Falling For Fall

By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail
October 14, 2023
1308 words

Western Head LighthouseIn Nova Scotia, September marks the peak of the hurricane season. All of us who live here, right next to the Atlantic Ocean, learn quickly to watch the skies, observe the winds and prepare for the kind of weather that many Canadians will never have experienced. So far this year, Hurricane Franklin grazed us with heavy rain before heading for Bermuda. Hurricane Idalia laid waste to Florida, but missed us. Then Hurricane Lee headed our way – arriving as a still-ferocious “post-tropical storm“ – and all of Nova Scotia braced as it hit us directly.

I grew up in British Columbia. Everything I know about hurricanes I learned from TV. What I didn’t know is that they are incredibly slow to arrive, and incredibly hard to predict. Living on the edge of the Atlantic, you learn that the only thing you can do for an impending hurricane or post-tropical storm is to prepare, and then wait for as long as it takes. After you have gassed up the generator and packed the patio furniture into the garage, all you can do is sit at home, endlessly refreshing Facebook for an update.

I am a city boy: I’ve lived and worked my life indoors, while weather has always been something that happened outdoors. Seasons were defined by changes in wardrobe and themed parties, and nature was what I found at nearby Princess Park, or on a sunny hike on the mountain trails above North Vancouver. The natural world was something I appreciated from time to time, but it wasn’t part of my day-to-day life.

Now I find myself fascinated by the patterns and progressions of the world around me. Since moving to Western Head, on Nova Scotia’s east coast, at the end of 2022, we’ve had different periods when we were overrun by various life forms: first with ticks, then mice, then big ants, and then mosquitoes. We had one week of big fat moths, and then bees and wasps arrived for a short stretch, and some little black bugs that we never did identify before they disappeared, too. And finally this week, inexplicably, we had fruit flies congregating unseen inside of a newly opened wine bottle, before riding the wave, drunkenly, into our wine glasses.

We’ve seen big brown snowshoe hares dancing around the yard, then disappearing, and now returning with little babies. We’ve seen a myriad of birds arrive, then depart as they migrate north or south, and now we look out every morning to see who is perching on our bird feeders today. What we’re learning is that the creatures around us are almost always temporary visitors, so we enjoy them when they’re here, then welcome the new birds that arrive the following week. In more practical terms, we watch the skies each day to calculate whether it’s safe to hang laundry on the line. We know that we need to stay alert for the time each day when the wind changes direction, to prevent the almost-dry clothes from getting damp again. We understand that when you only live a couple of hundred metres from the Atlantic Ocean, the official weather reports are at best a suggestion, and that looking out the window gives a better picture of what weather is about to come your way.

For the first time in my life, I find myself waking at 6 a.m. or earlier for the singular pleasure of watching the sun rise over the sea, revelling in the clouds’ changes as they move across the sky, and gauging the size and ferocity of the waves below us. For the first time in my life, I stop before going downstairs to make coffee, peer out of our bedroom window, and say, “Oh my God, that is so beautiful.”

And at day’s end, I look out from the back of our house and marvel at the breathtaking red sunsets behind our ancient old barn. Living here, you can’t avoid being conscious of the moments when the day begins and ends.

We’re only now learning when and how to plant a garden, and which of our two- and four-legged visitors will invade the vegetables and steal them. As newcomers to Nova Scotia, we planted far too early, and with 101 things to contend with in our new home, managed just barely to find time to observe as the rain and wind turned our tidy vegetable patch into a tangle of colourful but inedible weeds.

Our failing attempts at building a garden are honestly very sad when compared with the established gardens encircling our house. The flowers, bushes and shrubs that we inherited when we bought our home are simply brilliant. Each week, some new flower blooms: some white, some orange, some red, and a myriad of bushes and hedges appear and flourish with little or no warning. Once again, every morning I peek out the windows and marvel at what surprises have appeared. And I thank the people who obviously spent so many hours, months and years building a Garden of Eden that we can now sit back and admire.

The sea, too, changes from week to week and month to month. The height and violence of the waves shift, of course, but the sea winds also constantly change from one direction or another, from cold and destructive to warm and pleasant. When you live this close to the Atlantic shore, you learn to love the hissing sibilance of the waves blowing in from whichever direction the winds choose, and the equally romantic lowing moan of the foghorn in the lighthouse at the end of our road. In our part of Nova Scotia, there is something that has connected us to the natural rhythms of the world around us. In all of this, I’m looking at the patterns, the shifts in weather, the things that appear and prosper and the things that die off until next year. None of these are things that I ever really noticed while living in Vancouver or Toronto.

