• Meet the family

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Monday, December 30, 2013

The very eery, very cool, Pinnacles Desert




The Pinnacles Desert in Namburg National Park is just over 2 hours straight north along the coast on highway 60.  We had heard mixed emotions from friends anywhere from "Meh, it's alright" to "You gotta see it".

I am firmly 100% in the "You gotta see it" camp.

The drive is pretty typically driving in Western Australia with a mix of terrain.  There are signs OFTEN warning of wildlife wandering on to the road which can be an issue in general in these parts especially with kangaroos.  This is a real risk and requires you keep your wits about you.  

As you get closer you will start to notice the most amazing white sand dunes.  This Canadian started to think he was seeing snow.  It's that white.  Come to learn after the trip that a popular activity near the town of Lancelin is Sandboarding.  Sounds fun.

Other than the sand dunes there is no real geographical indication that you are close to the site.  The signs however are pretty good and we arrive at the gate.  We had been to Yanchep National Park (another post to come) the same day so our $12 dollar ticket was good for entry.  The nice attendant handed us a map and asked that we please keep our vehicle on the road / trail.  Hmmm...ok....that will make sense soon.

We follow the signs, still surprised we can drive through, come around a corner and WOW!.  I think we all said it at the same time.  The area is truly awe inspiring and goes on for as far as the eye can see.  We quickly find a place to park the car and start to walk through the pinnacles.



I think only the pictures can really show just how cool this place is.  It's like being on another planet.  The kids absolutely loved exploring the different pinnacles and running around them.




There are a lot of photographers out with many thousands of dollars of gear.  At one point one friendly guy (who I should mention had been taking pictures of himself with a horsehead) offered to take a family shot which is one of our favourites that's been taken in WA.






We finished hungry, and headed for Cervantes, just 20 minutes to the North.  Bad idea.  We were told to go to the Country Club which was the only place open.  Angie and I had to chuckle as it reminded us so much of every 1970's built community club in Western Canada which we had both spent more time in then we cared to admit.  After 1 hour of waiting for food that hadn't been started we gave up and began the trek home.

I should mention that I don't ever remember seeing stars so clearly.

I highly suggest this quick road trip if you every get the chance.  It's a special place that you'll always remember.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Breakfast in Fremantle - Wild Poppy









We took the kids out to Fremantle for Breakfast today to Wild Poppy.  This is our second visit to Wild Poppy and its quickly becoming one of our favourite places for breaky even if it does take us about 30 minutes to make the trip out to Fremantle.

The place is an eclectic mix of colourful quilts, painted murals, velour couches and serves both breakfast and lunch 7 days a week.  You can sit in the nicely air conditioned inside or they have 4 or 5 tables outside for those who prefer.

I can only point you to one thing on the menu because it was so good the first time I ordered it again today.  Chili Fried Eggs.  As per the picture...it's 2 eggs over easy laid over top of a Indian flat bread that has been spread with a sweet and spicy tomato chutney and has the odd green chilli (jalapeƱo) on it.  It costs $16.  I haven't tried a coffee but they definitely have the right equipment to make it right.


Seriously good.

After eating we found the couches, read the paper and the kids made a pretty good castle out of the blocks they found.

Wild Poppy is located at 2 Wray Ave, Fremantle, WA and is open for breakfast and lunch.  Worth checking out.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Spiders and Snakes in Perth - Part II - Spiders

Spiders are a different kind of problem in Perth.  There are a large number of species but only one, the redback spider has the actual ability to kill you.

The not so killer Redback Spider
The anti-venom for the redback was created in 1956 and no-one has died of a bite since 1955.  Generally if you're a health adult they will just make you feel quite unwell and then you'll move on with life.

The Redback Spider

The redback is the very timid.  You normally find them in humid, dark places just sitting there.  Bites tend to happen when people grab them by accident.  I do suggest a pair of gloves when taking out the little rolly garbage bins as they like to hang out under lids and places similar.

Seriously don't worry about them.  They're a non issue.

The bigger pain - Common house spiders
Common house spiders, black spiders the size of a small coin come in waves.  They start to really show up when it starts to heat up in summer.  They really only cause two issues.

