This is your City


With a little bit of time on my hands, I've been doing some exploring. There are plenty of areas in and around the GTA that we never really got a chance to have a good look at during the year, so I'm taking this opportunity to look around at things. I've been for a drive up into the "northern suburbs" of the GTA and explored new areas. It's been very pleasant.

Yesterday I spent the day in the cit and checked out the underground walkways systems, looked through the post-Christmas shopping malls, visited the St Lawrence Markets, admired the architecture, and even had lunch in a nice little Thai place. I hung about in town for a while before eventually heading back home. Not everyone's idea of a good time perhaps, but I very much enjoyed it. In fact I think I might go back and explore the Toronto Transit system next week, and check out some places like Queen West and The Annexe.

Whatever, it will be fun.

Home again!


After what I'm told was a relatively good flight from one side of our planet to the other, Donna sent me a couple of photos from their arrival back home is Australia. Her mum, my mum and Natalie formed the welcoming committee at Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport, and I'm sure they were pleased to see Donna and the kids finally back on Aussie soil.

And of course, what's one of the first places you go upon arrival in Australia? Why, to the beach of course! (No it wasn't actually the same day they arrived... Alex just doesn't like to change T-shirts too often!)

Ghosts of Christmas Past


Well Christmas has come and gone, and it's been an odd one this year. With Donna and the kids not here any more, the place was pretty quiet, and although I'd been hoping to experience a White Christmas, the snow has simply not arrived in Oakville, and so it was a Green Christmas instead - cold, but green. They keep predicting snow, but it never seems to come good on the prediction. It's reassuring to realise that while the experts can't agree on whether global warming is real or not, you can still rely on weather forecasting to be as inaccurate as ever.

However, I was well and truly looked after this Christmas and got to spend it with my surrogate Oakville families. On Christmas Eve, Beth and Grant had me over for a delicious Christmas lunch, and I got to meet Grant's mum and dad from Burlington. Grant's dad is an interesting guy, full of facts and trivia and stories, and an incredible memory for places he visited in Australia nearly 20 years ago. He does a pretty fair impression of Santa Claus too!

After leaving there, I popped into Dave and Claudia's place to share a Christmas meal with them and their family too. It was nice to meet Claudia's brother, sister, parents and the other guests. Dave said later that he thought I was a bit quiet and subdued, but I was really just pacing my eating and drinking! It was really nice to be invited to share a meal with all my Oakville friends, but even I can't have two full-size Christmas meals back to back!

After leaving there I went round to share a quiet evening drink with Dave and Linda, as well as Beth and Grant again and Linda's parents. It was a quiet relaxed affair, complete with delicious home-made Hungarian cakes, but again, I had to take it easy in the eating and drinking department.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and really felt very special to think that I was being invited in to share such a special family time as Christmas.

The next day was Christmas Day. I have no idea where the morning went - it isn't quite as exciting without the kids there to be excited about Santa coming by - and I had the biggest Christmas day sleep-in ever. Later in the day I joined Kim, Sean, Laura and Megan for dinner at Kim's brother's place in Toronto. I hadn't met Chris before, or his two delightful kids Brady and Charlotte. Clint and Carol had also come up from Florida for Christmas, so it was extra good to see them again. We had another wonderful shared dinner with what was probably the biggest turkey I've ever seen in my life! This thing was huge! It was a lovely evening, a real family Christmas get-together, with pressie time and all. Thanks to the Smetchers for including me.

Next stop, New Year. Then back to school. Then back home. I'm not sure I'm ready for all this.

All Alone...


Donna and the kids flew out on Wednesday. It was hard saying goodbye, knowing I won't see them for the next month, but it's just the way things worked out. We had a stream of visitors dropping by the house during the morning, coming by for that one last hug and a photo, and more tears were shed. I also drove Kate down to Sunrise to pick up her reference for doing volunteer work there.

