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Monday, October 30, 2006

An explosion in a paint factory...

... best describes my bathroom Saturday morning.

That's what you get when you decide to ressurect Count Dracula for Halloween. White face paint, black eye shadows and fake blood. LOTS of fake blood. However, painting my hands white and turning the nails black and red was probably the straw that broke the camel's back. Times like this, I'm glad I live alone, since I would have been evicted in a shared house. The make up smeared the walls, the floor, the mirror - even the toilet bowl after I unwisely put soiled tissues down it.

Nevertheless, it seemed to do the job. There were probably 200 people at the party and if you told me that I was photographed with half of them, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised. It was easy to tell who had been photographed with Count Sanescientist - they had a white hand print on their shoulder. Ahem.

The party was pretty good. There was plenty of cheap beer and some really cool costumes. My favourite had to be the person who came as a fried egg. He wasn't sure why either, but it was pretty funny. When it wound down we went on and gatecrashed two more parties up in the "Frat" district. We decided to leave the second one hastily when one of our party inadvertantly sat down on the house cat. It didn't seem hurt, but it definately lost at least one life and refused to come down off the wardrobe, hissing like an angry python.

Of course, when I arrived home I was realised my slight oversight - no makeup remover. Three showers and a dozen handwashes later, my skin still looks paler than it did on Friday morning!Unfortunately, two of my towels may or may not go through the washing machine again - they might just be irredeemable. Meanwhile my bedding most certainly will be going through my washing machine and my "wedding suit" and waistcoat will be off to the dry cleaners. Oh well, the cape, teeth and makeup set me back less than $20, so a few more bucks on dry cleaning isn't going to break the bank.

All in all, a pretty good night. Unfortunately, I have to give a presentation wednesday morning (which I am seriously stressed about), so I won't be doing anything else for Halloween.

Keep safe and watch your Ghoulies.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lazy Blogger!

I've just seen the date stamp on my last post - seems like I'm neglecting you all!

Hopefully, things will change soon. Unfortunately, I'm snowed under with work at the moment. I now have over 100 PDFs in my "to read" folder - and that's still growing at a dozen a day. I've been here 3 full weeks and have yet to do much more than make a few stock solutions and grow up a few strains. The paranoid voice at the back of my head is whispering loudly "everyone thinks you're a slacker - all you do is stare at a computer screen all day".

I am still not certain what my project will be - hence the reading. Hopefully I will finally put down a detailed plan of action for my main project soon. Later this week, I hope to do some actual science and perform some preliminary experiments.

As far as living in Canada is concerned, it's still a big adventure. Everyday throws up new things that they don't tell you in the guide books. Some good, some not so good. On the plus side, Canada is a nation of coffee lovers. Within 100 metres of my apartment alone, there are 3 different coffee shops - all ridiculously cheap by British standards. Even the mighty Starbucks charges in dollars what we would pay in pounds. I have made friends with a Swedish student who lives in my street and we are busy testing them out. I bought last time and spent less than 2 pounds on two decent-sized coffees. Bring on the caffeine-induced palpatations!

On the down-side, Canadian cheese is really bad, and foreign cheese is as much as double the price we'd pay back home. As a man who regards cheese as one of the major pillars of the food triangle - that's pretty heart-breaking!

Socially, I seem to be doing pretty good. In addition to the aforementioned Swedish friend, the International society has a regular series of events including a Halloween party. Last Friday I also attended a house-warming party for a grad student in our lab and got on really well with some of his guests. Hopefully I should be going for a meal with someone I met there in the near future.

An English accent seems to be a mixed bag. On the plus side, I have been greeted with "you're English - cool!" several times (often by nice young ladies!). On the other hand, I have been reduced to sign language on a couple of occassions in shops - we really are separated by a common language. I have similar problems with the local accent also. I find I have to count the stops on public transport because I often can't make heads or tails of the announcements. Of course, when the train driver decides to sing the names of the stops even the locals are slightly bemused!

Crossing the road is still a bit dicey. For the most part, Canadians are pretty attentive of things like Stop signs - but they are allowed to turn right on red lights, the white walk sign does not give pedestrians automatic right of way - so you have to remember to check in all four directions when crossing near a junction. I am probably in the most dangerous time now. I am getting complacent and on one or two occassions I have found myself halfway across a road before realising I looked the wrong way. No harm done, but it gives the old pulse-rate a bit of a kick!

Anyways, when things calm down a bit I hope to restart regulars like the Tuesday Twat and the Sunday Snigger. I've also got a few ideas regarding some new features and tweaks.

So until then stay safe, eh.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bleeding me dry!

If there's one thing that cannot be emphasised enough when moving country - it's the cost. I swear to God, I am haemorrhaging money!

Everybody wants a piece of you!