I know these guys too well. 

1) They're around, and it isn't really pleasant to have spiders crawling around the house.
2) They make webs.  And if you let them, bucket loads of webs.

When we first moved into our rental house there seemed to be a lot of them.  It seemed like every time I went into our upstairs bathroom I would need to kill one of two which would come in through the bathroom vent grills.  I should mention that I don't see the same numbers that I did last year.

Many of my friends bring in people to spray for spiders around their house.  It will kill the spiders there but doesn't stop any new spiders from coming in.

I bought an expendable spider web broom and every month or so I walk around outside and take down all of the webs.  That seems to do the trick.

Don't let spiders scare you away from coming to Perth.  The issue is way over blown.  They are much more of a nuisance than anything.





Thursday, December 26, 2013

I wish you an aussie Christmas!

Merry Christmas from Perth...


This is our second Christmas away from our extended families and can always bring a few sombre moments where you begin to realize some of the things you gave up as an expat.  Last year we spent the day with our wonderful friends from Italy and Greece who landed in Perth around the same time we did.

This year we got a true Aussie Christmas.  My friend Steve and his amazing family (all born and raised in Western Australia) opened their home to us for a beautiful meal, great conversation and plenty for the kids to do.

I will honestly never get used to Christmas without snow.  It simply does not compute in my brain.  For well over 30 years I've been programmed to bundle up to go shopping for presents.  There are lights on all of the houses and everything outside is covered in Snow.  The closest thing in Perth is the picture below taken on a day that was well above 30 Celsius.

The closest thing we get to snow....foam bubbles at London Court,  Perth CBD
Last year it hit 39.6 Celsius on Christmas day.  Thankfully this year it was a much more respectable 29 which was to be perfect to be out (under cover of course).  The kids had a bouncy house complete with mini water slide.


Aussie Toboggoning

So back to the meal:
Ham
Chicken
Natural Oysters (Southern Australia)
Prawns - massive massive prawns
A selection of salads including a killer asparagus one
Enough deserts to require a prescription for Lipitor
A giant esky (cooler) of Beer and ice


The meal was awesome.

That said though I think it's just a tribute to the Australian way.  Steve's family, most of whom had never met us, opened up their home to us and treated us like we were family.  I have to say, that is my experience since being in Perth...Australians are just SO welcoming of anyone into their homes.

Thanks to Steve and his family for a wonderful time and making us forget for a short time just how far away our family is.

If you're an expat how do you spend the holidays when far from family?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Spiders and Snakes in Perth - Part I Snakes


Upon announcing that we would move the family to Perth, and not so much Perth, but Australia the most common response was:

"Oh Australia, you know about the spiders and snakes right?  They can kill you!"

In honesty the comments and the propoganda started to affect a reaction in me.

"How would we keep the kids safe"
"Would we need to have them in blue jeans at all times"
"How would we know when they got bit?"
"How long would we have once they were bit?"

You get the idea.

The truth is something so far from what you read it isn't funny.

First snakes:
I have yet to see a snake in the wild anywhere in my travels up and down the coast of Western Australia. AND....I have yet to meet someone who has been bit by a snake.

That is not to say they are not here.  Western Australia is home to tiger snakes, brown snakes, duggites, king browns, and death adders.  All of which are venomous.

The thing about snakes is however, they don't like being around humans.  Even the slightest vibration can make them go the other direction.  In almost all cases, snake bites occur in humans when the person is trying to do something to a snake or in cases where the person scares a snake which is sleeping or under brush and leaves.  So it usually boils down to drunk bogans and lovely old ladies gardening without a quick check that get bit.

In the end snakes in Perth is simply about a little awareness and it will never be a concern.  It should certainly never prevent anyone from making the journey.

Owen likes his garden time



The School - and making friends


We always knew it was important to get Olivia into school.  Before leaving Edmonton she had just finished a wonderful preschool program.  She flourished in it and had created a great bond with her teachers.

