Wednesday, October 31, 2007

3, 2, 1, expatriation

The time has come! The shiny pink seal in my passport says that I am now officially an IMMIGRANT. I was really hoping to get one of those fancy "Welcome to Canada" pamphlets I saw on another blog, but instead I only received a rather poorly designed slip for the Newcomer Information Centre. The Canadian introductory materials are in desperate need of a makeover. How about some fractals and psychedelic spirals on your "Welcome to Canada!" booklet? I went ahead and made sure at least the FennoUgrics are represented because the only white guy in the shot is obviously Slavic. Check out my freaky head shot next to all the other happy immigrants!:)

According to Expatica News 2004, Vancouver is one of the easiest cities in the world for expatriates to live in.
I never realized that I would be what is considered an expatriate. What an ugly word - sounds like an "ex-patriot". If anything I'll be a bigger patriot when I move - we haven't even left and I'm already seeing everything in blue, black and white. And it's all so beautiful and real, so why are we leaving to begin with?
I walk around eavesdropping, hoping to catch people's complaints about Estonia, the low wages, the weather, anything at all. I spend a large portion of my time at work surfing the web, in hopes of finding more evidence that Vancouver is going to be amazing. (Thanks in advance for any links you can send me! o.o )
Getting cold feet sucks.

ex·pa·tri·ate /v. ɛksˈpeɪtriˌeɪt or, especially Brit., -ˈpætri-; adj., n. ɛksˈpeɪtriɪt, -ˌeɪt or, especially Brit., -ˈpætri-/ Pronunciation Key - Show Spelled Pronunciation[v. eks-pey-tree-eyt or, especially Brit., -pa-tree-; adj., n. eks-pey-tree-it, -eyt or, especially Brit., -pa-tree-] Pronunciation Key - Show IPA Pronunciation verb, -at·ed, -at·ing, adjective, noun
–verb (used with object)
1. to banish (a person) from his or her native country.
2. to withdraw (oneself) from residence in one's native country.
3. to withdraw (oneself) from allegiance to one's country.
–verb (used without object)
4. to become an expatriate: He expatriated from his homeland.
5. expatriated; exiled.
6. an expatriated person: Many American writers were living as expatriates in Paris.
[Origin: 1760–70; < ML expatriātus (ptp. of expatriāre to banish), equiv. to ex- ex-1 + patri(a) native land + -ātus -ate1]

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An ideal day

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Brain food

Argh! My brain is going to explode!
A coworker of mine sent me this thing today. (Shows how busy with work we all are these days..) I've been staring at it on and off and I can't figure it out. Can somebody just tell me what this means?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Living costs in Vancouver

It's amazing to what extent the prospect of moving can change one's perspective on life. I've derived a newfound fascination with Estonian weather. It no longer bothers me to watch our street turn into a mucky river on rainy days. I've actually developed a strange sense of compassion for the car drivers who regularly splash me with water as they speed through puddles.

I haven't been procrastinating this much since I was in college. I literally don't give a **** about my current job anymore and it's giving me a sense of freedom of taking things easy and keeping my stomach ulcers at bay. And hey, I can keep track of all my procrastinating endeavors now that I have a blog, which provides me with at least some sense of accomplishment.

Here's the up-to-date housing prices for Vancouver, published by Canada Immigrants, an immigration portal.

I recently came across a forum named Discover Vancouver, featuring an overwhelming number of offensive, racist and just plain stupid posts, such as "Canada sucks" and "Extra Foreskin". Among the spam there seem to be some legitimate posts by residents-to-be, who are generally quickly put down and discouraged from moving to Vancouver because of its high standard of living. What's up with all the hate-mongering? One can only suspect that the people posting are bitter individuals signing in from little hick-villes in the bear's ass, not Vancouver. (At least I'd like to think so!:) )

Anyhow, there was one reasonable post by somebody named nobody, giving an overview of the cost of everyday items.

