Purpose of this Blog is to provide information on:

(click on topics that interest you)

• Events homestay students participate in while being in the city

• English language tips for international students

Activities related to my novel about a group of international language students in the city
Profiles of Students

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Rocky Mountains: An Awe-inspiring Look at Nature

Dramatic Moraine Lake
A trip to the Rocky Mountains is one of the most popular excursions international students can take while staying in Vancouver. This destination offers an experience of vast, protected forests and public parks amongst towering mountains and serenely beautiful lakes. To do the trip from Vancouver, you need four days. Plan to go on a long weekend and take an additional day off school. Trying to cram the experience into three days, students always regret not having an additional day. Wonderful memories will make up for the day’s schoolwork that you will miss.
If you are going primarily to see the scenery, do the trip sometime from June through September. Labour Day weekend, the long weekend of early September, is an ideal time. This is before the mountain lakes begin to freeze over, so you will see the brilliant turquoise colour of the lakes contrasting against the dark greens and grays of the mountains and the intense blue of the sky. July and August are busier, as that is when families of Canadian school children are having their summer holidays. However, Canadian Rocky Mountain national parks are so large that “crowded” does not come to mind when exploring national parks any time of the year. Note, however, that if you plan to make a trip to the Rockies primarily to go skiing or snowboarding, you should go from November to April during snow season.
On occasions when a homestay student, usually Japanese, has told me she is “going to the Rocky Mountain,” I have asked her where exactly and she has been perplexed. She has simply repeated, “to the Rocky Mountain.” Apparently she is picturing a stand-alone peak (perhaps like Mount Fuji). I have had to explain that the Rocky Mountains are not a single mountain. They are a very long range of peaks stretching more than 4,800 kilometres from northern British Columbia in Canada to the southwestern United States.


Some of the places visited in most four-day tours of the Canadian Rockies are the resort towns of Jasper or Banff and Lake Louise, or and some other sights including Moraine Lake, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, the Columbia Icefield, Maligne Lake and Maligne Canyon, Athabasca Falls, and Sulphur Mountain, Mt. Robson, and many other peaks. Tour buses also pass through Merritt, Kamloops, Clearwater, Valemount, and other small town on the way to the Rockies or on the return trip.
European students who are accustomed to the Alps are most surprised by the relatively uninhabited aspect of the Rockies. Areas of human settlement are uncommon compared with those in the Alps. So don’t expect scenes of domesticated sheep or cows grazing on mountainsides! They simply don’t exist here. Instead, you will see vast, largely untouched forests and mountains.
A South American student that I hosted in the mid 1990s told me about her experience of being overwhelmed at the immensity of a glacier when she was standing at the bottom of it looking up. She said she felt powerless and vulnerable in feeling that it could slide down the mountainside and crush her with its enormity. But in returning to the same site nine years later, she was struck by how diminished in size the glacier had become. She said she wept in seeing this, even though she knew in theory about climate change.
Still, there remains so much to be amazed at in the Canadian Rockies—mountain landscapes of lakes, peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, canyons and, depending on which of the national parks you visit—Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, or Yoho—you might experience limestone caves or have the chance to bathe in hot springs. Also you never know what wild animals you will see. The Canadian Rocky Mountains are habitat for elk, mule and white-tailed deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes, lynxes, and wolverines as well as being home to North America's largest herds of moose.
In talking with dozens and dozens of my homestay students who have gone to the Rockies with various tour companies, only a few have had any complaints. One recent disappointment was about substandard accommodation “The motel’s quality was really poor,” commented by Riccardo (from Italy) after his recent July (2012) trip. To ensure the hotels or motels you will be staying at are adequate for your needs, ask the tour companies you are considering for photographs of the interior and exterior of all hotels/motels used. This will help ensure that you instead feel as Gabriel (from Brazil) did after his October (2012) trip, that “the three different hotels were very welcoming.”
Also find out about the arrangements for sharing a room. Are there any options? Having four people in a room sharing two queen-size beds is not uncommon. Will you have a choice as to whom you will be sharing a room with, a bed with?
 “I didn’t expect to share a hotel room with other people, and it’s embarrassing to sleep in the same bed with another guy, however, I did,” Riccardo stated. Find this out before you sign the tour agreement so there are no surprises during the trip.
When I asked Gabriel, who is from Porta Alegra in southern Brazil, if he would recommend the tour company whose trip he went on, he answered. “Yes, this agency has professionalism, credibility and has been successful in organizing the trip.”
His only disappointment was in two pre-paid meals. Gabriel’s city (Porta Alegra) is known for its fabulous barbecues. Also his country’s cuisine centers on beef. Apparently their barbecues routinely feature a piece of steak almost the size of the dinner plate. So when Gabriel read that his Banff hotel was offering an outdoor barbecue, he was looking forward to it. He was understandably disappointed to find the beef portion of this barbecue consisted of one patty of ground beef the size of that in a regular hamburger. He was doubly disappointed the next night when the dinner featured one hotdog.
This may be standard fare for some tour companies because Riccardo had been offered the same two pre-paid meals (by a different company) a couple of months earlier and was equally let down. Yet most of my homestay students have agreed that the lunches they purchased off a regular menu (not pre-paid) were good quality and good value. Also, some of my previous homestay students have raved about the dinners they ate while in the Rockies and have shown me photographs of their memorable meals.
I recommend that Rockies-bound visitors, and not just the hungry, mid-twenties guys, take with them snacks to eat on the bus and late at night in the hotels. Include some protein (cheese, nuts, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, peanut butter on crackers), fruit (especially bananas, apples, mandarin oranges), and sweets (chocolate bars, cookies, energy bars). This will ensure you have something to munch on if the schedule of your trip is out of step with your hunger pangs.
So despite these concerns, when asked, “Why did you find the trip to the Rockies enjoyable?” Riccardo answered, “It’s impossible not enjoy being there because it is one of the most amazing places in Canada where you can see Canadian nature and mountains.”

