Decisions, decisions, decisions (help me figure out where to live!)

So I have some updates and news and decisions to make.  Before I start – I’ll say that this whole post is more for myself to get down in writing what I’ve been thinking about for a while and to think through some of these things than it is for sharing with the world, but I’m posting it anyway as I’d also like some thoughts / ideas.

First – a decision I made a while ago but wanted to be sure about before telling anyone… after this year, I’m moving back to Canada.

My original intent with moving to Australia for a year was to see if I could make it work.  To see if I could live in another part of the world, keep earning income doing the same work I was already doing (marking / prep course consulting / tax returns / etc all via the internet), and both make ends meet and enjoy living.  If it was successful, the hope was to travel the world this way – I contemplated a year in New Zealand (the visa I’m here on, and the visa I would have gone to New Zealand on, is only good for a year and not easily renewable), and then Europe (which would be easier from an immigration perspective since I’m an EU citizen).

Two realizations made that impractical.  First, I forgot how much I absolutely despise moving.  I had figured it’d be easier, since I’d only be moving a few suitcases and just dealing with all the other ‘stuff’ upon arrival… and since many apartments here are furnished (as mine is), there would be a lot less work involved.  I was wrong.  First, arriving in a country with a completely different culture and real estate market made it incredibly difficult and stressful to find an apartment.  I was incredibly lucky to get the place that I did – it was the only one I got after applying to multiple places.  Despite only being a process of about a week, it was a week I never, ever, want to relive.  Then there was moving in, and dealing with utilities — not difficult, but time-consuming… and when it leads to having no internet for two weeks (especially when your income relies on internet-based communications), it can make life incredibly difficult.  I also didn’t realize, though I should very well have known, that even though an apartment is furnished it doesn’t mean it’ll have everything you want – I still had to deal with buying some furniture and various housewares, not to mention cleaning what was here since most of it was unusably dirty.  Throughout the whole process, especially the first few days, I gave very, very, serious consideration to turning around and going back to Canada (where I would likely have found a better, more affordable, apartment in less time)… or at least booking a hotel for a little while and spending a few weeks of ‘vacation’ and then going back.  The first two weeks I was here were rough (apparently rougher than I let on as lots of people thought, based on my tweets, that things were going swimmingly), and I never want to go through anything like it again.

The other realization was that foreign currencies are not my friend.  When I first contemplated this trip (the first time I visited Australia – February of 2009), the exchange rate was at 1 Canadian Dollar = $1.25 Australian dollars.  At that exchange rate, everything here was roughly the same price as equivalent products in Canada, or cheaper.  Obviously there was some variation – some things cost a little more and others a little less – but on the balance the cost of living should have been roughly the same or cheaper.  I made the decision to come here not long after that.   Fast forward almost 2 years, and the dollars have been roughly at par since the end of September 2010.  And, just like in Canada when the Canadian Dollar rises, very few prices have actually changed.  So now everything costs roughly a quarter more than it used to.  Add to that the fact that renting an apartment was already more expensive here (my rent is $320 / week which is roughly $1375 / month; even at .8:1 that would’ve been $1100 Canadian for a relatively small studio apartment, albeit furnished), and things become very expensive.  Originally I was thinking Australia would be one of the cheapest places I could live… that’s probably still true (certainly compared to, say, London), but it doesn’t make living elsewhere in the future more affordable.  It’s not that I don’t have the money – I do, and will get through the next year quite well and possibly even be able to save some money – but this is at a time when the Canadian Dollar is actually quite strong, relatively speaking.  Any sudden drops and things only get worse.  I realized quite quickly how impractical it would be to continue earning Canadian dollars while spending British pounds or Euros in the long run.

All this said, I’m no less firm in my desire to travel. I love to travel.  I’m just recognizing that it will be more practical to do it from a base that is a home in which I can live for a longer term, and a home that is in Canada.  Of course, I’m not giving up on Australia just yet – I’m here for a while and want to take advantage of it by travelling as much within the country as possible.  Fortunately, the country I chose to go to first is also the country with the most ground to cover.  The question has come up, from myself as well as from people I’ve met along the way, as to whether or not I would consider living here permanently.  I guess it’s not out of the question – the Australian dollar is at record highs right now so it’s not likely that the currency situation will get worse, and if I knew I were staying here longer I could make some more permanent investments (and even consider purchasing a home) to make things more financially stable.  But right now my visa expires 12 months from the day I entered the country so whether I like it or not, I have to leave by the beginning of November 2011.  The only way to stay longer would be to apply for some sort of residency permit… something I would consider, but am not yet sold on.  Either way, this would require me to leave the country, so at least temporarily I would have to move back to Canada anyway.