On top of the obvious expenses, such as airfare and excess baggage and a guest house there is the need to pay two lots of rent up front. Then there are all the connection fees - internet, cable and phone - that'll be $50 please plus your first month's rental.

Once you have your place - even a fully furnished flat is empty. Fortunately, there is a GoodWill secondhand store nearby, but nevertheless I spent another $150 plus on cooking utensils, pots and pans and crockery as well as odds and sods for the flat. And of course the fridge is empty. Completely. I've been to the supermarket three times in the past week, buying not only my weekly shop but also one offs, such as condiments, coffee, cooking oil and toiletries and cleaning and laundry products. The Canadians follow the American philosophy of serious bulk discounting, so it is hard not to buy 6 months supply of dried pasta in one go for example, knowing that I will save money in the long run.

Then there are the other entirely unexpected costs. Want to join the International Society? That'll be $30 please. Need a key to the lab and an access card to the building? Two $10 deposits please. Want access to the student housing database? $22 please (worth every penny to be fair, 20 minutes in there got me more appointments than several hours on the internet). Need your cell phone unlocked? $50. And then $40 for a sim card...

And banking in Canada isn't free. Unless you intend to limit use of the cashpoint and your debit card to 4 times a month, there is a $13/month service charge. I had a brief moment of excitement when my bank manager (whom I have met 3 times since I moved here!) told me I could write a cheque from my UK account to my Canadian account for free. Of course, they would "Hold" the funds for 30 days before I could spend them... So I am trekking to the cashpoint daily, drawing out $400 (~196 quid) and paying 3 quid charges each time. At least if I queue up to deposit it, the funds are available instantly (take note LLoydsTSB).

All in all, I have probably spent 2,000 quid in the past 3 weeks. However, that is pretty much it now. The day to day living costs, such as travel and food are definately lower than the UK, even after you add 15% tax at the till point (I still can't get used to that, only yesterday I handed over a dollar for a 99c bag of nuts and couldn't work out why the shopkeeper kept his hand out asking for more). I am counting the days to my first paycheque. Hopefully, I will then simply be able to pay off my credit card bills and be back in the black for at least the first few days of December. Then of course, I have to buy a return ticket home for christmas and pay UK prices for beer...

Oh, well. It'll all be worth it in the end, I'm sure. If not, I will simply have to join an escort agency - I figure that an educated man with an English accent should be worth a small premium...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

So I guess I'm a scientist again!

I've just finished my first week at work and I'm knackered!

It's been a hectic week. I started the week feeling like a fraud. This is an entirely new field to me. On paper, I'm the most qualified person in the lab after the boss, with the rest of the lab being technicians, graduate students or rotation students. However, I am the least experienced in terms of knowledge of the field. My laptop's hard disk is stuffed with over 70 papers that need to be read and I find myself asking the most basic questions. After being shown my desk and lab bench (for the first time ever, I actually have my own "office" - albeit an open desk surrounded by freezers and incubators), I was promptly handed a paper to referee.

This is rather frightening, considering that I am entirely new to the field. However, after reading the paper, I was able to write extensive notes on it and tentatively recommend it for publication with extensive modifications. I handed it to my boss, and so far she has agreed with everything I've said. We'll discuss it next week.

Wednesday, we finally discussed my project. Ten minutes into the meeting I felt like a fool and a faker. Yet ten minutes later, we had come up with a concrete plan of action and I was despatched to find out the best way of accomplishing my first set of experiments. By Friday, I had finally put my new lab coat on for the first time and my scribbled notes and to-do lists were actually starting to look like a proper scientist's work plan.

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving and so we have Monday off. I'll be celebrating the holiday by reading some of those papers. Tuesday and Wednesday I have to attend a radioisotope safety course (oh joy, this will be the third one I've attended in the past few years - somehow I don't think it will have gotten any more exciting!), so that buys me some more reading time before I am expected to actually do some proper work.

On the subject of Thanksgiving, Friday night I attended the International Society's annual dinner. I had gone with some trepidation. As a postdoc, I am neither student nor staff and so there was some question over whether I was really invited. I went anyway, deciding that if it was full of homesick 18 year olds, I would enjoy a turkey dinner then bow out gracefully. I had a great evening! Although I was definately the oldest person on our table I met some fascinating people from all over the world, including a lass from Macclesfield who was delighted to have someone else to complain about the price of cheese with and enthuse about how friendly Canadians are. At the end of the evening, I had my arm twisted and agreed to go clubbing with three Swedish girls...

All in all, I swapped email addresses with about half a dozen people, and I am definately going to the Halloween party at the end of the month. One of the Swedes lives about 100 metres from me, and we've agreed to email each other for a coffee.

On the subject of my bed, it has collapsed again in the middle! It is still useable though, so I am going to leave it be for the moment until I can find a hardware store and repair it properly. I think I'll just have to buy some 2 by 4, nails and a saw and basically build a more tightly fitting support frame. My landlords are away in Australia for a few months and we are under the care of one of their friends, so I will try and solve the problem myself before I raise a stink and get permission to buy a new bed.