Striated Mountains and Valley

Riccardo also commented, “The trip is so long so when you pass through the Rocky Mountains on the bus you can enjoy and admire the infinite green environment. I saw seven bears—six black ones and one grizzly. The best experience was going on the Banff gondola. The view from the top of the mountain is awesome. Unforgettable. When I was there I understood that I don’t spend enough time in nature. Ånd the rest of the tour made me realize that four days are not enough to see the Rockies. The Rocky Mountain trip was also a new life experience inasmuch as you share your trip with a lot of people that you don’t know, so it is a good chance to make new friends from other countries. You enjoy talking about things that you have never talked about before.”
In asking Riccardo how he would sum up his trip in one or two phrases, he responded, “Awesome trip I’ll remember all my life.”

Road to Coumbia Ice Fields Crop

In asking Gabriel, why he enjoyed the trip to the Rockies, he answered, “Because I was in a place that for a long time I have wanted to know. Moreover, it is practically impossible not to be dazzled by the different landscapes.”
In being asked what places he enjoyed visiting most, Gabriel responded, “Banff city, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.”
I also asked Gabriel what optional activities he did and why he did not do other activities that were offered?
“I went on the Banff Gondola and the price was reasonable. I did not go on the snow coach on the glacier because I thought it expensive. Besides, there is only so much time.”
Another question: You said your tour guide added to the value of the trip. In what way?
“Our guide knew very well about everywhere and she was always willing to help and answer questions.”
Do you have advice for others considering making the trip?
“My advice would be to go in the summer to be able to bathe in the lakes.”
How would you sum up your trip in one or two phrases?
“A trip to the Rocky Mountains made me realize how much I like nature. This is a fantastic place where everyone should have the opportunity to visit. I would like to rent a canoe and explore the environment more. I wish I had stayed longer in the lakes enjoying the silence of the place.”

Serene Lake Louise

The photographs accompanying this article have been supplied to me courtesy of Gabriel Macedo, Brazil (the opening image and last two photographs), and Riccardo Rosso, Italy (the central two images).
There are additional photographs of the Rockies included in my online imaged novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad in the section entitled “Touring the Rocky Mountains” [September Diary Entry #1]. This novel is available free of charge for viewing at www.vancouvermemories.ca.
If any readers can identify photographs in either this blog or in the novel at URL noted above, please contact me at wendy@vancouvermemories.ca. I would be pleased to receive information about any necessary corrections.
Text by Wendy Bullen Stephenson

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gabriel: A Self-declared Academic

Profiles of Students

Another feature of this blog will be to profile the variety of international students who come to Vancouver to study at the language schools. Here is the first of such articles.

Gabriel is a mid-twenties Brazilian from Porto Alegre, the southernmost capital city of Brazil, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Gabriel is in a PhD program in molecular biology at the federal university there. In October he took a month leave from his doctoral programme to study at Kaplen’s Pacific Language Institute (PLI) in Vancouver. He needs to be competent in reading, writing, and speaking English to author scientific papers for international journals and to make presentations at English-speaking conferences. His first scientific paper on which he is lead author has just been accepted for publication in a prestigious, English-language science publication. He is understandably happy about that.
The metropolitan area of his city, Porto Alegre, has a population of 4,405,760 inhabitants (almost double that of the Vancouver metropolitan area at 2.3 million residents). The majority of the inhabitants are of European descent with first immigrants having been Portuguese. They were joined, in the late 19th century by many immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Poland. Today the population of Porto Alegre also includes Arab, Jewish, and Afro-Brazilian people.
As one of the richest and most diverse cities in South America and the fourth largest metropolitan area of Brazil, Porto Alegre is one of the main cultural, political and economic centers of the country. The city is situated on a five-river junction (a fresh-water lagoon) making it an important port as well as a chief industrial and commercial centre of Brazil. Gabriel says the water is not suitable for swimming even though the islands in the lagoon feature many parks that are home to diverse forms of wildlife. Still Gabriel has been intrigued to see the many squirrels, skunks, and raccoons on the city streets near his homestay in Vancouver’s West End.
Like Canada, Brazil is large. It totals 8.5 million square kilometres (compared to Canada’s 9.9 million square kilometres), but Brazil is a long, rather than wide country. Being from the southern most state of Rio Grande do Sul, residents from Gabriel’s part of Brazil feel they are different from those in other parts of the country that extends north of the equator above the Amazon River. Gabriel says that people in his state talk about wanting independence from the rest of country. Sound familiar?
Gabriel was surprised to see the considerable number of Brazilians that are attending PLI. Brazil’s economy is strong now, and the proportion of students from various countries in the schools depends on the relative strength of their country’s dollar at any given time. Also once students have a good experience in Vancouver, they go home and tell their friends, who begin to think that they too would like to come here.
Gabriel says he feels safe in Vancouver, which is one of the reasons that he and many other Brazilians like being here. Aspects of Vancouver that Gabriel has noticed as being particularly different in his country relate to food, retail items, and weather. Their cuisine emphasizes beef, rice, and beans, and they have a variety of lush fruit that doesn’t exist in Vancouver. He notes, however, that Vancouver has a wider selection of good vegetables. He has found that clothes and electronics are cheaper here (especially in outlet stores) than they are in his country. While the summer weather at home (December to March) is hot and humid, the other seasons there are similar to those of Vancouver in terms of rain and moderate temperatures.
Even though Gabriel states he is an academic rather than an athlete, has enjoyed skating and bicycling around much of Stanley Park’s seawall. Also he loved his school trip to the Rocky Mountains, where he was most impressed by the majestic mountain scenery.
Gabriel has contributed photographs to this Blog for the article about the Rocky Mountains (see Places Students Visit while being language students in Vancouver). Thanks, Gabriel, and very best wishes with your studies.