And now, of course, we’re looking forward to the rest of autumn, and then our first full winter in Nova Scotia. We know it will be cold, wet and windy, but we also now know it will be beautiful, breathtaking and awe-inspiring. And we know that on occasion, the Atlantic weather can be frightening, and even dangerous. I’m looking forward to Christmas; I can already see the snow that will cover the ground and the trees, and can smell the turkey in the oven. I’m planning now to order the plow for our tractor, and where to safely store the outdoor furniture. I’m looking at the big tree that I can see out of my window, looking for all the world like the grandest live Christmas tree imaginable.

In the midst of everything else, and during the endless changes and cycles that are now such a part of my life, I find myself wondering whether we should put the coloured lights in the trees now, while the weather is good.

In all of this, I’ve learned to slow myself, to wait until the next cycle, or the next season, and to be patient. I’ve found the space to stop, to look around me, and to trust that the opportunity, or the delight, that has passed me by will surely return in due course. Just as the birds who visit our feeders accept the bounty of seeds without question, I am learning to embrace the good things I see all around me, and leave aside any fears or doubts for the future in this new place.

For the first time in my life I understand that, like the birds, bunnies and flowers, I am really just one tiny part of a great and all-encompassing world, and that my happiness depends entirely on my accepting my place in that larger universe.

Hacking the Airwaves

By Barry Rueger
Published: 2600 The Hacker Quarterly
October 12, 2023
750 words

Anette

My hacking spirit dates from long before I used computers. My first memory of it dates back to some time before 1980 – before the Internet, before personal computers, and surely before cel phones.

My group of close friends and hard-core partiers included the trio of Marty, Brad, and Frank. Frank and I had met at cooking school in Vancouver, and the rest – as they say – is history. We drank, we smoked, and we partied, including one year when I arrived at a Hallowe’en party dressed as Annette Funicello (as a Mousketeer).

The biggest memory for me though was running a proper pirate radio station.

At some point Marty had been owed money, and had accepted a small FM radio transmitter and antenna as payment. Since he also had a successful and longstanding DJ business it was a match made in heaven.

DJing in those days meant turntables, wooden cases full of vinyl records, big amplifiers, bigger speakers, and on occasion a home-built refrigerator sized dry-ice fog machine. Fill it up with water, stick in an immersion heater for a few hours, then dump in the dry ice. Fog!

Soon that do-it-yourself spirit extended itself to radio.

The DJ setup in his living room was quickly attached to the transmitter, and the antenna was stuck out an upstairs window. It didn’t take a lot of time to figure out where the “empty” space was on the local FM band, and with a little bit of tweaking we were broadcasting a music mix like nothing you heard on commercial radio or the CBC. While Marty filled the airwaves with New Wave and alternative music, the rest of us took turns driving around town just to see how far our signal went.

Marty worked on the assumption that the guys at Industry Canada who monitored such things didn’t work weekends or holidays, and he kept the radio station limited to those days. It was fun, and harmless, and cost nothing.

Still, it felt an awful lot like broadcasting into outer space, and after a while everyone started wishing they knew who was listening, and what they liked.

My friend Brad came to the rescue. He was employed by BC Telephone. In those pre-digital days every phone line was attached to a mechanical switch, and each of those switches was hard wired into the network. That was how you got your phone number. Brad was one of the guys that made those connections.

Brad figured out that there were always a few unused numbers and switches, so every Friday afternoon he would connect one of them to Marty’s home phone. Now, as well as his own phone calls, Marty could get calls from listeners. Each Friday he got a new “On-Air” phone number, and each Monday morning it would disappear when Brad arrived at work.

It was perfect. The radio station was success, there were more listeners than any of us imagined, and we could even take requests! And as far as we could tell, it was risk-free.

That was true until Marty moved into a south-facing tenth floor apartment, and attached the antenna to his balcony railing. Suddenly his radio signal went much further, and was much clearer.

He arrived home from work one day and found an Industry Canada vehicle covered with antennas sitting at his front door. Even though as far as we could tell that spot on the radio dial was vacant, it turned out that he had been interfering with a legitimate radio station 50 miles south of us in Washington state. The broadcaster in question called the American FCC, they contacted the Canadian Industry Canada, and Marty was visited by some very official folks who politely, but firmly, asked that he give them the transmitter. To his credit Marty’s reaction was to smile and say “What took you so long?”

Looking back at it, that experience probably changed my life by getting me involved in legal community radio, moving me far to the left, and by teaching me to generally distrust government.