A couple a key points about schooling in Western Australia:
- The school year begins in February and ends in December.
- Kindergarten or "Kindy" as it is referred is for kids who are age 3 on or before June 30 the year before.  
- The years go Kindy (age 4), Pre Primary (age 5), Year 1(age 6) and so on....
- Schools in WA are not flexible on dates / ages.  The rules are the rules.
- Private schools are everywhere (I personally can't name one back in Edmonton)...and range in price from semi reasonable to absolutely obscene.

And so with that said after arriving in June of 2012 and Olivia turning 4 in August we would need to wait until the following February to get her back into school.

What I didn't realize was how critical the school would be for the entire family.

Olivia would end up joining Wesley College in South Perth(an enigma in itself which deserves it's own post) in Feb of 2013.  She quickly made friends...as 4 year old kids do...which in turn meant Angela and I quickly made friends.  Lots of friends....good friends.

Olivia's schooling was a real turning point in the enjoyment of our new life as expats.  Dropping her off always lead to socialization with other parents.  The school encouraged parent involvement and family events were common.  This all lead to new, interesting and good friends.

As we look to our next expat experience our number one goal becomes "Get Olivia and now Owen into school as fast as possible!"

Have you had similar experiences?

Birthday Parties - For kids and Parents


Monday, December 16, 2013

How to save money on currency exchange as an expat



Despite base in Perth and working for the Australian entity of my company I am paid in Canadian dollars into a Canadian bank account in you guessed it....Canada.  This is compounded by the fact that upon arrival we didn't just have standard expenses....we needed to buy some significant items including a car for Angela.

The policy of the company I work for suggests writing yourself a cheque from your home bank account and cashing it in your working country bank account.  A quick review of the costs related with doing this (can be as high as 6% of the amount being transferred) made me think just maybe this was a bad idea. 

The banks in general while advertising "No fees on currency exchanges" will eat you alive in the rates you will pay.  A quick review of my Canadian bank shows they are charging over 5% to convert Canadian dollars to Australian dollars.

So...

Foreign exchange (Forex) services to the rescue.  I'm not sure where I found out about these companies but suffice to say there are tonnes of them out there and the rates they charge are a fraction of what banks charge and they handle the transfer activity for you as long as you're in a country they can work it.

I signed up with CanadianForex, which is really just a branch of Ozforex based in Sydney, Australia.  I later also signed up with XE.com.  Needless to say there are scads of companies that do this but I'm going to talk about CanadianForex / Ozforex and my general love affair with them and their services and how much money they have saved me.

How it works...


  • You sign up for an account...this is all done on-line and is pretty basic.  I did it while still in Canada
  • They do and ID check.  For me it was providing a bank statement with my name on it less than 3 months old.
  • You set up beneficiaries for your transfers (in this case I set up myself and my banking details in Australia)
  • You book a deal.  You can set the currency you want to buy and the currency you want to buy it with and the size of the transaction.  (If you are willing to move 25K you can use limit orders where you set your price and wait for the currency in question to hit that level)
  • You fund the deal.  This can be done a number of ways.  When I started with them I could do it with a bill pay but that option has been removed for my Canadian bank.  With a few forms you can set up an auto withdrawal from your bank of choice.
  • A few days later the money shows up in my Australian account and I'm ready to go.  Westpac does not charge me any fees coming in.

Ok so what's the big deal, right?   The big deal is that forex services charge around 1.5% (it's inside the rate and it goes down as the transaction size goes up) of the transaction plus a 15 dollar service fee (which is waived above 10K)  

See below chart based on todays rates:


As it shows in the chart if you move $10K Canadian dollars the difference between my forex service and my Canadian bank is $459.  If you moved a concervative $40000 in a year this is nearly $2K difference.

I should mention...I have no affiliation with any of these companies.  I work in the Oil and Gas industry and was not smart enough to make a boatload in the banking industry.  It just really pains me to talk with expats who are constantly throwing money out the window with forex costs.

Interested to know....how do you do it?  Do you get paid in home country or working country?

How to find temporary housing in Perth


Let me start with the brutal disclaimer.  In the entire process of starting our expat lives in Perth the process of finding temporary accomodation while we waited for our furniture to arrive was the most hair pulling, frustrating, non response getting goofy situation we encountered.  Ok that's now been said so here goes...