The point of all this, after all that rambling (sorry!), is that I’m moving back to Canada in 2011.  There are two points in the year at which I might do this.  My return flight is currently booked for the beginning of June – I go back to Ontario for the School of Accountancy then; this work goes through the middle of July.  The original plan had been to book a flight to come back here after that, to continue to live here until the beginning of October when I go back to Montreal to mark the UFE… at this point I would then have moved on to New Zealand, or moved back to Canada, whichever was decided at the time.  This timeline is still an option… however, given that I know I’m going back to Canada now, and that the choice will be between summer in Canada or winter in Sydney (even though the winters here are quite mild), and that living in Canada has the benefit of being (potentially) cheaper, coming back to Canada after the SOA in July might be a more logical option.  This depends in part on whether or not I get to see everything I want to while I’m here… but really more so on the cost at the end of the day – it might just be a purely financial decision (unlike all these other decisions!)  I still want to see New Zealand — There’s a slight lag in work between mid-September and early-October so the plan, either way I do it, is to go there for a few weeks after the UFE is written.  I’ll have to crunch some numbers, which will include figuring out the cost of a return flight from Canada vs. the cost of a one-way flight to Sydney, a one-way flight from Sydney to New Zealand, and the cost of a one-way flight from New Zealand back to Canada (I could in theory book a return flight to Sydney from Canada and then a return flight from Sydney to New Zealand if this is cheaper, though it seems kind of a waste of an extra flight).

The big missing piece in all of this is the Canada side of things.  Whether I stay in July or come back to Australia for a few more months and return in October will depend in part on where I plan to live.  I don’t know whether or not I’m going to move back to Toronto.

Since I’ve got essentially a clean slate to start from, I need to decide where I want to live. There are three places in Canada I would consider living: Hamilton, Toronto, and Vancouver. I’m sure everyone has snide comments to make about all three, but those are the three cities I would actually enjoy living in.  It’s a shame none of them have the weather of Sydney, but I’ll have to live with that.  While I would think about cost in my decision, I can easily afford to live in any of the three, so the decision will be mainly personal.  I’ve been giving serious thought to renting for a year or so and then buying an apartment somewhere after that, and I would likely be able to afford to do so.

I’ve listed them alphabetically so don’t assume anything from the order…  I’m going to stream-of-consciousness my thoughts.  As I’ve said, this is more to get my own thoughts written down than to broadcast to anyone else so sorry if I ramble.

Hamilton has had my heart since I lived there in 2004-2006… despite the occasional bickering, its people have such a resolve and a will to succeed despite all odds that I can’t help but grin widely when I think about it.  Its downtown, while a little small, has pretty easy access to everything I’d need (except groceries, depending on where I chose to live), and the real estate market is dirt cheap (one bedroom apartments start at $709 in the building I used to live in, they’re huge, and most have a really nice view).  It has Embassy, which is still my favourite gay bar on the planet.  My hairdresser is there.  I’ve not got a lot of friends there anymore (most have since moved) but those that are there are great people.  I’ve also not had a lot of connection to the ‘community’ groups, but am sure it would be easy to get involved.

Of course, it’s still small.  It’s a city, and a reasonably-sized one, but it’s still a small city.  If it were further from Toronto that might not be a hindrance, but since it’s so close to Toronto, Toronto gets many of the things that “the city” in an area would get (concerts come to mind as an example).  That said, Toronto is only an hour away on the GO.  Hamilton also has the disadvantage of being a little too close to ‘home’ … my last couple of visits to St. Catharines made me realize I have no desire to stay connected to that part of my past.  With the exception of a few good friends (of which there are still a handful back there), there’s really nothing for me there and the mere proximity would make me feel guilty for not visiting or being visited.  Finally, there’s the transportation issue – I’ve become so accustomed to not owning a vehicle, and never want to go back to vehicle ownership, but living in Hamilton without one will be much more difficult than living there with one… and sadly Zipcars doesn’t exist there yet.

