Thursday, May 18, 2017

The old country, the new country

I was born more than 3 decades ago in a prosperous (at the time) socialist/communist country in Europe.By the time I was 10 it was erased from the maps by a start of a war that will turn into years and years of never ending conflicts. That is how long I was a child, 10 years.That is how long my parents were able to see the future for me and my younger sister, and be sure they will be able to provide for us.After 1991, when Yugoslavia fell apart, or was literally torn apart, my life was very weird.
After the initial disbelief that this is actually happening to us, followed the bloodshed, killings, fear and eventual collapse of economy. Factories stopped, store shelves were empty and money lost it's value due to hyperinflation.My parents navigated the chaos the best they could, they kept going to work and bringing food home. They raised chickens in our backyard, they got wood for the stove we put in the house, once we lost electricity due to power shortages,they found a way to make preserves and stock up on flour and potatoes for the Winter...they kept on living and surviving for us.
It was not fun, I don't like to go there in my memories, but at least I wasn't kicked out of my house and we had food, others were not that lucky.
At one point, the hate that had risen out of the conflict which involved 3 main religions became very loud on the streets. My parents never raised me in either of their religions, we kinda lived in a communist country where it was not required of you to believe in anything but yourself, however, all of a sudden we started getting these papers at school that prompted us to choose a side, orthodox or catholic. I looked at them with genuine disgust, I refused to choose between my parents, one being in the first and other in the second religion, we always celebrated 2 Easters, 2 Christmas and they taught us to respect other people's choices in faith.At that point in my life I started to blame religion for all the bad things and wars around the world, everyone who comes from those places where people kill their neighbors in the name of the religion will know what I am talking about.I started to feel like I did not belong there because my mind could not see things black and white the way they wanted me to do, I just could not swallow the new wave of nationalism and hate, and I did not dare say that out loud.
Fast forward to my late twenties, I have managed to finish school for Early Childhood Educator, as well as the Teacher's University and to obtain license to teach ESL at public schools.I was married to a smart, kind man who had a degree in chemistry and master in IT, none of us was able to find proper work in a post war economy.We survived on what we could find, we lived in his parents house on the upper level that we had partially finished.We couldn't plan a family like that.In 2002 the pro-change prime minister of my country was murdered by his own policemen, we realized that there is no change for the better and no future for us there, we applied for Canadian visas the year when we got enough points to get into process, it was 2006.
We waited for the process to be finished for almost 4 years, in the meantime my son was born and then we waited a bit longer for his papers and visa to be done, he was only 3 weeks old on his first passport photo.Finally, in 2010 we were ready to go.
We had until mid June to immigrate and arrive to Canada,if we did not register here by then we would loose our visas. We bought our tickets for the end of May thinking it will ok.
Then a long named volcano in Iceland erupted for weeks , it moved, and postponed most of European and overseas flights, we became desperate to find a way to come, even looked at ships but the voyage was too long to get there in time...We finally landed here in the first week of June, in an overcrowded Alitalia plane, where my husband had to walk around so I could put my baby down for a few hours, it was the worst flight of my life.I was well aware that I bid goodbye to all of my friends, relatives, family, my former life and calling, and that I am now on my own, and that there is a chance that I might never see some of them again.
We landed in Toronto with 2 of the 3 suitcases we had packed with bare necessities, the one with baby clothes and diapers got lost, my son was to turn one the next week and I had no idea where he'll even sleep, we were crazy exhausted, our luggage stank of alcohol that leaked from someone else's case...I started to cry when the custom officer told me "Welcome to Canada."
We were then detained at the immigration with a young Roma girl coming from Germany with her baby, I started to chat with her in German and shared some baby cookies, when they realized I speak German they asked me to translate for them.We left an hour or so later and walked out to the Canadian side, it was a gray, cold rainy day over Toronto even though it was June and in my mind it was supposed to be hot and nice like the Summer I have left 13 hours behind me.
I remember thinking, looking at 401 "I will never learn how do drive here, everything is so huge, it's like a Japanese video game..."

