Meet the expats – Dylan and Stefanie

Dylan and Stefanie moved to Calgary in November 2019 with their three adorable doggies, Barklie, Chewie and Pippie. They share their thoughts on moving to and starting a new life in Canada.

When did you move to Canada and what made you choose Calgary?

We arrived in Calgary on 12 November 2019 without ever having set foot in Canada (like the majority of South African expats!). We were dead-set on Canada and contemplated visiting first to scout the different cities but quickly realised the (significant amount of) money needed would better contribute to our savings; so we based our decisions on first- and second-hand resources (friends, family and, naturally, internet and social media).

We were fortunate enough to not be limited to any province and through our research narrowed it down to Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary. Toronto quite simply never appealed to us and having visited Toronto since arrival, nothing has changed. So, we settled on Calgary based on the cost of living, the availability of pet-friendly accommodation (harder than you think with three small dogs) and the absence of any Provincial Sales Tax was a definite bonus! Lastly, we were told Calgary has a similar feel to Pretoria, and it turned out to be true, which made the transition easier.

Where do you live in Calgary? What do you like best and least about your neighbourhood?

We live in the suburb of Evanston, part of the newer developments in Northern Calgary; just within the city limits overlooking farms. Since Evanston is new, the housing, shops and infrastructure are very contemporary with a great selection of amenities. Although located near the city limits, nearby Stoney Trail grants quick access to anywhere in the city in 30 minutes or less and the airport is 15 minutes away! It’s very suburban and family friendly with many local parks; although it does lack the picturesque views of the Rocky Mountains or city skyline. Public transportation is limited but expanding in this new part of the city slowly, but surely.

If you could live anywhere in the city where would it be and why?

Evanston and the surrounding suburbs are great places, although the traffic-laden commute to work can be painful. A new modern suburb in the West would be strongly preferred to take advantage of the mountain views so Tuscany and Crowfoot would be desirable as it’s in the NW and well established with lots of shops, yet still close to major roads and not too far from the countryside! While each quadrant of the city has it’s stereotypes, certain new developments in the NE should be seriously considered as they are essentially the same feel as the NW quadrant with none of the negative views associated with the NE.

What do you love most about Calgary?

It’s a big city with a small-town atmosphere; lots of sunshine; friendly people of all cultures and easy access to nature all around. Travelling regularly for business, the airport is also amazing! We’re always amazed how clean the city is.

What do you like least about the city?

The lack of public transportation in some parts of the city. We were forced to buy a second car for this reason…

We have also witnessed open drug abuse and alcohol consumption in some less affluent parts of the city which, while not unique to Calgary, is unpleasant to see when driving through. However, this is limited to certain well-known areas.

What has been the most challenging part about moving to and living in Calgary/Canada?

The obvious one first…saying goodbye to family and friends! You think you’ll be fine until the day comes and then you are hit with the full force of what is happening. It’s sad but sobering and makes you appreciate not only the relationships you’re leaving behind (and try to maintain an ocean and many time zones away) but the magnitude of the unknown ahead. Downgrading, selling and living within a very tight budget – saving every Rand possible – was challenging and needed a lot of discipline. And pre-arrival there was the burden of our employers pre-emptively “letting us go” should they find out about our permanent departure.

In Calgary, we encountered very few challenges (thanks to no children) but finding accommodation that would allow our three dogs was stressful for a short time. And it’s a relatively small thing but having to redo your drivers license at 34 years old can be very challenging and as terrifying as it was at 18 years old! But overall, Calgarians have been extremely friendly, helpful and accommodating, and made it very easy to settle in.

What do you miss most about your home country?

Family and friends, and the general comfort of familiarity! Calgary feels so much like Pretoria, it’s scary! But there are the small things, some you can’t necessarily place your finger on, that Calgary doesn’t have. Is this a bad thing? Not at all, just different and at times you feel it. But Calgary has welcomed us with open arms and we feel at home, albeit without the comfort of the family and friends we left behind. On an unrelated note, the chicken is severely lacking in comparison to Woolies chicken, so Woolies chicken is a very close second after friends and family!

Have you found it easy to meet new people and make friends?