This article and photograph are 
by Wendy Bullen Stephenson 
and are posted with Gabriel's permission

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thanksgiving in Vancouver: A Glorious Season

Text and Images by Wendy Bullen Stephenson

Thanksgiving is a popular celebration marking the time when farmers have brought in the harvest from the fields and finally have the leisure to rest and appreciate the “fruit of their labour.” This holiday is held on the second Monday of October as the air is becoming crisp and some of the leaves are turning red. In Vancouver it marks the beginning of autumn and the end of summer if that has not already become obvious. While Vancouver often has beautiful “Indian summers,” residents particularly appreciated this year’s extended season on Thanksgiving weekend.
International homestay students should note that Canadian Thanksgiving is different than American Thanksgiving, which comes six weeks later as a result of the longer growing period south of the border. The American holiday is held on the fourth Thursday of November, and it ushers in the beginning of the American, month-long Christmas season, which ends on Christmas Day. (Another difference between Canada and the United States: The Canadian Christmas season starts later but continues though New Year’s Day.)
For the majority of middle-class Canadians, Thanksgiving is one of the most enjoyable family holidays of the year because it features delicious food and the joy of getting together as family without a lot of stress. 
--> Canadian Thanksgiving dinner typically includes a turkey with cranberry sauce, stuffing, and gravy. This is served along with mashed potatoes and a variety of colourful vegetables usually including sweet potatoes or yams. The meal ends with pumpkin pie and whipped cream. There may also be some kind of appetizer, salad, wine, and perhaps a cheese plate.
Because turkeys of less than ten or twelve pounds are rarely available, there are usualluy lots of leftovers from Thanksgiving dinner. This depends on the number of relatives and friends that are guests at the Thanksgiving dinner. But the next day one can usually count on a complete, reheated second dinner with a taste of everything that was on the original menu. Subsequent meals include hot turkey sandwiches (turkey and gravy on toast), turkey stew, and turkey soup.
Because chickens are smaller, a few people eat a whole, baked chicken instead of turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. But the fact that some vegetarians eat tofu “poultry,” suggests how important turkey is to the concept of Thanksgiving.
Some Canadians choose to celebrate on Sunday rather than Monday of the long weekend so that they have a day to “recover” from preparing the dinner before returning to work on Tuesday. In photographing at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach on Thanksgiving Monday, I could see that many people were not home cooking but were enjoying having Monday off as a day to slow down. 

People relax on Thanksgiving Monday 2012 in Vancouver where extended summer is evident in the still- brown grass.

Perhaps these volleyball players and others on the beach will be guests at a Thanksgiving dinner later in the day.

As these beach photographs and the opening images show, Canadian Thanksgiving is definitely is not associated with Christmas!

While there are many traditional aspects to Thanksgiving dinner, some creative cooks add unique, individual touches. An appetizer can be omitted or be anything the cook chooses. In this case savoury sausage is served alongside humous, crackers, and raw cauliflower.

Traditionally, salad can be a simple green one or an interesting variation such as this one featuring antique tomatoes and grated white and purple beet.

Some of my homestay students have never had a whole turkey cooked at home. This is because turkeys are not common in their culture or they don’t have ovens that are large enough. The process, therefore, has been fascinating to these students. One of my homestay students took this photograph of the turkey coming out of the oven. Many Thanksgiving dinners later, I have never managed to update this photograph of a turkey because, always being in a panic to get everything on the table while still hot, I forget about stopping to get out my camera.

Even when members of my family are preparing the dinner, as they did this year, they flatter me in asking me to make the pumpkin pie and whipped cream.