Immigration has it's traps

I've been writing about my emigration for the last 6 years (more or less), I have tried my best to translate the old posts from the original blog to English but they don't make much sense unless you come from a similar place in the world, with similar views and problems, my posts are very -how should I put this- reflective of my point of view of the world and my feelings at the time.

So forgive me as you go trough this bumpy journey of my adventures before and now melted into one post, but I hope that you can appreciate the experience and information I share.

Post from 2010 our first Summer here:

I try to think of myself as a very down to Earth, realistic person.
Once you decide to immigrate and start fighting your way trough years of bureaucracy and paper work,hoping and waiting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,all you can think about is how you will be ok and happy and relieved when you finally get here...What you don't know is this is when the actual fight and problems start, and all that paper filling and waiting, as it turns out, was not a big deal.
There are a lot of things you won't like once you immigrate to Canada, there are things that will hurt to accept ( and it will hurt a lot)especially if you don't come from US or perhaps Germany, if you come from a third world country you will feel what it means to start from 0.

I call us immigrants in the first year zero's,
because we do not exist in this country,we are not in the system, in the first months you will have no access to covered healthcare and the banks will shun you since you are not in their files either,no credit ratings lol,and most of the time we start from 0. This means your outside of Canada education is 0 here unless you were so lucky to have listened all of your school subjects in English, your driving experience is 0 (at least in the eyes of your future car insurance which will give you rates 5 times bigger than locals),your Canadian work experience (sooo necessary to get a job here)is 0 as well, your bank credit score is 0,and let's hope your language skills are not 0 because this will make your life really hard.
Add to this that the number of people I knew in Canada was 0 at the time I decided to immigrate.
The number of people who could help us here if we got in trouble (financially or otherwise) was 0 too.

You start (well, most of immigrants at least) as one big fat 0.First year is no job, no money, a lot of hopes and effort and for most in the first 2-3 months 0 success.
You won't like this at all.This is the first trap for you, high expectations.

The second one is not knowing yourself or your partner enough, the stress of immigration and being cut from the family and relatives changes how people feel, this sadness and the rest of the problems creates tensions and arguments.After a while being stuck or degraded from what you had, and where you were before you decided to come will bother either you or your partner, and none of you will like this.
You might blame the other person for your situation, you might say that out loud and turn on each other.But here is the catch, if we ever did that, we would be lost.There was no one else except the 2 of us to fight this battle for our child, and unless we worked together there was no way we could move forward, not a bit.

The third for me was the Canadian Winter.I had Winter before, usually it lasted from November till March, there was a lot of snow and cold and so on, I thought I can deal with Winter here...well, I was wrong.
I can't, and I hate it, it feels like it lasts forever and it ends sometime in June, there is no Spring for me, just a skip from Winter to Summer.But the more Canadian I become the more I understand the meaning of us being proud of our dealing with this season, yes it sucks big time, but it lights up when a neighbor cleans your walkway for you just to show they care, or when kids snuggle with hort chocolate watching a game on neighborhood ice rink we all helped to build, or when you let moms park on your drive way to drop off kids just because you live by the school...So, Winter is more Canadian than anything.

The fourth trap is the worst one.It is your assumption that this experience will not change who you are.
It will change you, it will change how you feel,it will change what you do for living and it will change what your life goals are.
If you ever decide to immigrate, please be aware of this- Immigration will break you to pieces, then it will be up to you to find the pieces that work and are acceptable in this culture and keep them, and you might find that some other things such as bad habits,some memories, cultural things and behaviors should be left in the corner.
Here is one thing I had to adjust to.In Eastern Europe, when you meet someone and he asks you "how are you?" it is quite ok to actually tell the truth, if you are sick, or have a headache or have been feeling not so well -you can share that with the person who asked the question, you can even complain a bit and he or she will nod their head in understanding and try to say something nice to comfort you.
Well, not here, unless you are seeing a nurse or a doctor, if you start complaining the person will look at you as though they are uncomfortable, all they wanted to hear is the usual "Fine , thank you" not your personal medical history and whining,in this culture you are oversharing and your personal things should stay that way, especially at work!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How to save money or immigrant's budget tricks