Absolutely! COVID has thrown a spanner in the social works but, that aside, it has been very easy to meet people and establish meaningful and supportive friendships. Putting yourself out there and joining different groups and volunteer organisations makes it easier to meet people and we’ve found that we tend to have a lot in common with expats and Canadians alike (although we have found that we have more in common with Canadians a generation or two older). The most important thing to realise is you have to leave your comfort zone – especially in the cold winter months – and put yourself out there. You don’t have to try make friends, you’ll naturally form friendships without realising; but you have to be open to new adventures!

What’s the general lifestyle like in the city?

In summary, Calgary is a big city with a small-town atmosphere. There isn’t a feeling of being rushed at all. From the streets of downtown, to driving, to waiting in line at the supermarket, there is a general feeling of ease and patience. However, don’t be too “patient” in the faster lanes if you don’t intend to speed…there are limits to their patience! With the close proximity to nature and great sunshine, Calgarians take full advantage and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle, from simple walks through to hiking, cycling and camping.

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?

There are a variety of sporting events, including rugby, every weekend, but watching a hockey game at the Saddledome is a must! There are several comedy clubs downtown like ‘The Comedy Cave’ where you can have a proper laugh with friends while having dinner. There’s no shortage of pubs, restaurants etc., just head into town and explore and enjoy!

Is Calgary a family-friendly city? Do you have any suggestions for great things to do with the kids?

Calgary is safe, clean and very family orientated! Having no kids of our own, it’s never been something we’ve needed to think about, but there are lots of events, activities and well-maintained playgrounds where families could very easily spend a full day!

How easy is it to get around in Calgary? Do you need a car or does the city have a good public transport system?

Depending where you live, work and your proximity to a train or bus line, it varies significantly. We live very near the northern city limit and while there are buses, depending on where in downtown you want to go, you’re looking at 1.5 to 2 hours on multiple buses and train(s). So it’s not impossible and world’s ahead of anything we’re used to in South Africa, but we use cars for the convenience. Even if a car isn’t needed for weekly commutes, travelling outside the city on weekends definitely needs one!

How have you found the cost of living in Calgary compared to your home country? What do you find expensive or cheap in particular?

We’ve found the cost of living to be comparable to Pretoria; salaries are significantly higher for the same work so when standardising costs as a percentage of income (and not converting between currencies), they are very similar. For example, we pay 2% more for housing (rent and utilities) versus what we paid in South Africa (and our current house is bigger and more modern than what we had in South Africa!). Certain grocery items are understandably more expensive but others are cheaper, so everything balances out, especially when calculated as a percentage of income. The biggest mistake to make is to constantly convert from ZAR to CAD, if you’re earning in CAD…’Otherwise, you won’t buy anything! But as a percentage, we haven’t noticed much difference.

What’s the economy and job market like in Calgary? Did you find it easy to find a job?

Not good…Pre-COVID the economy in Alberta was struggling. After the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic, things are not promising, with layoffs occurring in various industries.

We were fortunate to find employment just before the pandemic in our fields and are considered essential services so we have not been affected. Unfortunately, many families are negatively affected and the economic predictions are that it will be a very long time until Alberta recovers.

However, we did submit over 100 job applications before securing our current positions, but it ultimately depends on your profession and flexibility to do a job you never would have previously considered.

How have you found the corporate/work culture compared to back home?

The corporate culture is much like the city…very relaxed. Although neither of us work in a high-pressure industry, if the leisurely pace of pedestrians in downtown is anything to go by, there isn’t much pressure. Compared to South Africa, the work-life balance is incomparable! Many companies offer benefits for non-work activities such as gym memberships and focus on a lot more than the bottom line. Employee happiness, satisfaction and mental health is a top priority, mostly unheard of in South Africa. 

Do you have any other tips or insights you’d like to share with someone planning a move to Calgary?

Be open to new experiences and embrace the challenges! Start small and upgrade later as you become more settled and established; there’s nothing wrong with a smaller house and car than you’re used to. There will be times when you have a bad day but remember why you embarked on the journey and never forget there are bad days no matter where you go. And don’t forget to enjoy the new experiences!

It’s so great to hear what expats have to say about life in Calgary and we love hearing from other expats. If you’d like to share your insights, please contact us!

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