Then there’s Toronto.  In the week or so before I left Toronto I was literally brought to tears multiple times thinking of the amazing people I was leaving behind there.  When I moved to the city in 2006 I felt much the same as I do now here in Sydney — even though I knew more people in Toronto at the time than I do here, I felt rather alone, excluded, and isolated.  Toronto (similar to Sydney, it seems) is cliquey.  It took me a long time to meet new people, and even longer to meet people I really liked and appreciated and respected, and who treated me as a real friend.  But in the last year I’ve met so many wonderful, engaged, connected, and genuinely good people that it became really hard to go.  When I first planned to come to Australia I wasn’t doing it to get away from Toronto, but I also felt like I had no tangible ties to Toronto that were worth sticking around for.  By the time I actually left  a couple months ago, that was no longer the case.  I felt more connected to friends, neighbours, leaders, and colleagues than at any other point in my life.

A lot has changed since then.  That’s not to say I feel less connected overall, though distance has certainly given me some room.  I’ve almost completely lost touch with some people – some who I’ll likely never be close to again, others who I’ll likely see again and pick up right where we left off as if no time had passed.  But more frequently, I’ve stayed as connected to many while here as when I was physically in Toronto.  The beauties of modern technology – I’ve chatted via Twitter & facebook, and email, with so many people I don’t feel like I’ve lost any time at all.  And then there’s all the things that have actually changed – the new mayor, for example.  I hate to be one to actually lead a Rob Ford Escape, but what’s more concerning to me than Rob Ford being mayor is that a large portion of the city actually thought it was a good idea.  Not to mention that it’s likely the last straw on the back of the camel that is Toronto’s transit system ever getting better.  Not that it’s currently all that bad, but it seems as if it’s set to only get worse, and I want to live somewhere where I don’t need a car – that means year-round walking/biking weather, or good transit (as an aside, Sydney has the former, but not the latter).  Then of course there’s the night life: overpriced, unpredictable, and virtually non-existent.  And the cost of rent…  But on the upside, getting re-involved in the community would be easy, and as long as I know I’m going to be there for a while, there would be plenty of opportunity to get even more involved than I already was.

Finally, there’s Vancouver.  I don’t really have much to say about Vancouver, never having lived there.  That’s an advantage and disadvantage on its own, giving the opportunity for a fresh start, but also the risk of having to spend a few more years trying to re-establish myself to meet new people.  And there’s of course the daunting task of figuring out how to get an apartment there, and all the other stupid little tasks that are likely to drive me insane.  But it’s a beautiful city.  And the people that I do know there (none of whom have any certainty that they’ll stay there) are really good friends.  The city’s still basking in the post-Olympics glow and there’s certainly a sense of urban pride there, even if its residents are too cool to admit it.   I have nothing empirical to support this, but everytime I visit the city seems only to get better, never worse, never standing still.  It also has the advantage of being a perfect distance – far enough from ‘home’ to be a welcome change & something ‘new’ but close enough that it’s got some familiarity.  Even though Vancouver’s a ‘smaller’ city than Toronto, being the biggest city for a long way it’s still a major attraction.  And it’s on the ocean… I love the ocean.

Of course, the nightlife is a little more predictable, but often predictably unexciting (a year ago I would’ve said something great about Odyssey, which I still insist was like Embassy light, but it’s now gone).  Decent apartments in the city seem to range in price from $1000-1400, but there seems to be relatively little consistency.  And if I want to buy, housing prices are much higher than Toronto’s.  Then there’s the matter of getting all my stuff to Vancouver – I don’t have much, but I do have a small storage unit… plus a lot of furniture and housewares that are technically on ‘loan’ to friends in the Toronto area.  And of course there’s the rain – Vancouver gets about 50% more rain than Toronto does.  Though I wonder if that’s offset by less snow.  And finally there’s the complication of dealing with my CA – it would involve switching provincial institutes, and I do wonder if it would affect my ability to continue to do work with some Ontario-based clients (something I have to look into either way).

There are also some broader inter-provincial differences to think about… Toronto and Hamilton have in common the fact that I’ve lived in both already.  Which has the upside of them being familiar and easy to orient myself in… but the downside of being the same old, same old.  I’m a bit of a nomad and get restless when I’m in the same place too long.  Which also gives Vancouver the advantage of being a launching point for new/interesting things – like Whistler, Seattle, San Francisco, The North, and most of Asia (on the flipside, of course, it makes Europe further away).  Then there’s of course the weather – Ontario weather is (usually) excellent in the summer, but unbearable in the winter… whereas Vancouver weather is (usually) quite tolerable in the winter but has summers that are just sort of average.  I like it hot! (Perhaps I’ve just convinced myself to move to Sydney permanently! haha).  And as long as I keep making less than $80K/year I’ll save 1-1.5% on income taxes, and 1% on HST of course.  And depending on when they hold the referendum I can vote against repealing the HST! hahaha…

SO – now that the rants are over, I want feedback.  Does anyone have any thoughts about any of these places? I suspect if you’re reading this you’re most likely from Toronto  but I’ll forgive the bias.  I’d love some objective thoughts, opinions from anyone who can read through my ramblings and see what I might really want… because I’m sort of at a loss.