I hope that you, as a homestay student in Canada during Thanksgiving, have or have had a chance to experience a traditional Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. In my novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad, Japanese student Erika and her Canadian boyfriend share in a family Thanksgiving dinner at her homestay. To see how she experiences this, read the second segment of October Diary Entries 1-8.

Photograph of turkey courtesy of Gabriela Hauser, Switzerland

Monday, September 24, 2012

Ready for Adventure? Visit the Sechelt Peninsula

Porpoise Bay

Having visited the Sechelt Peninsula as a camper, hiker, and tourist over the past thirty-five years, I have always seen this beautiful natural setting as sporting a cluster of relaxed little towns sitting on the edge of ocean. Sechelt itself is the biggest of these 1950’s-paced communities that dot the road from Gibson’s Landing at the southern end of the Sechelt Peninsula to Earl’s Cove and Egmont at the northern end of the Peninsula.
In mid-August I spent a three-day weekend at Sechelt while attending the well-known, annual Sunshine Coast Writers Festival. Besides appreciating the Sechelt Peninsula’s cultural opportunities at that time, I was reminded of the area’s unique geographical features— beaches, forests backed by mountains, and related natural phenomena—that provide opportunities for so many adventures in nature.
I think homestay students studying in Vancouver would find a trip to the Sechelt Peninsula to be a rewarding experience especially for those interested in year-round outdoor recreation activities. Renting a car and sharing expenses with friends makes travelling to this area accessible for those who have a weekend, or long-weekend, to get away. Or if you go on the ferry as a foot passenger from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale terminal, you can then get a bus from the ferry that goes along the main highway (Highway 101) as far as west Sechelt with lots of stops along the way.
Some of the summer offerings of the Sechelt Peninsula include swimming, kayaking, hiking, beach combing, boating, attending annual festivals (such as the Davis Bay sandcastle competition), eating seafood and going pubbing, fishing, enjoying a scenic trek into Skookumchuck Narrows to view the world famous rapids, and water sliding in Sechelt’s community pool. On Dakota Ridge from spring to fall there are world-class biking trails through old growth forests and open areas in beautiful subalpine meadows. These are transformed by snow during winter into cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails.
So how does one get to the Sechelt Peninsula? Reaching the Sunshine Coast takes about two hours travel time from downtown Vancouver, including the pleasant 45-minute BC Ferry ride to Langdale from Horseshoe Bay. To drive to the north end of the Sechelt Peninsula (Earls Cove and Egmont) takes about two additional hours.

West Beach

The Sechelt Peninsula is surrounded by salt water—that of the Georgia Straight on the west side (shoreline with surf pictured here on a windy day) and that of Sechelt Inlet on the east side. Porpoise Bay (pictured at low tide in opening image) is at the south end of the Inlet at Sechelt. Sechelt Peninsula would, in fact, be an island except for the existence of the isthmus (narrow strip of land) that is the town of Sechelt, as it serves as a bridge joining the Peninsula to a larger part of the mainland.
For a pleasant walk on level ground, visitors should check out Sechelt’s marsh, just off the south end of Porpoise Bay. There you can take a pleasant stroll around an active pond surrounded by natural greenery. Countless flocks of birds fly in and out of the area, many of which land on the surface of the water.

Sechelt marshes

If your homestay family is able to lend you camping equipment and if, on inquiring, you find a campsite is available, you and your classmates might enjoy tenting at the wooded Porpoise Bay Provincial Campsite on the east side of the Bay. Or at least you might pack a big lunch and take it to the picnic site on the beach there or to one of the other multitude of beaches on the Sechelt Peninsula.
Sechelt Inlet is famous for its saltwater rapid (Sechelt Rapids) as it rages through Skookumchuck Narrows with fury during tide changes. The skookumchucks (turbulent waters) of Sechelt Inlet are caused when billions of gallons of water rush into the Inlet through a narrow passage, thus creating an intense torrent.
To view this tidal spectacle and to experience some exhilarating hiking through deep forest, drive north on Highway 101 and be on the lookout for the Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park parking lot.  If you reach the village of Egmont, you have gone to far. The well-maintained hiking trail into the Skookumchuck rapids has viewing lookouts. If your arrival matches a rising tide or you have the time to wait for a changing tide (this happens four times daily), you can see ocean water rushing in through the narrow channel in the rock formations creating boiling rapids, eddies, and whirlpools. A destination for adventure-seeking white water kayakers, this is one of the fastest moving tidal waters in North America. So respect the power of these tidal surges with their roar of churning waters. Stand well back, as they can easily sweep away people and their pets.
On your return trip south on the highway to the Langdale ferry, you might want to take in Wilson Creek’s fascinating salmon hatchery. Also try to leave some time to visit Roberts Creek’s unique shops in small wooden buildings on the main street and the Creek’s picnic site within view of a beach pier. 