So far, I'm not feeling homesick yet. I've been really busy and thus far every day is an adventure. I've been told that it is inevitable that at some point the novelty will wear off and I will start to feel homesick. Symptoms that I have been told to watch for include getting irrationally irritated at the way things work here. For the most part, Canadian society's pretty efficient and logical. But it is inevitable that the small differences will irk the most. My status as a postdoc is, unsurprisingly annoying me the most. You really are treated like a second-class citizen. Time and again I have been either denied access to or charged a fee for using services that either staff or students have free access to. So far, nobody in the graduate office, postdoc office, staff office or student services has been able to answer the simple question "Do I have to pay income tax and pension contributions?". Apparently, in some provinces foreign postdocs don't. I've been given the address of a local law firm but will have to pay for their advice. That'll have to wait until next month, since I am flat broke at the moment.

The time difference with the UK is the only thing that really feels odd at the moment. During the week, I can't really phone my parents in the evening without having to excuse myself first. The time difference is such that Mum and Dad are getting ready for bed when my working day finishes. At the moment I am using a calling card on the lab phone. Hopefully I will get my mobile phone sorted soon, so that I can at least go somewhere private. It's hard to answer questions like "so what's your new boss like?", when she's standing 10 feet away!

Anyways, it's far too late now. I've just been to see "The Departed", starring Jack Nicholson, Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Definately worth the 5 stars the local free paper gave it. I strongly recommend it!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

And here I am!

Finally, I'm here!

I've just ended my first week in the great white north and my head is still spinning!

Despite all of my preparation, the whole thing still took me by surprise. It started about 10 days ago. I was woken at 7:30 on Saturday by my Dad throwing a large envelope embossed with a Canadian flag at my head. My work permit had finally arrived! By 7:50h, I was in possession of a plane ticket for the coming tuesday. By the time Canada awoke 5 hours later, I had booked a guest house and was starting to pack.

The day of the flight to Canada started in a mad rush, with me desperately trying to find a third suitcase. Sometime between me leaving my apartment and moving to my parents, pixies placed invisible lead bricks in my suitcase pushing it over the 32kg weight limit. Fifteen minutes before my father was due to drive me to the airport, I was standing in my parents' kitchen with a set of scales desperately deciding what I could leave out of my luggage and have shipped over. Finally, I was left with 3 bulging cases a bursting laptop bag (thank god they relaxed the carry-on limits!) and a bum bag (or fanny pack as they call it here - snigger) full of essential documents.

Check-in at the airport was surpriingly smooth, although my total luggage weighed 3 kilos more than my Dad and nearly killed the skinny little guy at the desk as he tried ot lift it all on to the conveyor belt. Total cost was an extra 170 quid, expensive but not unreasonable given that I am actually moving to a new home 3,500 miles away.

Arriving in Canada things were a little less smooth. The limo drivers at the airport tried to rip me off by charging me $50 even though I was sharing a cab with an Aussie I met in the airport. We bartered it down and I was duly dropped off at a guest house. Sadly, despite my showing the driver the address and checking that he knew where it was - it was the wrong guest house. Needless to say, I had already hauled my baggage up a flight of stairs and was seeing stars. It cost me another $15 and a plethora of strained muscles to correct the error, but finally I arrived at my temporary lodgings. An interesting place to be sure...

The theme for my room was "Oriental", with Chinese style patterned throws on every surface. This contrasted quite nicely with the Swedish-Sauna meets childrens IKEA bathroom and painted murals on the corridoor walls... However, the place was clean, cheap and run by a staff of wannabe artists and novelists who made a jet-lagged, shell-shocked Brit feel as if he was a long lost cousin. I've kept all the details, and will be recommending it to anyone who visits me. Perhaps by then Billy, the octagenarian semi-permanent resident who likes to wander around in her nightdress muttering about the $10m lawsuit she plans to launch against the Canadian government concerning her treatment in WWII will have either moved on or started taking her medication again...

Looking back, I can't believe it has only been a week. In that time I have learnt that Canadians like gravy and melted cheese on their chips, gotten drunk at a beer festival for free and most importantly rented an apartment. Tonight will be my third night in a basement "bachelor" apartment owned by a lovely Australian couple. They even knocked $25/month off my rent if I agreed to put the rubbish and recycling out each week. No great strain, given that the rubbish is already sorted and bagged by the side of the house and there isn't even a driveway...

Yesterday I got my internet connection and cable TV setup (still no phone or mobile yet) and I hope that the combined action of 10 metres of gaffer tape and 3 large wooden planks will stop my bed collapsing in the middle of the night again.

I started work on Monday. I'll post about that shortly. In the meantime "goodnight, eh?"



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