Hi, we’re Ivor and Catherine, the authors of Cape Town to Calgary. We’ve loved sharing our journey with you thus far, and have decided to add a new section to the blog called Expat Stories where we can share lots more perspectives on life in Canada from other expats.
As an introduction to this new section, here’s a bit about our perspective on life as South African expats in Calgary.
When did you move to Canada and what made you choose Calgary?
After a long and drawn-out immigration process that took almost two years, we moved to Calgary in October 2019. As we were moving to Canada as permanent residents, we had the luxury of choice when it came to where to live in the country. We chose Calgary as it has a more affordable cost of living compared to other major Canadian cities and we liked the fact that it was a smaller city rather than a bustling metropolis, so we could still enjoy a more relaxed pace of life. We loved the fact that it was close to the Rockies and BC so there are lots of options for exploring, camping and an outdoor lifestyle. The city seemed very family-friendly with a great education and health system, and lots of great options for affordable real estate. You can read more about why we chose Calgary here.
Where do you live in Calgary? What do you like best and least about your neighbourhood?
We live in a lovely neighbourhood in the south west (SW) side of the city. It’s real suburbia and we love it. We have access to the main freeways to get anywhere in the city and we’re right on bus and train routes for a quick 20-minute ride into downtown. We also have easy access to get to the mountains for a quick day trip or weekend escape. There are loads of leisure activities in our neighbourhood, including a large leisure centre, play parks, outdoor skate rinks and soccer fields, and several beautiful woods to get out into nature. We’re in a great school zone and there are lots of young families, so it has a great community feel. There is really nothing to dislike about our neighbourhood.
If you could live anywhere in the city where would it be and why?
For now, we’re pretty happy in the area we’re in, so we don’t want to move out of here any time soon.
What do you love most about Calgary?
We love that Calgary is a city with more of a small-town feel. Having lived in Somerset West and Stellenbosch before moving here, we enjoyed being in a small town but being close enough to Cape Town when we needed our city fix. When we were deciding on where to move to in Canada, we knew we didn’t want a big, busy city – and we’ve found exactly what we were looking for in Calgary. The city has a real community feel, and it’s no surprise that it has one of the highest rates of volunteerism of any Canadian city. There is always someone willing to help and support and we have felt very welcome here.
On the surface, Calgary may seem like a boring city compared to other more exciting and more beautiful big cities like Vancouver and Toronto, but honestly, we have never been bored here. There is so much to see and do that our weekends have always been jam-packed with exploring parks, museums and galleries, walks and picnics along the river or in the woods, drives out to Banff and the Rockies, train rides into downtown, visits to the zoo, libraries, and shops, and meeting up with friends.
We love the fact that we feel so safe here – safe in our homes, safe on public transport, safe walking down the street. While crime definitely happens in the city, it’s mostly petty in nature. It’s amazing to walk down the street and see people leaving their garages open all day, tools and bikes lying outside, without a care in the world. At the end of the day, they will come back and it’ll all still be there. There is an underlying culture of respect in Canada – respect for each other and for other people’s possessions – and we find this so refreshing.
What do you like least about the city?
Driving! Calgary’s roads are an endless construction site and it’s rather stressful to navigate the crazy system – even Google Maps gets confused. There are lots of potholes and roads are always being repaired. On top of this, drivers are quite aggressive and if there is a speed limit, you’re expected to drive it and not a kilometre slower, or risk having someone drive right up your back side. South African roads can be rather treacherous and navigating traffic was always a dangerous sport, so we never thought we’d struggle with driving in Canada, but Calgary drivers are definitely next level.
What has been the most challenging part about moving to and living in Calgary/Canada?
While we have settled really well into life in Calgary and have found our place in this city fairly easily, immigration is a very challenging journey, and when you move to a new country you’re basically starting over every aspect of your life, and it’s tough!
All the admin we did over twenty years was basically squashed into a few short months after arriving here and it’s very stressful to do this in a country where you don’t always understand the culture and how things work or where things are. From finding accommodation, buying a car, sorting out SIN numbers, health insurance, car and household insurance, buying furniture, finding a school, shops and a doctor – the list is endless and it’s exhausting. In the early days, there is often this feeling of being completely lost and helpless and it takes a serious toll on you mentally and on your relationships with those around you. Some days you just have to take a deep breath and keep remembering your “why” of moving to Canada and realise that this will all be worth it in the long run.
What do you miss most about your home country?
Obviously we miss our family and friends from South Africa, but otherwise, we’ve just embraced our new lives here and have tried to enjoy what Canada has to offer rather than morn the things we had.