Gibsons Beach

Roberts Creek

You might also enjoy a stop at Gibsons, a slow-paced, little town perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. This community was made famous for being the site of a long-running, internationally-renowned Canadian comedy-drama television series, named the Beachcombers, which featured seaside adventures and intrigue. The on-shore setting focused on a popular, community, gathering place named Molly’s Reach that still exists today as a restaurant. With antique shops and art stores, large marina, and restaurants with waterfront views, Gibsons is a unique stop.
With all the recreational activities offered on the Sechelt Peninsula near the many seaside communities including the scenic Secret Cove, Halfmoon Bay, Snuggler Cove (not unmentioned here as a result of space restrictions), I hope you and your classmates can find some quiet time too. This might be in old-growth forests, feeling the awe of seeing some wildlife near waterfalls and creeks, or on sandy and rocky beaches observing marine life, perhaps seals, otters, porpoises, and in watching incredible multi-coloured sunsets.
After two days of almost too-hot weather in Sechelt, the weather turned cooler and windy, so the west shoreline was far from quiet. Here is a short video showing the effect of the wind along the beach trail walk of Sechelt.

Article and photographs by Wendy Bullen Stephenson

Wendy is a Vancouver writer who is author of the online imaged novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad, the story of a group of international language students who study in Vancouver for a year and visit all the places that homestay students routinely visit during their stay in BC. It can be read free of charge at: www.vancouvermemories.ca

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Victoria: Romantic City of Many Attractions

By Wendy Bullen Stephenson
Author of Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad

Traditionally thought of as being more British than England, the city of Victoria has also been known for having the most pleasant weather in Canada. On my recent trip there in mid July, decked out with a map, camera, and a big sun hat, I asked a roving ambassador in downtown Victoria to name the notable features of the city. He responded that the city is surrounded by ocean, is particularly walkable, is known for its gardens, and is famous for chocolate and, unexpectedly to me, for beer. Seeing my surprise at this last attribute, he added, “Well, this is a navy town, you know.”
In fact Esquimalt, just west of downtown, is the West Coast port of Canada’s navy. I, however, didn’t notice any visible presence of navy personnel in this serene town during my two days there. Greater Victoria, made up of 13 municipalities, has a population of about 350,000 people. It is the capital of British Columbia, Canada’s western province.
Victoria seems to enjoy its isolation from the rest of Canada that results from being on an island (Vancouver Island) thus requiring an almost two-hour ferry trip to travel there from Vancouver and the B.C. mainland. Ferries carrying up to 470 cars and 1,600 passengers navigate through some narrow passages between lush green, sparsely inhabited islands, so the voyage to and from Victoria is part of the adventure of visiting that city. On the hot day of my return voyage, I sat during the entire cruise outside in the breeze on the top deck (seventh level) listening to the calls of the sea gulls overhead as they followed the ship.
Victoria has been known as a town of seniors while at the same supporting a significant population of young adults attending the University of Victoria and Camosun College. Seeming to be such a safe town, it is also a choice place to bring up children. All of the many dozens of homestay students that I have hosted over the years have thoroughly enjoyed visiting Victoria, confirming my view that is a rewarding place to visit due to its historic buildings, engaging exhibitions, fresh ocean air, lavish flowers and gardens, and relaxed pace.
Some of the highlights for international students include going whale watching, experiencing the underwater marine world, visiting North America’s second oldest Chinatown, spending a couple of hours at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, riding on a double-decker bus, walking through the elaborate Craigdarroch Castle, indulging in tea at the Empress Hotel, visiting the late 19th century home of Emily Carr (one of BC’s most famous artists), touring the world-class provincial museum and world-famous Butchart Gardens, seeing the wax museum, shopping for souvenirs in the many unique shops, touring the legislature building, and eating in some of the varied restaurants or just munching fudge and chocolates or licking an ice cream cone while walking around the human-scale city centre.

Oh, and did I forget to mention climbing around on rocky beaches including Foul Bay, Mile Zero, and Oak Bay? That’s fun too!
Most of the downtown buildings are under five stories high and suggest the historic roots of the old fort town. The Victoria area was home to several long-time communities of Coast Salish peoples when Spanish and British explorers visited the northwest coast of North America beginning with the voyage of Captain Cook in 1776. Spanish sailors visited Esquimalt harbor just west of Victoria in 1790 and 1792. In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company established a fort there as its western base under the direction of Sir James Douglas. He became governor when the crown Colony of Vancouver Island was established in 1849. With the discovery of gold in British Columbia in 1858, Victoria mushroomed as the port became a supply outlet for miners on their way to Mainland gold fields. Victoria was incorporated as a city in 1862.
Today’s city’s planners recognize the importance of keeping the city’s heritage personae. In August 2012 Victoria will celebrate its 150th birthday.

In wanting to revisit, after many years, the legislature building (located overlooking the Inner Harbour), I was amazed that without a reservation one can join a free, guided tour or, on one’s own, explore the unique stone building with its marvelous stained glass windows and colourful historical frescoes. 

I was just disappointed that the legislature wasn’t in session while I was there as I missed seeing an animated debate by our MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly), who comprise our provincial government. The building itself is the focal point of the city at night, outlined, as it is, by hundreds of magical white lights reflected in the glittering water of Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

Victoria and My Past
The first time I visited Victoria was as a grade 12 student on a trip organized by the Vancouver Sun Newspaper specifically for editors of high school yearbooks. At that time we were shown the major attractions of the city (Butchart Gardens, Craigdarroch Castle, etc.) and we participated in workshops related to producing school publications—an inspiring event for me.

