroopwafels are wafer cookies with syrup in between.  When I am in Amsterdam I go to the market and they make it fresh. I insist it be very fresh. All slippery and syrupy and messy to compensate for the dry ones that you get in Canada. We think we have the best peanut butter in the Netherlands but now when I go home I bring 2 big jars of peanut butter to my friends in the Netherlands. My nephew ate a 2 litre jar of it in a week and a half!”

For Mirzada and Senad the differences were much more drastic. They had both lived for many years in refugee camps and food was very scarce. Sometimes it was 3 months in between food supply deliveries, and even then it was just a certain allotment for each family that had no chance of lasting three months. To come to Canada where food was plentiful and affordable was a huge, but very welcome, adjustment. Senad is open about having used the food bank. “We used to use the food bank. But I didn’t give up on my life. Before long we had a baby. We used to go and get the powdered milk. We didn’t fight about things like I couldn’t buy her a Louis Vuitton purse.” They are able to have celebrations here in the manner of their homeland and it reminds them of the good times before the war. “Three times a year we roast a lamb and have a big gathering, like we would in the old country. And if you are coming to my house, you do not bring anything. You do not bring your own wine, your own beer. This would be unheard of where we come from.” Mirzada explains “You bring a gift, but not something that will be consumed during the gathering. Something special, something different. Flowers, or a crystal vase, a pot you can cook in, some glasses for your house. ” Senad continues “But that’s a gift. Not bringing beer that you are going to drink. No way. That’s what was hard for me to get used to. We offer our tradition, our food, especially our drink. And if I asked you to go to a bar, I would pay. Here, everyone is getting their money out” Senad mimics the gesture of reaching into his pants pocket which makes Mirzada laugh at the absurdity of the gesture from their point of view. Mirzada says “Even at work, people bring their own lunch, but I always bring extra. Just try it and see if you like it. Sometimes the people at work offer to pay for me for the food! But it’s our way to make a lot and share it.”

Photos courtesy of The Dutch Store, 3815 16 St. SE, Calgary, Alberta and SA Meats, 2120 Kensington Rd. NW, Calgary, Alberta

Population Density

Tehran at night


Most of the people I interviewed came from areas of high urban density. Hyderabad and Karachi, Pakistan. Tehran, Iran and even the Netherlands and Great Britain.

The area of Tehran is 730 square kilometers and the population is 14 million. Compare that to Calgary which is 825 square kilometers with a population of just over 1.4 million. “You can’t imagine” says Reza. “There are a lot of apartment buildings in Tehran. Tehran is louder, noisier, fancier than Calgary. You can see restaurants, cars, movie theaters, activity in Tehran that you can never see in Calgary. But you are always pushed to go faster, faster.”

“The Netherlands is an upright country” explains Bo.  “If you flipped it by one quarter it would fit in between Calgary and Red Deer and not stick outside of Alberta, and there are 17 million people living there, almost half the population of Canada. There’s traffic, there are people everywhere. You are constantly with people and there is not enough space for people to feel that you are by yourself on this earth. Commuting took about 3 hours of my day. Everything was a rush. That is something we do not have to deal with here. When we first moved here our house backed on to a golf course. The first day that my husband got home from work at 4 o’clock we sat on the back deck and drank a beer and he said ‘This feels like we are on vacation.’ In July when you go to some of Alberta parks you think, seriously, where is everybody? I love going to the Netherlands for holidays, and the rest of Europe too. But there, if you want to find nature you have to look really hard and if you find it there’s like 2 million people there already. A beach on a sunny day on the weekend you can’t even see the sand.”

“It’s hard for people who don’t live there to appreciate” Jeff says of the U.K.  “When you visualize a little island with so many thousands of people, there so many people squeezed into one spot, while in Canada there are wide open spaces.”

Ruback says that Hyderabad has a lot of air pollution and noise pollution that he doesn’t miss. Fatiha does miss the hustle and bustle of Karachi sometimes. “The city we came from was a very big city, very populated and it was lively all night long. It’s a city that never sleeps. Exquisite dining, hotels and fancy restaurants. Almost every week we would go out for a nice meal. It did not take as big a chunk out of our budget to eat at nice restaurants there. We used to wake up very early to go to the office, six or seven, and then we wouldn’t go to bed until around eleven at night. We ate dinner around 9 o’clock at night. When we first came here it seemed to us that everyone went to sleep so much earlier, like a village! Everything closes so early here.”

Photo courtesy of Reza Moshkin

In the next blog post we’ll discuss the differences in food and shopping between the home countries and Canada.

Glorious. And free.

Glorious. And free.

When I first moved to Calgary 20 years ago I didn’t think I would stay for long.

It’s a great city, nice people, and the summers are good, but the winter is often brutal. I constantly compared it to Ontario: so brown from October to April (unless covered in snow – barely better), the growing season is about 6 weeks shorter and snow is possible in any month of the year. 20 years hence I am still here and I have grown to love it and consider myself an Albertan. However, when I meet someone who has come from an even more temperate climate than Ontario I am always intrigued (nosy) about why on earth they would move from a place where jasmine grows wild or where daffodils bloom in February to a place that can’t even grow a decent tomato.