My former country went trough a lot of "bad times", we had wars, hyperinflation ( where money lost it's value and it was useless) and economy collapse followed by embargoes and Nato bombing... You name it, we had it.10 years of my childhood and life was pretty much watching my parents trying to cope with all that and survive while raising me and my sister as normal as they could in those circumstances.I didn't understand much of that as a child, but looking back now it fills me with chills,as a parent I can feel the horror and worry that must have been in their minds every single day for years.
I'd said I have a pretty good idea on what happens when a thing like money suddenly changes or loses it's value.You have been working hard to earn for food and bills but at the end of the month you can buy a carton of eggs at the store, and THAT IS ALL, but the store has no food on the shelves and the house has no electricity because when money fails other systems soon follow. The factory production stopped, towns were unable to buy coal to produce electricity so that and the heating stopped too ( we had electricity from time to time with restrictions),hospitals are unable to restock medications,(when I got really sick one winter my dad had to buy penicillin shots on the black market to be given to me at the hospital because they had none, what followed was me almost dying from allergic shock...)and amidst all that chaos my parents and others kept going to work because it was the only thing they could do, it made life seem normal even though they got nothing at the end of the month.I went to school, we kept going, we had wood stove in the house that kept us warm and could be used to cook something, boil water for a bath (at least water was still running from time to time), my parents were magicians to fill the pantry with sacks of flour and potatoes, my mom turned every single fruit from our or neighbors back yard into preserves, she lined up the shelves with jams, tomato juice,plum juice and apple and peach juice, they traded box of soap for box of apples and laundry detergent for cartons of eggs... It kinda looked like the middle ages, where people tried to survive and swap what they had and could for what they needed.At that is not even scratching the surface on how they found ways to feed us and make our daily life look normal and also help our relatives and friends do the same.
I can say that living on a tight budget has been pretty much my whole life, immigration included.
It took us 7 years and a loan to save the money for immigrating to Canada, but we did not know that that sum can melt here in only 4 months if you are not careful.

Initial cost of immigrating and landing in Toronto can be high,you are required to bring a sum to cover first 6 months of your stay (and in Ontario your health care is not covered in the first 3 months, so you may have to take health insurance as well) but that sum of money may not be enough.
The first month melted the third of the sum we had, apart for paying for tickets 3000$, we had to pay for various other things including a used car (900$ plus registration and other fees), first and last rent around 2400$,various translating and other fees, drivers licence 500$, food, clothes and diapers for a whole month 800$,basic furniture (mattress, used furniture, ikea stuff)700$...
To sum up, we were told to bring around 16.000$ to last the 3 of us (baby just turned 1 when we landed)for the next 6 months, as we are not eligible for any financial assistance,the first month expenses were almost 6.000 $,one month- more than third of our money gone and we need to pay rent and eat the next month as well, and the following 4 months, except it will not be enough unless we started working yesterday.But as every immigrant knows the hardest part of starting is finding a decent job, and more about that hell latter.

So here are some tricks I used to stretch our budget:

1. Paying just for the basic things, we had no TV, no home phone just prepaid credit on cell phones and cheapest internet we could find.

2.Find the cheapest car insurance,if you got a car, call brokers or call at least a dozen to get better quotes,if you are not using a car for a month or two (we did live very close to work-walking distance) put it on park option (the car stays on the parking and you pay only 20$ a month).Use public transportation if possible -buy monthly passes, see if there are discounts available for students, low income, seniors etc.