So after a frantic last few days of packing, unpacking and repacking to try and get the suitcases evenly weighted (it didn't work - we still got hit with $105 worth of overweight charges) I finally drove them to Pearson Airport where we said our goodbyes before they headed through the security gates to start their 23 hour journey back to Australia.

See you in a month guys! XXX

Who is Nathan Phillips?


Donna really wanted to go back to New York City to skate outside at the Rockefeller centre before she went back to Australia. As we reached the end of our time here though, it quickly became apparent that we were running out of both the time and the money to all travel back to NYC, and so Donna's dream of doing some outdoor skating amongst the snow and the lights was somewhat dashed.

Instead, we discovered that Toronto has its very own outdoor skating rink in winter. Called Nathan Phillips Square, the rink is not exactly the Rockefeller Centre but it does have some pretty lights and a great community atmosphere. Unfortunately we haven't had any snow yet so there was not the white Christmas feel we were after, but we decided to drive into Toronto the other night for a look anyway. Kate was not feeling 100% and so we decided not to actually skate in the cold night air, but instead just parked nearby and checked it out.

The verdict was that it was a very nice way to spend an evening, and if we get a decent snowfall before I go I might even try to get back in there myself for a skate. For now though, it was not to be for Donna and the kids. Might have to plan that other NYC trip after all!

The (Almost) Final Hurrah


We feel very blessed to have made so many friends and built such good relationships with the people in out neighbourhood here in Oakville. It's been an amazing year for us, and despite all the travel to the far-flung reaches of Eastern Canada and the US, had we done nothing of that but simply met the people we've met, it would still have been more than worthwhile. We've made some great friends here, that we will truly miss when we have to leave.

With that thought in mind, we were still humbled by the thought that our next door neighbours Dave and Claudia held a farewell party on Saturday night, and invited many of the people we've become so close to over the past 12 months. We had a fabulous evening, great food, great wine and even better company. It was especially tearful for Donna, who would be leaving for Australia only a few days later.

The human element of an exchange is the part you never really plan for, but we have found it far and away the best part. As I mentioned on the night, when you plan your travel to another part of the world you tend to think in terms of things and places - the things you plan to do and the places you plan to visit - and you don't really think about the people you might meet. But it's been the people we've met that have made all the difference, and we thank them for it.

A huge thank you must go out to Dave and Claudia for so generously opening up their home to us and the rest of the Oakville crew (plus extras!), and the beautiful well wishes of everyone who came. I only hope we can return the hospitality in Australia some day.

No it isn’t about the cookies, or the fudge, or the lamingtons or even about the peanut butter balls, the cookie exchange is about friendship and community and typifies so much of what this neighbourhood is about.

When I was invited by Beth to join the cookie exchange, I guess my first thoughts were of “OMG, somebody actually wants me to bake for them”. My next thought was, what will I bake? After getting some much needed assistance from my friend Anne back home, the task of making 15 dozen lamingtons was set upon. Yes, it took hours, yes I swore on a regular basis because I would burn a cake or forget to put oil in the mixture, but I was part of this group and loved the fact that I was involved.

There were 16 of us in total and we gathered at Susan’s for a night of Christmas cheer and of course the exchange of our goodies. But whilst the table overflowed with beautifully presented and wrapped treats of all kinds, it was the laughter and the sharing that was taking place in the other rooms that gave real meaning to this neighbourhood tradition of a cookie exchange.

Toward the end of the night as I stood marvelling at the array on the table in front of me, Susan leant over my shoulder and summed it all up. "Its not about the cookies you know...”

How right you are.

Driven Crazy


Just a warning... this blog post is likely to become somewhat of a cranky rant, and I suspect will be quite long. If that sort of thing interests you, great, read on. But if not, you might as well skip this post... nothing to see here folks, move along. If you're an exchange teacher coming to Canada, you'll find a short summary at the bottom of this post. I suggest you read it.