The lesson learned is that if you can help someone to break the law just a little bit – like crossing the street when the pedestrian light is red – and if you can quietly point out to them that absolutely no-one was harmed, and no-one arrested, then you’ve started someone down the road to being anti-authoritarian.

If you plant that seed at just the right time you can change their life. Maybe they’ll even turn into a hacker!

Taking care of ourselves without a family doctor has been a challenge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail 
June 24, 2023
1639 words

In need of medical attention
One of the first things that my wife and I did after moving to rural Nova Scotia was to look for  family doctor, but we couldn’t find one accepting patients. Getting care has been a challenge.

My wife Susan and I arrived at our new home in Liverpool, N.S., at the end of 2022. Since then, we’ve discovered one valuable lesson: If you’re trying to learn anything about how things are done here, it will be via word of mouth. This is especially true if you need health care. The Nova Scotia Health Authority and the provincial government have websites, phone lines and pamphlets, but for real answers you need to talk to the people who live here: your neighbours, workmates, people you meet in stores and supermarkets, your librarian, the man who cuts your hair.
Susan and I had both been hammered by a vicious COVID-19 infection the previous September. Over the course of 10 days, we suffered all manner of extreme symptoms, ranging from sweating and coughing to diarrhea and a complete inability to do anything beyond survive. I have never been so sick in my life. Since that time, and continuing after we moved to our new home in Nova Scotia, we’ve suffered endless aches and pains, and continuing fatigue – symptoms that seem to reflect long COVID. We knew that we needed medical attention, and sooner rather than later.
One of the first things we did after unpacking our furniture was to set out to find a family doctor. At store counters and in lineups it didn’t take long to understand that there are only a handful of doctors in Liverpool, and not one of them was accepting new patients. And as far as we could tell driving around or looking online, there is no walk-in clinic here – those “fallback” services seem inexplicably rare in rural Nova Scotia.
Canada’s health care services are in crisis across the nation, but the situation in rural Nova Scotia feels especially severe. Official statistics say that one in 10 people in Nova Scotia have no regular family doctor. The reality is that the government’s “Need a Family Practice Registry” for people without a doctor recently reported that there are more than 142,000 on the waiting list – more like 14 per cent of the population. If you’re in the one big city, Halifax, you may have some choice, but the rest of Nova Scotia is rural, and doctors are scarce.
People in my area on the registry’s list can eventually sign-up with a “real doctor” at the Collaborative Family Practice at Liverpool’s Queens General Hospital. Until then, though, you’ll be encouraged to visit the emergency department during the few hours a day when they’re open. For instance, in a recent week in May there were four days when the emergency department shut down at 1:30 p.m. until the following morning at 8 a.m.
In the meantime, those 142,000-plus people without a family doctor are being directed to Maple, an online medical practice that operates across Canada. The publicly funded side of Maple in Nova Scotia – there is also a for-profit, pay-for-service side available – is also short of physicians, and many patients are directed to nurse practitioners.
Even if you reach a qualified doctor, there is no route available to you to return to the same doctor for a follow-up or to discuss the results of tests – you are given the first doctor or nurse practitioner available. If needed, it’s possible that you’ll be referred for an in-person consultation, but that usually doesn’t happen, and I can’t help wonder what’s being missed when knee problems or internal aches and pains are being diagnosed by a different practitioner every time, and over an online video instead of in person.
And that is the real problem. As willing and knowledgeable as the doctors and nurse practitioners are on Maple, it’s still a video call on your laptop. You can hold your phone or iPad up to the area where you’re hurting, but sometimes you really do need a medical professional to examine you in-person, touching, prodding and assessing where your problem lies.
The shift from in-person to online medical evaluations makes a profound difference. We’re feeling the lack of having a regular doctor who knows us and our medical histories. Instead of the familiar routine of visiting a doctor who already knows you, briefly checks your file as a memory refresher, and then begins a consultation and diagnosis based on that knowledge, we find ourselves sitting in our kitchen with printouts and pill bottles at the ready. Every consultation involves using most of the brief time allotted to update a new physician. The onus is now on the patient, not the doctor, to maintain, organize and communicate a full medical history.
There’s also the very real worry about what would happen if we need emergency medical care. This week, the mayor of Middleton told Nova Scotians about a frightening incident. In a letter to Premier Tim Houston, Sylvester Atkinson described how on the evening of June 15, the local volunteer fire department was called to the Soldiers Memorial Hospital in Middleton. The local fire department was called because there were no doctors in the hospital, and no doctor on-call, and a patient was in cardiac arrest. The firefighters did what they could, but the patient died. A doctor did drive down from Kentville, a half-hour away, and declared the patient dead. For small-town residents like me, the story is absolutely terrifying.