3.Food- use coupons and buy on sale or clearance, look for items 50% of at the end of the day, most stores close deli section at 9 or even earlier, so meat, salads and other things like fruit trays will be half price after 8 pm, you can get a whole roasted chicken, fruit tray and sides for a whole family for under 15$ (it's a large dinner for 4 people that would cost more than that per person if served in a restaurant).Buy in bulk, especially the dry items such as pasta, cans and frozen items that can be stored.Visit your local ethnic stores such as Chinese, Polish, Korean and other because they often have much cheaper articles meat or fresh fruit in order to sell faster.As for pastry there is a shelf with half priced day old bread and other but since I love to bake my own, I buy a bag of flour on discount usually 10kg and just bake my own, (the math in here is 10 kg good flour on sale 8$ makes about 22 breads, more or less, with the average price of bread 2 to 5 $ this would cost from 20 to 50$, but that is not the only reason, the fact is I love my bread and hate additives they put in the store ones). That brings me to - cook as much as you can and know how to yourself, pack your lunches and sandwiches, don't buy prepared food (most of it is junk anyway).

4.Clothes, buy what you must and need only.Look for clearance items, when you need a good winter jacket or more expensive things go to Winners or Marshals, avoid outlets of brand names (the stuff they make for outlets is not the same quality as the other brand things, it is made cheaper for the outlets even though they will tell you it's the same thing- it is not). Sometimes is better to go looking at thrift stores for gently used quality or brand items, like Value village, Good will,and others.For kids there are also second hand or thrift stores, or kijiji and craig's list, most of my kid's stuff is not new because they outgrow things in matter of months, I prefer to buy gently used quality items for Winter at Once upon a child and other similar shops.
Also buy the most expensive things such as winter jackets or boots after the season when they are on clearance, for kids I buy 2 numbers larger sizes for the next Winter.I once bought 100$ boots for 22$ and a 200$ winter parka for 90$, I also paid 26$ for sandals in January on a store closing sale that I would never be able to buy (not even now) because they are priced at 200$ regular price.So buy off season and in advance, you are always going to need at least one pair of Summer or Winter for kids, one of mine just skipped 3 numbers in one year.The best time of year for shopping cheap is week or even day after Christmas.

5.Furniture.Don't buy, ask if someone you know has something they'd give away, ask and look for free things on facebook groups, kijiji or even around your building.I still have crib, kids bed and desk I got from someone, however I have never taken a carpet or bed or mattress or any kind of fabric covered thing in Toronto being afraid of bed bugs ( the town is infested, our building had 10 cases of bed bugs).
I tried buying something on the kijiji and I made a mistake. It was not a good idea. I bought a table and chairs, it was too expensive to buy a new furniture, I thought that I'm buying ok stuff it looked fine on the photo but when we went to pay they were not clean and I had to clean them and scrub them, I wanted to buy some other things but it did not have a car big enough to move them...At the end Ikea was the best option for us, we knew we were going to move a lot and all of their stuff is light not too expensive and easy to take apart (I had to take apart and assemble the futon we bought 6 times when we were moving around), they also have a cheaper "as is" area where you can get the best deals if you don't care that the thing is scratched, kids will ruin it anyway.
My first pots, cutlery, dishes, plates, some blankets, a crib and toys all came from people we met here and later became our friends.We spent our first night in the rented apartment sleeping on some blankets on the floor because we had no furniture at all, no bedding, nothing but 3 suitcases we came with full of papers,baby stuff,diapers and clothes.
If you really need to buy things go for the most basic, cheapest and lightest options in case you have to move.There are many decent things available on kijiji.

6. Banking, find a no fee account and cards, don't even try to get a credit card, just use debit in the first year.There is no point going into credit debt if you don't work and you will not be given one if you don't have a job or a large sum of money on your account.Credit cards are not really useful unless you want to make a huge purchase, or you are forced to use them in order to get credit score at the bank (if you wish to buy a house or a flat one day).

7. Use free resources when ever you can, there are free libraries and internet all around, free language and employment help for newcomers,subsidy for daycare and much more.Organizations that work with newcomers are a good place to get the info on what might be good for you, internet, forums and blogs too.There are free tickets to museums, free passes and different discounts available to newcomers and most residents, Toronto library had one of those programs when I lived there.

There are small things that can save you money down the road such as taking driving classes (even if you know how to drive) and getting a certificate will make your insurance rate a bit lower once you start driving in Canada.

Hope this helps, if I missed something I will add it latter :)