I decided to capture some of the chats I have had with people about their choice to move to Canada in general and to Alberta in particular.

I spoke with

Ruback from Hyderabad, Pakistan who lives in Calgary

Susan from Birmingham, England and her husband Jeff from Paisley, Scotland who live in Cochrane

Bo from Koudekerk aan den rijn in the Netherlands who lives in Airdrie

Fatiha and Muhammad from Karachi, Pakistan who live in Calgary

Mary and Len from Reading, Berkshire in the U.K who live in St. Albert

Azi from Tehran and her husband Reza from Rasht, Iran who live in Calgary

Sue from Oxford and Wirral, U.K. and Gary from Bebington who live in Calgary

Sally and Shaun from Durban, South Africa who live in Calgary

Mirzada from Maglaj, Bosnia and her husband Senad from VK, Bosnia who live in Calgary

And these are some of the stories that they shared with me.

The Weather

Ruback from Pakistan had heard so many stories about how cold it was in Canada that when he first flew to Toronto in February, 2012 he packed on the clothes. “It was plus 5 the day I got here – which was cold for me. Honestly, you will laugh. I had on many layers under my jacket – I didn’t even take my jacket off for the entire journey. I was getting pretty warm on the flight. My uncle and my aunt were laughing at me about wearing so much when I met them. When I actually got outside it was more windy than cold.”

Len had experienced some snow in the U.K. but not much, and it had always been quite heavy, not like the baby powder snow that we usually get here. “One of the funniest things was when I went to shovel the snow, the snow was about a foot high. I looked at the size of the shovel and thought that everyone in Canada must be very strong.  I rushed in to shovel the snow and fell right over. I didn’t realize it was going to be so light. I was only used to very heavy snow in Britain and the snow in Alberta was more like polystyrene.”

There was a massive snow storm in Calgary on March 17, 1998. According to Environment Canada “On St. Patrick’s Day, nothing was green in Calgary after the city experienced its worst March snowstorm in 113 years.  The airport recorded 32 cm of snow, but most other parts of the city received about 40 to 45 cm.  Downtown Calgary was a ghost town.  Motorists couldn’t dig out of their driveways, and the bus system ground to a halt.  For the first time ever, the Irish had to cancel St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the city.” Sue and Gary from the U.K. had moved to Calgary just prior to this historic snow storm. Sue says “We had ski hills in Scotland, but where we lived if there was snow it wasn’t much and it was very wet.” Gary remembers “We had only been here a few weeks when the St. Patrick’s Day snowfall occurred. We were living in a basement apartment with a walkout and a glass door. You could see the snow drifting all the way up the door. I walked to my buddy’s place to get a ride to work. It wasn’t a very far walk, but it took a very long time. When I got there he said that he wasn’t driving in that day, so then I had to walk back.  We wondered what we had gotten ourselves into, if this was going to be a common occurrence.”

Bo from the Netherlands learned quickly how unpredictable the Calgary weather could be. “Our first winter my parents came for 6 weeks and we did not see one single flake of snow during that time. We had to go to Lake Louise to see snow! People had warned us about Alberta winters. Then everybody said “Oh, this is not a typical Alberta winter.” We came to Canada in the summer, the same year as the floods in Okotoks and everybody said then that this was not a typical Alberta summer. So we were here for 12 months, through every season, and it was not the typical Alberta weather. Well, we eventually got typical Alberta weather. We have seen years where we shoveled our butts off and years where we had to shovel maybe only 5 times.”

Even though it very rarely snows in Karachi, Fatiha and Muhammad were prepared for the cold because Fatiha’s mother’s family lives in a place close to a desert and the weather there can be very extreme. “The cold goes into your bones and we had to have layers and layers of sweaters to keep warm.” But Muhammad found that it took some time getting used to driving in the snow. “I didn’t know how to stop immediately. If I stopped quickly I didn’t have control of the car. It was scary. One time I put the car in the ditch, and an angel, a white guy appeared. I don’t know where he came from, he just showed up. He had a truck. It took about 10 minutes to get the car out of the ditch. There was no damage to the car, but I lost my cell phone. After that I drove slowly and kept a good distance from the car in front of me until I got more used to it.”

Bo had a similar experience “I was driving my daughter to school and it was minus 18 when we left. I got to an intersection and there was a truck ahead of me. There were tire ruts in the road that were very slippery. I was driving very slowly and I tried to brake and I could feel nothing was happening. I didn’t have winter tires at the time. I checked and there was no one on the sidewalk, so I tried to steer in that direction but because of the ruts I couldn’t turn. So I slid underneath the truck. It was so minor that my daughter didn’t even realize why I was getting out of the car, but that was when I decided I was getting winter tires. I know they might not work on ice, but still, I thought, o.k.”