Later, while serving as a corporate curator for BC Central Credit Union, I guided an art-buying committee to various galleries, artists’ studios, and the fine art department of the University. For the same organization on another occasion, I was in charge of a touring art exhibition, which I had organized, that was on display at a convention in the Empress Hotel.
As a parent I have vivid memories of trips to the city while my daughter attended the University of Victoria—leaving home for the first time. Oh, the struggles to transport her and her personal possessions back and forth on the ferry in vehicles that always seemed too small for the purpose! Even the filled-to-the-roof, rented moving van on the trip home after her grad day hardly left any space to sit.

More recently I spent a gratifying day in Victoria’s Provincial Archives as a UBC doctoral student. In the archives I examined student artwork, old texts, and photographs that related BC’s art education in the 1920s to 1950s.
I would love to return to tour the current dinosaur exhibit at the provincial museum—a truly inspirational institution—with my nephew and grandson, who are dinosaur-enthusiasts.

The purpose of this summer’s trip was to take photographs for this blog and for my article in the Japanese e-magazine Cradle My Spirit at
Needing to acquire insight about and photos of the city for an imaged children’s book I am writing on Canadian cities was another reason for this visit.
Yes, Victoria seems such a romantic town, as revealed in the chapter I set in Victoria in my novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad. Have a look at the relevant diary entries (July 5 to 8), as there are numerous other photographs showing the attractions of Victoria that my fictional homestay characters enjoy while visiting the city, as do my real homestay students. The novel, free for viewing, is at www.vancouvermemories.ca
I plan to spend more time in Victoria. One overnight visit is certainly not enough!

Article and photos
by Wendy Bullen Stephenson,
July 2012

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On Being a Homestay Student in Vancouver

On this blog I intend to provide monthly information along with relevant photographs about the activities and events participated in by international language students staying in Vancouver through the year. In preparation, I wrote this introductory article in March.* This is when students begin to return to the city after the language schools experience lower enrolments during the winter months. March is a particularly invigorating and visually appealing month in Vancouver due to the clarity of light, noticeably longer days, and the blooming of spring flowers.

This blog is a companion to my novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad found at www.vancouvermemories.ca. The novel is a fictional account of a group of homestay students but it nevertheless features over 325 photographs of areas in and around Vancouver that highlight the events and activities that international students routinely experience through the year. In March, for instance, active students can still be skiing or snowboarding on the local mountains or cycling, walking, or rollerblading on the seawall that surrounds so much of the city.
As a homestay parent to over 80 international students for more than 15 years, I have seen the dramatic impact that being a language student in Vancouver, Canada, has on young adults. They are always reluctant to leave the city when it is time for them to return home. They have made so many meaningful connections and had so many memorable experiences. This happens wherever they are from and however long they have stayed in Vancouver—from less than a month to up to a year. About 37 percent of my homestay students have been from Asia, 27 percent from Europe, 26 percent from South America, 6 percent from Canada (Quebec), and 4 percent from Mexico. Students from all these areas appear in the novel.
Away from restrictions of family expectations and cultural norms, students at Vancouver language schools experience a feeling of freedom and begin to develop a new sense of identity. Recognizing their independence, they gain the self-confidence needed to shape their own life.
Part of the reason the experience is so fulfilling is that they find instant friends from the first couple of days of arriving at their school. All international students want companions with whom to attend popular events and to tour areas in and around the city. Also homestay students’ mutual interests outweigh their cultural differences. The reason for sped-up friendships is also because students know they have limited time. Students’ commitment to their studies along with the school’s schedule creates a structure to safely guide them while still enabling them to live a balanced life in Vancouver.
My novel Vancouver Memories: My Year Abroad reveals the experience of a fictional group of international students who participate in the yearly events that make up popular culture on the West Coast of Canada. The classmates in the story take part in the same activities that real students in Vancouver participate in—activities that they may not have access to at home. Skiing, snowboarding, kayaking, barbecuing, going to jazz and folk music festivals, hiking, picnicking, attending a lantern parade, Pride parade, and a Chinese New Year’s parade, whale watching, beach exploring, participating in carol ship night and a polar bear swim, viewing fireworks displays, taking in some film festivals, and breathing fresh ocean air while walking miles on the seawall are some of their choices. These activities form the backdrop to the novel.

I hope that this blog and my novel, with its many photographs, might provide insight to potential language students considering coming to study in Vancouver.
Both these resources indicate the main activities and events that international students commonly experience during each month of the year. I hope they also serve former students as photographic reminders of the places they visited and some of the experiences they had while studying in Vancouver. See the précis of the novel elsewhere on this blog.
If you are a teacher or administrator with a language school and you would like to use the above article or put a link to this blog on your newsletter, just contact me. I would be pleased to know of your support. And if you would like me to carry your website address on a particular article or in the Announcements section of the novel, please contact me at:
Note that most of my homestay students have attended and continue to come from Pacific Language Institute, now known as Kaplan/Pacific Language Institute. For information about PLI, see www.pli.ca

*An initial version of this article, with additional photographs, appeared in the March issue of the Japanese e-magazine Cradle Our Spirit.