Ok....to paint the picture
I'm sitting 9,595 Miles or 15,442 kilometers from Perth on the 1st of May (2012) and I have the following requirements
- A three bedroom appartment 
- Somewhere central with access to public transportation
- Clean
- Safe-ish neighbourhood
- Required for approximately 3 months
- Price tba - let's figure out what our options are
- Move in approx 6 weeks from today

Sitting in Perth is my "advocate" who is going to help me find this hopefully better than mediocre place and make my life easy.

First e-mail comes:  3 different options....all fit the bill....none particularly appealing but lets pick one and go.  Selection made.

Second e-mail comes:  Sorry that property has been taken.  Can you select another from the list?  Sure thing...we'll take property #2 and if not property #3.

Third e-mail comes:  "Sorry those are gone too."

This process continues for a period of time (at all times from the same agency) until I say   "Can you please call and find out what is actually available and then give me the list."

Another e-mail comes:  "Yep, sorry they have no availability in 2 or 3 bedroom apartments currently."

At this point Angela and I decide to start "helping".  We comb the internet for services dedicated to short stay appartments.  We also take a look at rentals on www.realestate.com.au 

We send countless e-mails and call countless agencies.  We find out quickly that furnished properties on www.realestate.com.au as a general rule will not rent for time periods less than 6 months.  Many agencies will not return our calls and or e-mails.  Some agencies do respond but cannot guarantee that they will have availability for the dates we require.

I move to vacation rental site stayz.com.au and start sending requests.

16 days and probably 150 emails after we start the process I get an e-mail from a guy named Steve saying "The appartment is available during the days of your request"

We did it....we found a lovely albeit small 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment in West Perth at the gobbstoping price of 1708 Australian per week.  This would end up being our home for three months and turned out to be a great location to learn the city from.

"Come on Owen....Let's celebrate!"

What we learned:
- Time is your friend (or in our case your enemy) Book as early as you know you need the space.  Don't wait.
- There are three main websites I suggest:
www.stayz.com.au  Actually a vacation rental site but many properties have longer term rates
www.exapt.com.au  BUT I suggest you call these guys.  Their website is not updated regularly.
www.corphousing.com.au   These guys were the most responsive but didn't have availability.
- realestate.com.au  will be your friend when looking for longer term rentals 6 months or greater but ended up just wasting our time on this search.  Many rental agencies were fairly straight in telling us as much.
- If you are not bringing furniture....you are in a much better situation as you can go directly to look for a long term furnished accommodation.  I would suggest doing this in person and if you have kids, deciding on a school first.
- Short term furniture rental is an option.  If you know where you want to live and find a long term rental of your liking you can rent furniture quite easily in Perth while you wait for yours to arrive.
- Hotel style serviced appartments do exist....BUT....they made our appartment look cheap.  For this reason we didn't spend much time looking at this option. 

***  This process occurred during a very busy time in Perth and it is my belief that the market has softened slightly since that time.  I do believe if someone tried to do the exact same process today the results would be quicker and probably end with a property closer to what was requested.

Have you gone through this?  What was your experience like?
  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How to set up an Australian Bank Account in Perth / Western Australia


Once we accepted the expat role in Perth....one of the very first things to set up was Banking.  I'm happy to report that Aussie banks make this easy...as least they did for us (more on that later).

For starters I suggest one of the big Aussie banks....they are:
** Some of the world banks also operate here such as HSBC and Citi.  I don't deal with them at home so I didn't see the point but some expats speak highly of them.

All of these banks operate sites for people moving to Australia.  I will speak to the Westpac experience as based on some very basic and hardly scientific analysis I chose Westpac.

I was able to, in probably 15 minutes online, open what is called a "Choice" account with Westpac.  This is the equivalent to a checking account back home.  It pays no interest and allows me to move money in and out, pay bills just as I could with my Canadian account.