Bo continues “We had to adjust to winter. When we were skiing the coats and pants that we were used to were just not warm enough, especially for the kids walking to school in the mornings. We sometimes get snow in the Netherlands, but it’s more of a dusting. Like a little icing sugar. For us to adjust we had to realize that winter here is different.  The bright sunny sky here can be very deceiving. It can look like a lovely day outside and it’s nice and warm in your house and you think ‘It isn’t that bad.’ But within the first few steps your eyelashes are frozen.  I remember once I was going to get the mail and it was minus 30-something with a wind chill of minus 43. Well, I had no idea what that even meant. I dressed warmly, but within 5 steps I thought that getting the mail was just not that important. But you only do that once. One time my mom was worried for us because she heard it was minus 15 here. Minus 15 here you can walk out in a sweater! The delivery guy still comes in shorts! It’s not that bad. When you get to minus 25, then that’s cold. It takes a couple of years, you have to experience it a couple of times. What you remember most is the snow in May. My mom came for a visit in 2007 in May and it was very warm and she didn’t bring any summer stuff, so we took her out to buy some tank tops and shorts. We woke up next morning to a huge dump of snow.”

The weather in Bosnia is similar to Ontario weather, and Mirzada and Senad were both refugees in the early 1990’s before they came to Canada. Both of them had periods of time when they lived in tents in the winter with very little food. They chose to come to Calgary because of family ties and they have lived here for 20 years. Senad says “I am very happy that we came here, except the weather. But the weather does not make your life.” Even so, when they retire it will probably be to Ontario to be nearer to Mirzada’s family and for warmer winters. And they find the sunshine in Calgary makes the winter easier to bear.

For Sally and Shaun from South Africa, heat was more of an issue back home. Shaun relates some of their experience “We lived near the coast, but further inland there was greater variability in the temperatures. In the winter it would be 25 degrees C. during the day, but could drop down to -5 at night, which was considered bloody cold. That’s before we experienced cold here. Sometimes we would get snow in the mountains, and everyone would go crazy when it happened. They would get in their cars and drive to see a silly little mound of snow. Our mountains were not as big as the Rockies. There was a small ski hill like Canada Olympic Park in Rhodes.”

Shaun continues “In the summer part of your phys. ed. would be swimming and you would wear your Speedo at school for P.E. The schools would either have a pool, or there would be a community pool close by. The primary school that I went to we would walk to the public swimming pool. I remember that in high school we were actually sent home from school because it was too hot, like snow days here. It was hot and it was humid and it was impossible to work.”

Sally adds “Both schools that I went to had swimming pools, and even before we left South Africa our oldest son had started school there. In January and February it would be incredibly hot and they would swim 2 or 3 times a day. In fact, they would sit in the classrooms with their swimming clothes on because it was so hot. And it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t air conditioning in the school and it was terribly hot. When we were growing up air conditioning wasn’t common where we lived. We lived in an area that had been developed by the English and the original homes were built with fireplaces. We never used the fireplaces.  The newer homes were built for the weather.”

Susan and Jeff from the U.K. don’t mind the cold winters and enjoy winter sports here, and they chose to live in Cochrane because the summers are not too hot, the humidity is low and there is lots of sunshine. Jeff was born and initially raised in Scotland, and had lived in Ontario in his teens. He returned to the U.K. in his early 20’s and found that he did not care for the way of life, mostly hanging around in pubs. He enjoyed hiking and camping, which was how he met Susan – she did not go to the pubs and she liked hiking and mountaineering. When they first moved to Canada they lived near Vernon for 3 years and the last year that they lived in B.C. they had 4 straight months with no sun. Jeff prefers the dryness of Alberta to his previous homes.  “We love the blue skies in the winter in Alberta” says Susan. “It’s nice to visit the U.K. for the scenery, all gorgeous. You do miss the green, but not the rain” says Susan. “I am a sunny person at heart. Here in the winter the skies are blue and you can wrap up and keep warm.” For them the trickiest thing about the weather in Canada is the gardening. In B.C. it could be too hot for some plants and in Calgary it can get very cold even during the growing season. Susan is fond of growing scarlet runner beans and she wasn’t having any luck in Canada, either in B.C. or Alberta. She finally got some seed from England that germinated and the beans were growing well when a gopher came along and chopped them all off at the base. To make matters worse, he didn’t even bother to eat them.

Susan and Jeff find that it is brown for a long time every year in Calgary. Mary and Len from the U.K. noticed the same thing when they first moved to Alberta in 1975. They arrived in May and they were struck by how brown and dead looking everything looked, and by the fact that it still didn’t seem like spring. “Our son’s birthday is May 7 and that year we got him a bicycle for his birthday, but the snow didn’t go away until the end of May and he had to wait until then to ride his bicycle. We couldn’t believe it would take so long.” Despite that, Len still prefers the weather here. Like Jeff he’s a low humidity guy, and Mary and Len also love the blue skies.

Blue skies and wide open spaces – almost all of the people I interviewed cited these as their favourite things about living in Alberta. And of course, the mountains. Bo says “We love the mountains. We are skiiers and we come from a country that is under sea level. There are no mountains, just a couple of big hills.”

In the next post I will share insights on the vast differences in population density between my friends’ hometowns and cities in Alberta.