Text and Photographs by Wendy Bullen Stephenson

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Homestay Advantage

Homestay seems to be the same word in most languages. Just listen to a group of international language students speaking their own language on a bus in Vancouver and you’ll hear the word pop out of their conversation over and over.
So what does homestay mean? It means living with a Canadian family in their home. Why is it considered the preferred kind of accommodation for international language students in the city? Even if you have an unlimited amount of money, it is probably the most valuable form of accommodation unless you need maid service! Then you should definitely stay in a hotel.
The reason that staying in homestay is so helpful is that in living with a Canadian family you will be able to speak English on a regular basis. So beside language learning, through your host family you’ll also come to know about Canadian culture, customs, food, and traditions. Also, members of your homestay family can help you learn to get around the city and they will include you in family activities making your time in the city even more varied and rich than just participating in the activities and excursions offered by your school.

Some Commonly Asked Questions about Homestay
Here is some information about homestay based on my Vancouver experience of hosting more than 80 homestay students from 17 countries over a 16-year period, from several schools. Some language schools have in-house homestay coordinators to administer their homestay program and some have placement agencies that look after making homestay arrangements for their students. If you know a little bit about the city, you may even be able to make your homestay arrangements via a homestay website that enables you to connect with a homestay family in the area that you are interested in.
In telling your chosen school that you want to stay in homestay, you will need to indicate the most important features of a homestay for you. Do you want to stay with hosts who have young or teenage children, are you okay with pets, do you want to stay close to the school, do you need a household that takes smokers?
If you choose to stay close to the school, you will likely stay in an apartment/condo rather than a house, as there are few houses downtown. This means you will probably have a smaller host family— a couple or even a single adult. Staying downtown means you will save the time of a long commute and it means you will not have to buy a bus pass.

Do I have to sign up and pay for three meals a day?
No. When you apply you can choose the daily meals that you want. The most common combination is breakfast and dinners. This provides 14 meals a week. This makes you responsible for your own lunch. You can then buy a sandwich, noodles, hamburger, etc., from a nearby shop to take into your school or, if you have time in the middle of your school day, you might eat out as a break. Some students choose to skip lunch altogether if they are too busy to stop or if they are dieting. If you choose to include lunch in your plan, then your homestay host will either provide you with a bag lunch or the food for you to make your own bag lunch.

When I request meals, does the family cook for me all the time? 
Most Canadians have their largest meal of the day in the evening and refer to it either as dinner or supper. (Dinner means the largest meal of the day and supper refers to the evening meal.) The host family is expected to cook a sit-down, family style supper, but breakfast may be self-serve and continental style, which generally means that the host family will provide the food items needed for you to prepare your own breakfast. When you first arrive your host family will probably ask you what you like to eat for breakfast—whether that is simply fruit, toast, and coffee, or a hot breakfast (egg on toast), or a cold breakfast (cold cereal).

Can I request to increase the number of meals or decrease them after the first month? 
Usually. If you wish additional meals, ask your host if that is possible. Some hosts may not be able to offer additional meals due to their work schedule or for other personal reasons.  But it is likely possible to reduce your number of meals if you have a late schedule or wish to eat outside at your leisure, or you simply want to prepare your own meals from your home country.

Will I receive a key to my homestay house? 
Yes. Please note that a key is responsibility and point of trust in you by your host. Ensure that you don’t lose it, as there could be a significant cost and an involved process to replacing it, especially in some condos. Luckily this cost is not as much as the key replacement fee of some apartment homes in Paris, which I understand can be up to $500!

Can I use the host family's telephone? 
Generally you may make short, local telephone calls from your Homestay, if local calls are free. All long distance calls must be made using a calling card. Please ask your host if you are going to receive calls and what are the best times for people to call you.

May I use the family computer?
Hosts are not required to offer the use of a computer; therefore, if possible, bring your laptop with you. However, some computer time is generally available in the computer lab at the school. Host families are now generally expected to provide wireless access for their homestay students. The cost of this may be included in the homestay or may be an option that the student needs to pay for as an additional charge. You may have access to Skype through wireless access that enables you to talk to people from home. Be considerate as to the times of the day when you might use this and be aware not to speak louder than you need to. Having your own laptop will enable you to watch some television in the privacy of your room. Ask your homestay host for the web address of the site that carries the local and national evening news so you can watch it on your computer. Also ask about the numbers of the Canadian Broadcasting Station (CBC) so that you can get a wide variety of music and news on your computer.

May I smoke in the house? 
The majority of hosts do not allow anyone to smoke inside their home. Also in Vancouver smoking bylaws ban smoking inside all buildings, restaurants, airports, hospitals, and public areas in parks and at outside activities (such as outdoor festivals or outdoor performances). A few hosts will allow a homestay student to smoke inside their home if someone in their family smokes. In specifying your homestay priorities, note you would like to smoke inside the house so the coordinator can try to place you with a family that smokes. However, in some cases, even if you are placed in a homestay that takes smokers, you may still have to go outside the house to smoke.