First, let me point out that motor registries don't have a good reputation. It's little wonder when Simpson's creator Matt Groening wanted to create the perfect stereotype for Homer's lazy sisters-in-law, Patty and Selma, he created them as ignorant, chain smoking drones who worked at the Springfield Department of Motor Vehicles. I'd like to think that the stereotype of motor registries as bumbling, bureaucratic and ignorant was purely for comic effect, but alas I've been finding that it's all too true.

The story began back in Australia, before I left for Canada, and was based on a simple question... what do I need to do to legally drive in Canada for the year I'm here? You would think that should be a fairly simple question, one with a fairly definitive answer. I'd heard that an International Driving Permit was all that was required, but I'd also heard that some Australian exchangees were told to get a local Ontario license. I wanted to know, one way or the other, what I needed to do.

Let me preface this whole thing by saying that under normal circumstances, an Australian who moves to Ontario and wants to drive here can do so using his or her Australian license but only for a period of 60 days, after which time they are required by law to get a local Ontario license. Alternatively, they could bring an International Driving Permit which entitles them to drive here for 12 months, but there was also some contention about whether an exchange teacher living in Canada for 12+ months would still have their International permit recognised by the Canadian authorities after 60 days. A simple question, I thought. Apparently not a simple answer.

So back in January, just before we left Sydney, I rang the local Ministry of Transport of Ontario registry here in Oakville, and spoke to a reasonably helpful lady who did her very best to give me the right advice which was unfortunately all completely wrong. She was adamant that I DID indeed need to get an Ontario license after 60 days in Canada, and ALSO get an International Driving Permit as well. I blogged about this at the time. I even recorded the call. I'm not making this up.

On arrival in Oakville, I visited the local MTO in Cross St, Oakville, and managed to speak to the very same lady I'd Skyped from Australia only a few days before. She directed me to the nearby DriveTest centre. It seems that the Ontario government has outsourced their driver licensing to private enterprise and it is managed by this mob called DriveTest. So off I went. Upon my arrival, I was seen to by another nice lady who again confirmed that I would indeed need to get a local Ontario license because I was staying here for longer than 60 days, so I paid my $75 application fee for my G1 (learner's permit) and got started on passing my tests. I had to buy a local driving rules book, and pay a $10 fee to sit a local driving rules knowledge test. I also booked in to do a driving test, which would hopefully take me from my G1 to a full G license and make me a fully certified Ontario driver.

I ended up failing my first driving test... despite the fact that I stuck strictly to the speed limits, including the advisory signs, the guy said I drove too slowly. How the hell can you fail a driving test by driving too slowly! Especially when his idea of driving too slowly was to actually observe all the speed limits! Thoroughly pissed off, I went back into the DriveTest centre to rebook another test and this time got served by a different person. As she looked at my documentation, she said "Why are you trying to get an Ontario license when you have an International Driving Permit?" She then explained to me that her understanding was that the IDP was valid for a full 12 months and I could quite legally drive on it all year. I told her I'd been told a different story (more than once) I asked her to check this with someone else in the registry office. She did, but they disagreed with her and insisted I would in fact need to obtain an Ontario license. I eventually escalated this to the manager, who after a long discussion agreed that yes, the IDP would be more than adequate for 12 months of driving in Canada.

Because I had already spent $85 to get a license so far, and I still didn't have one, and now I was told that my IDP (which cost me $50 back in Australia) was quite adequate to cover my driving for the year, I didn't pursue the Ontario license any further. I couldn't see any point throwing good money after bad, and if the IDP would do the trick then so be it, I'd stick with the IDP.

Bear in mind that at this point in the story, I now have BOTH an International Driving Permit AND an Ontario G1 license. No problem I thought. The IDP is my legal license and the G1 will make a nice souvenir of my travels.

Just to make sure I wasn't being sold a pup, I got home from the DriveTest centre and rang the MTO hotline enquiry number. I told the whole story to him, and the guy agreed that the IDP would be fine. I asked if he could also just doublecheck that with someone else, and after a few minutes on hold, he returned to say that he spoke to his manager who thought that the IDP would NOT cover me after 60 days and that I'd need a local license after all. I asked which section of the Highway Traffic Act covered this and he eventually referred me to section 15 (I think it was). I found a copy of the HTA on the Internet and after reading it I was still none the wiser.