cable - $30 for basic
Telephone - $30 basic
Internet - $30+
hydro - $30 + - more in the winter
parking - $25+ - some places you need a permit for street parking or parking garage spot
school - public is free but there are a lot of costs - supplies, fees for things etc. a few hundred $$$ a year
medical - i think its $120 or so for a family - per month
gas - $1.10 right now per Litre
transit - $3.75 or so for a 3 zone ticket - $2.25 for a one zone ticket - monthly passes are cheaper
car insurance - $1200 + up - depends on your coverage and driving record

food is fairly cheap - but varies from store to store
4L of milk is anywhere from $3.28 - $4.58

eating out at mcdonalds - $5 - $8 each

eating out at a casual place $8 - $20 each

fancy place $15 +

beer is $20 - $30 for a 12 pack at the liquor store

beer in a club is $3.50 - $8

Vancouver does seem to be expensive, but so was San Francisco. And so is Tallinn, if you're earning average wages.
As far as I can tell from the list, the only things that are definitely cheaper in Estonia are car ownership and beer. (Mind you, beer at a club can go up to the equivalent of $6.)
Medical costs are less if you're working. (I.e. you don't need to pay for the Medicare card.) Cable+internet+phone generally come in a package so you only pay about the equivalent of $30-40 dollars for all. (One thing that the Canadians seriously fail at is cell phone costs - but that's a whole other topic.)
But all in all, things don't seem TOO unreasonable.

I refuse to believe the people bound for Vancouver are doomed. I guess hope dies last, as they say here in Estonia.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The cleaning lady's Volga

Our cleaning lady is a 74-year old lady, who loves to talk about theater and politics. Most of my coworkers think that she's a little kooky, but I generally try to keep up with her because some of the stuff she says is quite interesting. Yesterday I had a very intense conversation with her, and it got me thinking.

The topic of discussion was about the current state of Estonia and Estonian politics. She embarked on a long, bitter rant, in which she expressed her frustrations about the government in charge and the little money she is seeing despite her lifelong work and efforts. She seemed particularly passionate about the topic of kroon devaluation and inflation and drew parallels to the time when Estonia was switching over from the ruble to the kroon. Apparently, she had saved up a bunch of money, enough to afford a Volga, but then with the coming of the kroon, all of her savings were completely annihilated and she was left virtually broke.

As I asked my parents about the "devaluation", I found out that during the ruble->kroon process, people could only hand in up to 12500 rubles, to get 125 kroons (per person). It didn't matter how much money you had - after the currency exchange, you would only have 125 kroons. And for 125 kroons, you wouldn't be able to buy a Volga.

For those of you who don't know, during the last elections, the corrupt and decaying left-wing Central party was replaced by the ultra-radical, center-right Reform party. Since elections, their activity has been focused on rapid change and growth. Their first controversial move involved removing a Russian war memorial, which sparked deadly street riots in Tallinn.

Here's to give you an idea of what was going on here:

After the removal of the memorial, our prime minister's ratings were at their highest ever. In fact, the majority of Estonians seemed to approve of the Reform party's mission. They even got me - who could resist their promise of lowered taxes, longer parental leaves, higher maternal wages (100% for 1.5 years!)! Well, the retired people could.

Out of all the people here, I feel the most pity for the retired people. It hurts to think about what they are dealing with, and to see 70-80-year old people brooming the streets and doing low-end jobs. The reason for that is that the retired people have nowhere near enough money to pay for quality living and food, so they have to work. And so we have a 74-year old cleaning lady coming in every Tuesday and Thursday so that she can afford a theater visit every now and then. She does not believe that moving the statue was the right thing and wishes that the problem would have been solved more discreetly.

The economic situation in Estonia isn't looking good.
Annual inflation in Estonia reached 5.7 percent in August, with an even loftier rise coming up next year, due to a 23% increase in the cost of electricity. The price of butter recently jumped from 11 kroons to 18 kroons. Why? The local butter producers decided that they weren't making enough profit, pulled their butter products from the market and started exporting it. As consumers freaked out, they immediately brought the product back and gave it a new price tag.

In Estonia, the average retirement pension is 3769 kroons as of June 2007. That is equivalent to 240 euros. Mind you, it's a 20 % increase compared to 2006, but it's still a very small amount of money in a country where you pay over an euro for 200 grams of butter and the cheapest bachelor's apartment rents out for 300 euros.