As an aside – if anyone has any “must see” or “must do” suggestions for Australia while I’m here too, they’d be greatly appreciated!

Hoping to get some comments here!

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael Went on 2010/12/15 at 12:29 am

    If you’re coming back to Toronto, you have to be back in time for Pride.

    As a City, I think Vancouver would be really energizing. I share your fears about Toronto under Ford.

    The one factor you didn’t address above is love. What happens if you meet that special someone? Are you open to changes in plans?

    Reply

    • I should note – and this is important – that assuming I would still be allowed to work for the provincial institute I would expect to be in Toronto for 6 weeks every June/July regardless of where I end up… which makes living in Toronto less urgent since I’ll be there 10% of the year no matter what.

      And thanks for the comments… I’m of course open to changes in plans – though the plans at the moment don’t include long-term relationships haha! If someone can’t handle being away from me long enough to sustain something long-distance, I don’t think I could handle being with them anyway. Certainly if there were a ‘special someone’ that seemed promising it might affect how I feel about things… but I suspect that would be a longer-term decision anyway.

      Reply

  2. I share your fears about the next few years in Toronto, with the very worst elements of American neoconservatism seeping in. But that shift is happening everywhere, less because the masses want it but more because the crazy republican right is so much better at organizing and getting their message out. You mentioned the anti-HST movement – that’s happening in Ontario too. People have been told they’ll save a few bucks and they believe it.

    But Toronto is still a very accessible city, considering that, like other cities, development continues along transit corridors and places that can attract people, not cars. It’s not extremely difficult to get around by bike, even in the milder bits of our winters, and even Rob Ford acknowledges the need although he’s clueless about implementation. Personally, I can’t see myself living anywhere other than Toronto in the next few years, despite our mayor and our woefully incomplete transit system. Like you, I’ve made good friends and connections here, and there are more opportunities (and good reasons) for community involvement than I’ve ever had before. And I also hate our winters, but probably for the opposite reason you do. You heard London got almost 2m of snow last week eh? That’s my kind of winter.

    Obviously I’m incredibly biased, but my !vote is for Toronto. Bundle up, it’s -20C with the windchill today!

    Reply

  3. Posted by Alex on 2010/12/15 at 2:04 am

    Well, being a bit nomadic myself, I’d tell you right away that if I had the money, I’d jump at the chance to live in Vancouver right now, particularly with the Rob Ford Escape (images of unusually rotund Ford SUVs are coming to mind with that tagline). Now is really the time to head west and wait out the storm, so to speak. Having said this, it’s awfully far away from home. Would you be willing to make multiple cross-country journeys every year? If so, great! If not….enh you know.

    Alternately, I love the idea of Hamilton, myself. Every time I go, I feel unusually attached to it. It has so much that draws me in, and again, proximity to Toronto. You can live well for less and when you need/want to, can escape to “the city” whenever you want. Having said this, they’ve apparently elected another “mob mayor”, so I might watch that the city doesn’t fall apart again.

    But with regard to Toronto, keep in mind that the actual city of Toronto didn’t elect Ford, only the other 5 boroughs did ;). Yet another victory for Harris’ Megacity *rolls eyes*. You can probably survive the next 4 years in Toronto if it has your heart and mind. I think you fit into that city beautifully, and its best to hold onto something you love so…

    Anyway, I probably haven’t convinced you of anything, but it would be a shame if you were off in Vancouver, seeing as any major flights I take tend to be just as far away, in the other direction. I may never see you again if you go to Van! And that would be sad 😦

    Reply

  4. […] Decisions, decisions, decisions (help me figure out where to live!) December 2010 5 comments 5 […]

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  5. […] who have been following my adventures here may recall earlier posts that went on, all Dawson’s Creek-like, about where I would live upon return to […]

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  6. […] who have been following my adventures here may recall earlier posts that went on, all Dawson’s Creek-like, about where I would live upon return to […]

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