Saturday, June 6, 2009

On traveling and writing and living in Canada...

Time for something a little different... Welcome Carolyn Heller, travel writer and author of "Living Abroad in Canada". . .

HALLIE: I first met Carolyn Heller when I was just getting serious about writing fiction and she was getting serious about fulfilling her dream to become a travel writer. A fearless traveler, since then she's contributed to multiple editions of Lonely Planet's China guidebook, guides to New England and Vancouver for Fodor's and Moon, not to mention taking on the Zagat Survey's guide to eating in Boston for several years running. She's also written about travel for the Boston Globe,, FamilyFun, Real Weddings, and many other publications.

A few years ago, Carolyn relocated to Vancouver, Canada with her
husband and twin daughters. Her newest venture is a guide, "Living Abroad in Canada," and a web site where she blogs and provides great advice, from the 10 top places to live in Canada, to the basics of planning a trip, to getting a job, to becoming a permanent resident. I asked her to give us some insight to some of the surprising things she didn't know – positive and negative – before she moved to Canada.

CAROLYN: When we first came to Canada, many little things surprised us. We didn't have to learn a new language, but we came across plenty of unfamiliar words and phrases. Instead of “sneakers” or “tennis shoes,” Canadians wear “runners.” Canadian students don't take exams; they write them. And everyone in Canada needs to know the word “toque,” which is a knit ski hat.

We also knew embarrassingly little about Canadian history and government. While I knew that Canada was historically part of the British commonwealth, I was surprised to learn that the Queen of England is still officially the ruling monarch in Canada.

HALLIE: Were there bigger things that surprised you, too?

CAROLYN: Yes, I think that most important were the social differences. Canadian society prides itself on being very multicultural, but unlike the “melting pot” ideal in the U.S. that emphasizes assimilation, there's a greater focus on preserving diverse cultures. Quebec and its francophone culture may be the obvious example, but in many parts of the country, there are large Chinese, South Asian, Filipino, Ukrainian, Italian, and other distinct communities that are encouraged to retain their traditions. Canada is also pretty tolerant, so issues like gay marriage (legal) and abortion (also legal) aren't a big deal here – unlike the situation in the U.S.

We've also had some interesting experiences with the health care system. Everyone has health insurance here, so people don't worry about paying for the care that they need. The downside, though, can be waiting for that care. If your condition isn't an emergency, you need to wait behind the people whose situation is more urgent. Fair? Sure. Frustrating? Definitely.

Overall, though, Canada can feel like a kinder, gentler place than the U.S. The pace of life here seems slightly calmer, and people are a little more laid-back. Of course, my experience may be skewed, since I live in the city that's nicknamed “Lotusland!”

HALLIE: What kind of reputation precedes us, as Americans, when we travel to Canada?

Canadians know far more about Americans than most Americans know about Canada. Canadians watch U.S. TV shows and movies, listen to American music, and avidly follow American national politics. Many Canadians feel that Americans are less tolerant and more politically conservative than the average Canadian is. Before President Obama was elected, I don't know how many times I had to answer the question, “How could someone like George W. Bush be elected president?” Americans also have a reputation for being kind of pushy and loud compared with Canadians, who think of themselves as patient and nice.

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to break into the travel writing business?

CAROLYN: One thing I didn't know when I first started in travel writing is how much easier it is to get work writing about where you live. A glossy magazine is unlikely to send a newbie on assignment to the other side of the world, but a local publication might accept a short piece about a new restaurant or a community event, or a guidebook publisher might hire relatively inexperienced resident writers to help update a guidebook to their hometown. Good travel writers can discover interesting places wherever they are.

HALLIE: How about blogging? Are there more opportunities for new travel writers to blog or write online?

CAROLYN: Plenty of writers these days start by creating their own blog or website. While it's unlikely to pay the grocery bill, a blog can give you a place to polish your writing and gradually build an audience.

Unfortunately, blogging seems to encourage budding travel writers to blather on about every mundane thing that happens from the moment they left home. No one – except your mother – cares how long your plane was delayed or where your dog is staying while you're away. Find the story, which may not start sequentially in time, and shape the details of your trip into a narrative that gives your readers a real experience of the place.