The average monthly pension in Finland was 1094 euros in 1995. However, anybody who will take a boat from Tallinn to Helsinki will notice that the prices aren't that different. Things might be a little more expensive, but the prices of basic food items are the same. Based on what I hear, Tallinn's real estate prices have caught up as well. So how are Estonian retired people even surviving?

Some of them have subsidized housing, I guess. My parents own their own house and run a family business. The healthy ones work.

But man, this system really sucks! No wonder so many retired people are completely depressed and devastated. If I had my eye on one of those swanky Volgas and all my savings were traded in for 125 miserable kroons (the equivalent of, say, 10 beers or a kilo of meat these days)!!!??? With the current inflation rates, it doesn't look like my future is going to be any brighter either...

I'm glad we have the opportunity to step outside this society for a while, but this whole situation is quite upsetting. How about learning from others, coming to conclusions, caring for anything other than your fancy car sitting in front of the Parliament?

Final steps

I've thought about sitting down and writing about the Canadian immigration process for months, so here's me getting around to it!

Lucky for us, I am migrating to Canada on the basis of family ties (i.e. my dearest Canadian hubby .miQ), so the painful waiting part of the application process barely took four months for us. A number of people on different forums report that Americans with no family ties have to wait for up to 36 months before they are able to start their new and improved Canadian lives. It really makes you wonder what they could possibly do with the forms and family pictures for three years...

The whole process began in the beginning of May. Back then we were naive and silly, thinking that we would be able to fly through it in a matter of weeks. Looking at the online manuals, we quickly realized that it was not going to be a cheap or quick process. My case was further complicated by the fact that I had spent a significant portion of time studying in the States, which meant that I needed to get FBI clearance from the U.S. before applying for Canadian permanent residence.

Hence, the first step for me was to find out how to acquire the FBI clearance all the way from Tallinn, Estonia. I talked to a polite fellow at the U.S. embassy who didn't sound too interested in Canadian immigration matters, but sort of pointed me in the right direction. It turned out that I have to submit an FBI Identification Record Request, along with my fingerprints and a payment. Lucky for me, I possess an international credit card. Even luckier for me, the Estonian police were extremely helpful in helping me track down the Estonian fingerprinters, even though it was the first time that they had a random civilian take their fingerprints for the purposes of FBI clearance. (Apparently they had done it for a few criminal individuals, but they had always been escorted by U.S. embassy reps, etc.)

The people at the forensic police department were surprisingly understanding and told me to come in so a lab technician could take my prints. So I took the cab to the south end of Tallinn, to the CSI, Tallinn. I was greeted by a fingerprinting specialist, who led me to a classroom filled with student cops and started dabbing my fingers with ink while they continued their lecture on international crime databases. She was very thorough - after we were done with the first sheet, she got me to wash my hands and put on some moisturizer, so that the prints would come out better on the second, extra sheet (just in case). And because they had never offered this kind of service to civilians off the street, the whole process cost me nothing!
On my way back to work, I stopped at the Tallinn Crime Registry, where I dropped off my application for a copy of my Estonian criminal record (or, rather, lack thereof). The lady who greeted me was quite stern, but after looking me up in her system, she seemed to realize that I am not the usual convict and gave me an inkling of a smile.

That is the one thing I love about Estonians. They may look suicidal, but once they smile, it's the most rewarding smile on the planet and the sun comes out from behind the clouds.

The next step was to get all the official paperwork officially translated, notarized, legalized and validated at the Canadian embassy. I tracked down Luisa Tõlkebüroo, who offered the translating and notarizing service as a package, and managed the translation in a week. Cost: about 1500 kroons. We then proceeded to drop the paperwork off at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, where they charged us 5 x 230 kroons for putting their stamp on each paper. Now, that's all fine and dandy, we're talking about a professional translator doing the job and the big important Foreign Ministry giving their stamp of approval for a couple of hundred kroons.
However, we then realized that we ALSO have to get every piece of paper approved at the Canadian Embassy, for 500 kroons a document, so a total of 2500 kroons.