Back to the DriveTest centre for another clarification on whether I needed a local license. Was again told "Yes you do" by one person and "No you don't" by another. I'd had an absolute gutful of this nonsense by this stage, and since it appeared that out insurance company was going to be more than happy with the International Permit, I decided to say stuff it all and just go with the IDP.

So for the last 12 months I've been driving on my International Permit. I haven't had any trouble, never been pulled up or asked to present it, so there's been no issue.


My IDP expires on January 12, one full year from the day I got it in Sydney. I will be in Canada until January 22. That leaves a 10 day period of being technically unlicensed, and of course you need to be licensed to have valid insurance. So, masochist that I am, I went back to the DriveTest centre last week to see what I needed to do. My plan was to sit the G1 to G2 test, thereby upgrading my G1 license to a proper one, covering my ass for the 10 days, and giving me an Ontario license for 5 years in case I get back here in that timeframe. Seemed to be the obvious solution.

On entering the DriveTest centre, I explained my situation and was given a horrified look by the woman at the information desk when I told her I'd been driving on an IDP all year. "You can't do that!" she said. "It's illegal!" She went on to explain that my IDP was only valid in Canada for 60 days. I tried to tell her that it was valid for a full year, but she insisted that it wasn't. She directed me to another woman to help sort this out.

The second woman calmly looked over my paperwork and said... you guessed it... "You don't need - and never did need - to get an Ontario license. Your IDP is perfectly valid." These two women work in the same office, and were not 30 feet from each other! I called the two together and said we better get our story straight. Woman 2 pointed out that not only was the G1 license not necessary, but if I got pulled up by the police for something, the fact that I had it at all would take priority over my IDP, essentialy meaning that my IDP had been invalid all year because I had the G1. She explained that I had been given the wrong advice right from the beginning, and that my IDP was perfectly valid so long as I did NOT get an Ontario license. I'm really pissed off about this now... because of their misleading and incorrect advice back in January, not only have I been driving on an invalid license all year but it cost me CAD$85 for the privilege!

Ok, so at this point I now have two options to cover the 10 days between Jan 12 and Jan 22. Either get a new International Driving Permit issued from Australia (another AUD$50) or sit the Ontario G2 license test and get a full Ontario license (another CAD$40). Since they were both about the same price, I decided to book in for a G2 test and finally get the damn Ontario license.

With the test booked for December 18, I decided to just check with my insurance company and let them know what I was doing, since they covered us initially on the strength of my IDP. I emailed my contact at Johnson's Insurance and let her know what was going on. She rang me back that day and advised me NOT to get the Ontario license, but to instead renew the IDP. The IDP, she explained, was based on my Australian driving record and gave me a 6 star rating, and therefore a much lower premium. If I had an Ontario G2 I would only get a 3 star rating, and my premium would rise considerably. I'm glad I asked the question! I went to the NRMA website, downloaded the application form and sent it off for a new IDP. That at least solved my main problem of covering my license for those 1o days in January.

I then went back to the DriveTest office today to cancel my driving test, get my $40 refunded, and cancel my G1 (which I never should have held at all). I discovered I could cancel my 5-year-valid G1, and get a refund on the unused 4 year portion - a refund of $60. Then I started to think about it... all this hassle and expense was caused because some drone at the MTO gave me patently wrong advice in the first place. I was out of pocket $85 by trying to get a license issued to me that I not only didn't need, but was actually detrimental to me as the holder of an IDP! Bugger the $60 refund. I want a full $85 refund for the entire shemozzle!

So I went back up to the MTO at Cross Street, where this whole stupid mess got started and told them the story. I insisted on getting my full $85 refund. Once we got past the "Sorry sir, we don't have a policy for that" nonsense, I was given the contact number for the MTO head office and I will be taking it up there, and I won't stop until I am satisfied. As Howard Beale said in the movie "Network", I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

I'll let you know how I go...