HALLIE: If you were setting a murder mystery in Canada, where would you set it and who would be the murder victim?

CAROLYN: Hmm, I'd probably set my mystery somewhere in British Columbia, since that's the part of Canada I know best. Maybe I'd base it in the Okanagan Valley, which is the region's increasingly popular wine country. The victim might be a long-time farmer or perhaps a know-it-all newcomer from Vancouver who's plunked down some serious cash to open a new winery. I'm a foodie, so the Okanagan's growing restaurant and wine scene – it's not Napa yet, but it's trying – would definitely be part of the story.

On the other hand, there are so many parts of Canada that I haven't yet had a chance to explore. Perhaps I should craft a mystery that required research in all the far-flung parts of my adopted country – that would be my sort of adventure!

HALLIE: Join the conversation! Please, share your experiences, comments, and questions on traveling/living in Canada and travel writing... and where would you set a mystery in Canada?


  1. Hi Carolyn, welcome to JRW! Maybe I missed this, but are you still a US citizen? Your advice about how to hone a story sounds spot-on.

    You are obviously an adventurous traveler (like Hallie!) What has been your most harrowing experience in a foreign country?

  2. Welcome, Carolyn! And you've got me thinking about cross-cultural clues. Along the lines of "runners", I wonder if a transplanted US amateur sleuth might be tripped up by Canadianisms...say the wrong thing, ask for the wrong thing, misunderstand something.

    And this makes me re-remember that I've never been to Canada. Which is ridiculous, because isn't it an easy drive from Boston?

  3. Welcome, Carolyn:

    I just drove out of Canada two hours ago--back from Ottawa to NYC.
    We had a lovely few days with friends in Montreal which is the most delightfully European and cosmopolitan city. The thing that always strikes me in Canada is how much they love their donuts!

    Isn't it interesting as a travel writer how food defines a nation?

  4. My sister has lived in Quebec for most of the last 30 years, and became a Canadian citizen along the way. I love being able to drive 6 hours north (from north of Boston) and become immersed in French and hear local/national political news that we never hear down here. The CBC has some great commentary for those of us less than fluent in French.

    Thanks for the visit, Carolyn! I have lived abroad in several places infrequently visited by Americans - Brazil, Japan, Mali, Burkina Faso - but never quite got a travel-writing career off the ground. (Not to say it won't happen yet!)


  5. Hi, Roberta:
    Yes, I'm a US citizen. When we first came to Canada, my husband's employer arranged a work permit for him, and we subsequently applied for, and received, permanent resident status (similar to a Green Card in the US). As permanent residents, we can live and work anywhere in Canada, although we can't vote here.

    Most harrowing travel experience? Hmmm. That might have been trying to buy diapers for my toddler twins in Mexico, when I inadvertently confused the Spanish words for "diaper" and "honeycomb." The look that the pharmacist gave me when I attempted to pantomime what I needed was pretty horrifying!


  6. Hi, Hank,
    When I first came to Canada, I remember a woman I met telling me a story that involved Timbits, which were completely unfamiliar to me, but which any Canadian could tell you are donut holes.

    I'm not sure that this sort of Canadianism would be enough to cause significant confusion for a fictional sleuth, but it could certainly give a story more color (which in Canada is spelled "colour").

    Canada is definitely an easy trip from Boston. The Eastern Townships region of Quebec is just north of the Vermont border, so you could be there in about four hours. From Portland, Maine, you can catch a ferry over to Nova Scotia. And by plane, you could easily get to Montreal, Toronto, or Ottawa for a long weekend. Happy travels!


  7. Hi, Rhys:
    Yes, sampling food wherever I go is one of the best things about being a travel writer.

    When I was in China last year, I had the chance to sample yak meat (tastes like beef), and I must have eaten at least 50 different types of noodles. Yum!

    Montreal has awesome food, of course, but I was surprised by how many really good restaurants I found in Ottawa. Did you eat well while you were there?


  8. Hi, Edith:
    You're right about the CBC. It's been interesting to see the differences in the way news is reported in Canada and the US.

    You must have some great stories from your travels. Hope to read about them some day!