So, let me see if I got this straight. I've already gotten my documents translated by a professional translator and approved by a legal institution. I've passed the airport-grade security checks to score some signatures at the foreign ministry. But now I also have to pay a ton of money to have the Estonians at the Canadian embassy give me one times five more stamps?
If anyone can explain any rationale behind this requirement, I'd be utterly grateful, because to me it seems like one additional way to squeeze the applicant for his/her money.

It must be also said that the Canadian embassy in Tallinn provided us with no actual support whatsoever. They don't even seem to have any actual Canadians working at the embassy! The only response we got from them was "Contact Poland, we have no idea". Now, I do realize that on their website it says that they are only the embassy and they do not deal with immigration matters, but what do they do there then, besides functioning as a postal office (forwarding everything to Poland) and enjoying the prime view?

Having gotten all the paperwork legalized, we then spent hours and hours going over the instruction manuals provided on the CIC website. Since the manuals were partially useless, we then spent a few weeks bugging the Polish Embassy (responsible for visa and immigration matters in Eastern Europe) with all sorts of questions, until they politely told us that we would probably be fine.

I then scheduled a time with the licenced medical practicioner in Tallinn and went in for my medical checkup. I was so nervous that my blood pressure was 130/80, which is pretty high for me, but the doctor said it would be fine. Paid him a 1000 kroons for 10 minutes of his time, Xray, and a few blood tests.

We then FedExed all the paperwork to the Case Processing Center in Mississauga, ON where it arrived on the 19th of June.

In July, we got a letter from the Mississauga office, confirming that Mike's sponsorhip application had been approved, which meant that our grounds for immigration had been officially validated. Yay! The next letter said that our paperwork had been received in Poland for the rest of the processing and that we shouldn't bug the officials until a given date in October. It was quite relief to know that everything had made it across the ocean and back in one piece. (For the FBI paperwork it was the fourth time crossing the ocean!:) )

There was a major setback in August, when we were informed by the Polish office that their designated medical practicioner had failed to provide them with my HIV test results. Upon inquiring about it from the doctor, it turned out that he had simply forgotten to take my blood test for that purpose. The timing of the notice was flawless as well - we got the letter the night before leaving for our anniversary trip to Paris, France, so we got to spend our time in Paris worrying about our application being on hold... *sigh

I can deal with bureaucracy, but I can't deal with human error. This was by far the most frustrating part of the application process - knowing that you had done everything right and somebody else screwed up, postponing your entire life.
Quite the lesson in patience and human compassion. (Especially when I called the doctor and he actually thought I was immigrating to Australia - wow!)

I went in to give blood as soon as I got back from my trip to Paris. In the online instructions for medical practicioners it says that they are required to brief the patient on the meaning and the potential implications of the HIV test. The instructions also say that the patient should come in in person to get the results and be told what the results mean. In Estonia, things seem to be different. I went in, never saw the doctor, paid MORE money, gave blood, and was told that I could call for the results if I wanted. (Quite different from the procedure in the States, where they release no info whatsoever over the phone...)

Anyhow, on the 4th of October we opened our mailbox and found a yellow envelope. Opened it with shaky hands and rushed to the phone to tell my parents the good news. In the letter I was instructed to bring in my passport to the Canadian embassy in Tallinn, so that they can mail it to Poland. It also wished me a "happy and successful future life in Canada". Cute.

I got up early on the morning of October 8th and climbed all the way up to the embassy, just to find out that the Estonians at the Canadian embassy were taking a day off to celebrate Canadian thanksgiving. The English sign on the door said that they would be closed on the 8th, and the French and Estonian notes said that they would be closed on the 3rd. Go figure. (And yeah, I had to climb back up there during my lunch break on the next day.)

So here we are, five months later, about 15000 kroons poorer, excited, scared, happy. I'm supposed to receive my passport with my "stamp of approval" (and the application for my social insurance number) on October 23rd. We even bought one-way plane tickets and will be arriving in Vancouver on December 30th. Pretty cool eh?