The Bottom Line: To any Aussie exchange teachers coming to Canada, here is what you need to know. An International Driving Permit issued in Australia is all you need to legally drive in Canada for 12 months. The whole confusion arises around the definition of whether you are a visitor or a resident. Residents must get a local Ontario license within 60 days of arriving in Canada. Visitors do not. Despite the fact that some people in the MTO will try to tell you that your 12 month stay makes you a resident and that you therefore need to get a local license, as an exchange teacher you DO NOT NEED an Ontario license. You are classed as a visitor, and can legally drive on your IDP and don't let anyone tell you otherwise, especially the "experts" at the MTO! Be aware that you will need to renew your IDP if it expires while you are in Canada. Good luck!

Some Xmas Bling


The Smetchers went for a little drive tonight to check out the Christmas lights around Oakville and Burlington. Some people really go the full ridiculous with their lights, and we found a few classics as we cruised around the back streets.

My mother lives in a street in Sydney that, until this year, went all out with Christmas lights, so I'm no stranger to a bit of Christmas Bling Bling. But the lights here in Oakville area seem to be a little more unified in their appearance. I was trying to put my finger on exactly what makes them different, and I think they are probably a little more tastefully executed... mostly.

There was one place in Burlington that we saw, that was very, uh, busy. I'm still trying to work out the links between the Nativity scene, a tin soldier, a fire-breathing Loch Ness Monster, some penguins, gingerbread men, Santa, a moose, Bart and Homer, Pooh Bear and Tigger, a motorbike and a castle... I'm sure they all relate to Christmas somehow. Still, it was an interesting display of colour and movement... colour and movement, colour and movement. So mesmerising!

A pity we didn't have some snow on the ground to reflect the colours a bit more, but they still looked pretty nice. Clark Griswold eat your heart out!

All that Glitters


If the hard part was finding the perfect tree, then the fun part would be decorating it. We headed over to the Smith's place on Sunday night to help decorate the Christmas tree with them. This year's colour theme for the tree was gold... and heaven help anyone who introduced another colour! We may not know much about art, but Kim knows what she likes.

Before we got the serious business of tree decoration, we had a few other items to attend to... It was also Meggie's birthday, so we had a little birthday celebration for the Megamuffin followed by a cake. Kate was presented with a lovely book of photos of herself and Laura, a wonderful keepsake that Kim had put together from the thousands of photos that have been taken over the past 12 months. Tears were shed. Again.

And then it was on to the tree. So many questions! Where should the tree go? How many lights should go on it? Who put these two similar looking ornaments near each other? What will happen if I dare use an ornament that isn't gold? Do Canadians put gifts under the tree?

In the end though, the tree looked beautiful, all gold and shiny and pretty. Thanks again for a fun night guys!

Dinner for Eighteen


We felt very privileged to attend a special Christmas dinner party at Wendy and Todd's place on Saturday night. It seems that this event is somewhat of a tradition in the neighbourhood, with all the folk from Linden Lane and the surrounding streets. It was a spectacular spread, with everyone bringing something to contribute to the meal. Donna brought some delicious scallops wrapped in bacon - very yummy, I'll have to get her to make them again! Of course, the rest of the dishes were equally delicious, with all sorts of yummy appetisers, side dishes and mains.

Also attending the evening was Grant and Beth, Steve and Fran, Dave and Linda, Dave and Claudia, George and Ellen, Andy and Gabe, Pete and Jen, Donna and I, and of course Wendy and Todd. It was a big dinner party! I still find it amusing that at winter parties in Canada you don't need an esky... you can keep the beer cold by simply putting it out on the back verandah... the chilly zero degree temperatures keep the grog nice and cold!

Thanks Wendy and Todd for hosting the event. We had a great evening with plenty of fabulous food, great wine, and lots of good conversation.

Skype: betchaboy

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