The things you need to know:
- You can open the account online from home country and will receive an e-mail shortly after stating your account has been opened.
- I could almost immediately transfer money INTO the account.
- Westpac actually called me in Canada to welcome me and helped set up the online access to the account.  A nice touch.
- Internet banking is excellent in Australia.
- Joint accounts are accepted...hence we created just one account
- I was required to do a identification check before any money could be taken out of the account.  This can be done via mail from the home country or simply by showing up at a branch with the necessary id  as described.  We chose the in branch method and Angela was able to do the id check for both of us which surprised me.
- I could not apply for a credit card from Canada, this had to be done once we were in Australia.
- We moved 10K into the account before going to Australia....I think this helped avoid some issues that some of our expat friends had.
- The West Perth branch had no problems issuing us credit cards and did set them up for Angela and I on her first visit. ***

*** Many of our expat friends have been unsucessful to get credit cards and credit on arrival despite letters from their companies and having high paying jobs / expat packages.  I have further heard this complaint from others who moved from Perth over the years.  I can say only this....we moved 10K AUD into the account about a month before we moved.  We did the request IN BRANCH...branches apparently have much more flexibility than the call centre folks.  Angela brought the kids with her to the branch and treated them with absolute respect.

If I've missed something don't hesitate to ask... how was your experience setting up banking? 



Another heatwave - Weather in Perth


We're in one of those heat waves that are not uncommon in Perth from December through February.  Yesterday broke 40C and today was over 38C.  This heatwave will be defined as 6 consecutive days with max temperatures above 36C.  Last December we had a 112 year record with 9 straight days averaging a high of 39C.  I remember new years eve walking to my car and thinking my face might melt.

And now for a personal reminder of what weather looks like back in Canada:


Ok enough about that....I remember.

Once the weather is above about 35C the streets get quiet and those people not at the beach hunker down in the air conditioning.   We played a game of jump in the pool, dry off, jump in the pool, dry off again.

With all of this said it's good to put things in perceptive.  On average Perth gets 3 days above 40C, 25 days above 35C and 71 days above 30C.  Humidity is almost always low so that heat doesn't feel so repressive like it can in cities like Singapore, Houston or Milan.


There is one last trick that defines Perth in terms of Weather: The Fremantle Doctor

I was pretty sure this was myth when I first heard of it.  People here speak of the doctor like he's an old friend that comes for a visit.  That said....come 3 to 5 PM in the afternoon the wind picks up....often from the Indian ocean and brings a cool breeze over Perth quickly bringing the temperature down to reasonable levels.  It is not uncommon for us to have a scorching hot day in the 35 range and I don't realize it because it is 26 when I walk out to my car between 5 and 6 pm.

These few killer heat days aside....I can't think of a better city for weather.  I'd be interested to hear suggestions of one.
 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Should I move to Perth?

I personally think Perth has got to be one of the ultimate expat destinations.  Angela and I often discuss that it will be hard to top Perth with the next assignment.  I can tell you for certain we don't regret the decision for a second.

The family on the South Perth Foreshore

The upsides are:
  • Weather - I challenge you to find a place with better overall weather
  • It's safe
  • People are friendly
  • Good health care
  • It's an outdoor city - Bike, Run, Swim, Sail all year round
  • You are maximum 40 minutes to an endless coastline of beaches.
  • Language - If you're coming from an english speaking country....Aussie's speak English even though sometime it doesn't seem like it.
  • Good schooling is available
  • There are tonnes of expats that are in the same boat as you.  They are coming in and out just like you in large number.

Cottesloe Beach - 25 minutes from the Perth CBD

The downsides are:
  • It's far from everything.  Perth is one of the most remote cities in the world.
  • Cost of living.  Perth is poke a stick in your eye expensive.  It's drop f bombs, swear out loud in the middle of the restaurant expensive.
  • The sun is vicious.  2 out of 3 people in Australia will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer.  
  • It's not a cultural mecca.  I often hear Perth called boring.  I disagree but it is not London, New York, or even Edmonton when it comes to cultural goings on.


A great place to raise kids
So when making the decision the major thing to consider is:  What standard of living will you have in Perth?

If you're coming on an expat / foreign service package that includes housing etc. which is common among the Energy and Mining expats then you're all set.  On the other hand...if you need to cover all of your costs, I highly suggest you do research on the costs of living.

What have I missed?