We miss the quality shops in SA, especially Woolworths – you just can’t beat their beautiful fresh produce. We realise that we were very spoiled when it comes to food in South Africa. The restaurants in SA are top-notch and great food was far more affordable. We miss cheap booze – haha! Alcohol is very expensive in Canada and gone are the days when we could buy a delicious wine for a good price. Although, one thing we have enjoyed is the huge variety of craft beers – there are about 35 different craft breweries in Calgary alone. When it comes to wine, it’s also been wonderful to have access to hundreds of lovely wines from all over the world.
Have you found it easy to meet new people and make friends?
Canadians are polite and friendly, but as many have mentioned before us, they can be quite private and distant, so it’s not always easy to build a proper friendship. But we have met some lovely people through the girls’ school and we are starting to socialise with them more.
It’s been the South African community in Calgary who we have really bonded with, and most of our friends in Calgary thus far are South African – you just can’t escape them! In our neighbourhood alone, there are about six SA families and we have really enjoyed becoming part of this special little community, and it’s been great to have a wonderful group of people who we can relate to, who have also walked this immigration journey, and who just get us.
What’s the general lifestyle like in the city?
Calgary has a very laid-back vibe and we are enjoying the slower pace of life. It’s an active city, and the winter weather certainly doesn’t stop people from getting active outdoors, and it’s been great now with spring coming to see how the city it coming alive with cyclists, joggers and people enjoying the sunshine.
What are entertainment options like in the city? Any great nightlife spots, restaurants, bars you like to go to? Any hidden gems you’ve come across?
Calgary is definitely not an exciting city when it comes to nightlife, but there are lots of entertainment options if you seek them out. Stephen Avenue in downtown is a great pedestrian street with lots of pubs and restaurants. Kensington is also a wonderful little neighbourhood with pubs and cafes to enjoy. We’re beyond the age of partying and clubbing so we’ll leave the rest to the younger crowd to answer on this front.
Is Calgary a family-friendly city? Do you have any suggestions for great things to do with the kids?
Calgary is a very family-friendly city and we have loved getting out and about as a family. There are lots of museums and galleries to explore, many of them offering a reduced kids or family entrance fees. The zoo offers a wonderful family outing – although it’s expensive, for the price of two tickets you can get an annual membership which allows unlimited access year-round. Just catching the train into downtown has been an adventure for our family and there have been some lovely festivals in the city to enjoy.
Each neighbourhood has outdoor parks and ice rinks that are free to enjoy. The bike paths and forested areas in and around the city are also great for getting outdoors as a family and being in nature – if you’re lucky you’ll also spot some of the amazing wildlife that roam freely such as deer, squirrels, hares, beavers, moose, and even coyotes and bears!
We’ve put together a list of fun things to do with kids in Calgary.
How easy is it to get around in Calgary? Do you need a car or does the city have a good public transport system?
The city has a great public transport system that’s efficient and very easy to use. The bus and Ctrain are integrated, so for the price of one ticket you’re able to travel on both. We mostly get around with our own car, but when we need to get into downtown, we catch the train in. The Calgary Transit App is really useful for planning your routes around the city. (Here are some more useful apps that make life easier in Calgary.)
How have you found the cost of living in Calgary compared to your home country? What do you find expensive or cheap in particular?
Compared to other large cities like Vancouver and Toronto, the cost of living in Calgary is more affordable, but if you’re coming from overseas, you may find the cost of living to be far more expensive that what you’re used to. Housing is pretty reasonable, and each neighbourhood of the city has something for every budget, so you can definitely find what you’re looking for if you search hard enough. Food is expensive, especially meat. Fresh produce is also expensive and not always great quality. Cars are affordable and petrol/gas is cheap, but insurance is exorbitant, especially in your first year, where you may be expected to pay upfront for the whole year. Schooling and healthcare are free, although dental, optometry and medicines are not included under Alberta Health, and they’re expensive. Most companies offer some form of healthcare benefits which should cover these costs.
What’s the economy and job market like in Calgary? Did you find it easy to find a job?
Sadly, the economy in Alberta is really struggling and unemployment is growing. Finding a job as a newcomer in Calgary, and especially as an immigrant, is not easy, and patience will definitely be required on the job front.
Do you have any other tips or insights you’d like to share with someone planning a move to Calgary?
Calgary is a great city and we have no regrets about moving here.
At the end of the day, you need to do what works for you. There is going to be a lot of advice thrown at you, but not all of it is going to be good advice. Don’t be afraid of accepting help from others, but you may soon also learn who your people are and who you want to invest time and effort in. Just because someone comes from the same home country as you, doesn’t mean they’re going to have the same outlook on life as you, and that’s okay. It’s certainly an interesting journey navigating the new social dynamics of your new community and you need to embrace the change and enjoy the journey!
Read some more great expat perspectives on life in Calgary, and some other parts of Canada, in our new Expat Stories section.
If you’re an expat living in Calgary, or anywhere in Canada, we’d love to hear your story, so please contact us to learn more about sharing your insights on our blog.
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