Can I do laundry in the Homestay? 
Yes. The host family will show you where the laundry facilities are and how to use and operate the laundry machines. Canadian washers and dryers may be bigger than those you have at home, so you will not want to do your laundry as often. Wait to make up a full load.  In apartment buildings and some condos, the laundry machines maybe shared and coin operated. In such cases the cost per wash is generally about $2.00 and per dry is about $2.00.

Will I be able to go shopping? 
Yes. Your host will let you know how and where to go shopping for certain types of merchandise, and if you wish, you might go shopping with them. Accompanying your host, especially initially, could save you time, effort, and money. Most hosts know which stores offer the best value as well as how avoid shopping in locations where the prices are higher than at other stores.

Will I be able to go sightseeing with my host? 
Yes. When hosts have free time or when they are taking excursions with their family, they will generally include you. However, your admission ticket to an attraction is at your expense. Also, in taking trips or excursions with your host family, you may have to pay the hotel and restaurant costs. Ask your school or homestay coordinator what their rules are about this. If you are expected to pay all or a portion of your costs, inquire with your host in advance about estimated costs. If you choose not to accompany the family on an outing, the host will provide your with a meal to eat at home.

Will I have a curfew (time by which I must return to the Homestay each night)? 
You are an adult so you do not have a curfew. (Legal age in British Columbia is 19 years old.) However, it is customary that you tell your host family if you will miss dinner or plan to return to the house after midnight. Hosts usually worry about their homestay students if they do not come back home as usual. Your host will want you to be safe and will be able to give you valuable tips on what and when it is feasible to do certain things in the specific neighbourhood.

Can I have a guest come to my Homestay? 
Yes, proving the host family agrees in advance. In most circumstances, however, the homestay student is not permitted to have another person in their room overnight.

Can I stay at a friend's house during my visit? 
Yes. Let your host family that you will be away and how you can be contacted should someone ask about you.

What is a "List of House Rules"? 
House Rules are the rules of the particular host family with whom you are staying. These rules may include requests by your host to lock the doors of the home when you leave, turn off the lights of your room before you leave and when you sleep, to clean up the bathroom after yourself, and how to avoid receiving phone calls after a certain time at night. These rules usually apply to members of the family as well as homestay students. Homestays that accommodate more than one student at once may provide a written list of house rules and leave it in the student’s room. If there is anything you don’t understand on the list, be sure to ask your homestay parent.

How do I obtain Student Health and Travel Insurance?
Contact your homestay coordinator or school admission department for special group or student rates and benefits offered by popular insurance providers. Most schools require proof of health insurance before your arrival. This includes the cost of medical attention in an emergency. You are also responsible for insuring your own belongings against theft, loss, and damage. Arrange for any of these kinds of insurance in your home country before setting off. Do this by consulting with your own insurance broker or travel agent after finding out what kinds of insurance the school might offer.

The homestay fees may vary according to level of accommodation, area of the city, number of meals requested, and the fees set by the school. On the school’s website there is probably a table of rates based on current homestay market rates.

When will I receive information about my host? 
It all depends on what season you will be studying, your requirements, availability of the type of homestay you have requested, and occupancies. Summers are the most busy times, so the response may be slightly slower than it would be if you were attending a school in the winter, as a greater number of homestay families are available when the enrolments decline in non-prime time.

If I request airport pick up, how do I know who will meet me at the airport? 
The school may offer several pick up options. You can choose to be met by your host family or a “meet and greet” representative who will drive you to your homestay in a van, usually with other homestay students. However, if you are a seasoned traveler, you may choose to take a taxi directly from the airport to your homestay family’s home. The latter is faster than a meet and greet service. Also getting a cab directly from the airport to your homestay likely costs the least of all the alternatives other than taking public transportation which might be tiring after your long day of travel, especially if you are carrying heavy luggage and don’t know any thing about the layout of the city. At the final stage of your homestay placement, your homestay coordinator will email to you your host family details and any airport pick up instructions.

What is the best time to arrive at my host family’s home?
In booking a ticket for my flight, what is best to arrive? A Saturday or Sunday is ideal, but if you need to arrive through the week, plan to arrive in the evening after the hosts would be home from work but not too late at night. However, most host families are accommodating if you arrive later than expected.

What if I miss my flight or am delayed?
As soon as you experience a flight delay or cancellation, contact your host family by telephone and the airport pick person or service that will be waiting for you. The homestay coordinator will provide you with their telephone numbers in advance, so make sure you have ready access to those numbers on your travel day. If you are later than the airport pickup person or service is able to wait, which could be up to a couple of hours, you may have to take a cab to your homestay.

Do I receive airport drop off?
Your host family is not responsible for taking you back to the airport, but they should be able to assist you or suggest the best possible way to travel to the airport. Vancouver has a very convenient light rapid transit system called Canada Line that goes directly from downtown to right inside the airport. This is the fastest method of getting to the airport and is likely convenient as long as you don’t have more luggage than you can manage by yourself. It always good advice to not travel with more luggage than you can cope with alone.

Don’t be disturbed by all these details! Getting them sorted out will be worth the rich experience that being a homestay student in Vancouver promises.