Fortunately, we haven’t needed any emergency treatments since we moved here, although we have found ourselves at the local hospital for other medical services. Even when the hospital’s emergency room isn’t admitting patients, the hospital lab and X-ray departments are still open, and it’s possible to be in and out for X-rays or blood tests in a few minutes. And even if it’s near impossible to see a doctor some days, we appreciate that the rest of the medical workers there will take the time to explain what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and to gossip about local affairs.
That is honestly the one positive side to Nova Scotia’s woeful medical system: The local health care team of nurses and lab technicians are relaxed and friendly, and likely someone you’ll run into at the library or supermarket. After decades of brusque treatment in big cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, it’s nice to deal with real people who seem to genuinely care about your welfare.
Nova Scotia’s current budget claims to be ramping up health care spending, but the two headline areas in the government releases are retention bonuses for nurses (to the tune of $110-million), plus an additional $50-million to address continued surgical backlogs. Still, many people believe that not enough attention is being paid to the challenge faced by many Canadian health care systems: a significant lack of doctors, especially family doctors. As convenient as it is to access nurse practitioners and pharmacists for day-to-day health needs, the most important member of your health care team is still a consistent family doctor.
I was raised at a time when every family had a doctor – someone who cared for parents and children through all life stages, tracking their history from month to month and from year to year. These physicians lived in your community and were a constant in your life. It was understood that medical care was not just about emergencies, it was about keeping patients healthy on a continuing basis. It was about a long-term personal relationship with a physician who you knew and trusted.
Today, in rural Nova Scotia, that sort of relationship is harder to find. The older doctors are retiring, and news reports tell us that new, younger doctors don’t want to take on a small-town family practice.
I can’t help but think that decades of “restraint” budgets, and the losses to health care funding that resulted, have to be responsible for this change. Young doctors look at practices in small-town Nova Scotia and see nothing but overwork and underpay, long backlogs on routine surgeries and referrals, and medical treatments such as physiotherapy or prescriptions that aren’t covered in one of the poorest provinces in Canada. Is it any wonder they shy away from family medicine?
Ultimately this all speaks to priorities. Nova Scotia brags about an increase of 21 per cent in health care spending over two years, but every time I drive from Liverpool to Halifax to see a specialist or a relative in hospital, I can’t help but notice the tremendous amount of highway construction that is happening. To my eye, neither the population of Nova Scotia, nor the traffic volumes, merit the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to upgrade all these roads to four-lane divided highways.
It feels as if Canada’s second-smallest province – only Prince Edward Island is smaller – chooses highways over health care. That, I think, is the core of the problem we face in Nova Scotia: Health care is seen as an expense, while highways are an “investment.” We’re faced with months of waiting for surgeries, and we sometimes get questionable treatment options over video chat – but at least the drive to Peggy’s Cove is wonderful.
After many months reflecting on the sad reality that we can’t have a family doctor, we had come to accept the unfortunate situation. Last week though, with no warning, we received a phone call from Queens General Hospital’s family practice. I don’t know how we reached the top of the list, but we now have a family doctor once again. Ours was trained in Khartoum, and several weeks ago he’d left a position in Birmingham, England, for his new job in Liverpool, N.S. He tells us he likes the small town that is now his home. We don’t yet know what chain of events led us to having our new doctor, but he seems good, and we’re very relieved. I hope the many other thousands of Nova Scotians on the family-practice waiting list also receive good news soon.

Nova Scotia’s forest fires make me wonder if our dreams of a green, rural life were misguided

By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail 
June 3, 2023
815 words

We’ve made our home at the point of Western Head, near Liverpool, N.S. On Tuesday, I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. when my phone shrieked with a warning from the government of Nova Scotia telling me not to light a campfire. By the time the sun rose around 6:30, there was a curtain of thick grey smoke, and I could taste it on the back of my throat. We already knew about the forest fires burning out of control in our province, so the real question was: Where was the smoke coming from, and how close was the fire?

We live right between the two major blazes. The Tantallon fire is about 30 kilometres from the Halifax Citadel. At the time I write this, on Thursday, we’re told that it has consumed about 837 hectares, and is possibly becoming under control. The other one is the Barrington Lake fire in Shelburne County. It had been the fire nearest to our children and grandchildren, burning more than 17,000 hectares. Then late Wednesday night we heard that another wildfire had broken out perhaps three or four kilometres from their house. Fortunately they had already packed up and left to stay with friends in New Brunswick – the smoke was just too much for them.

After waking on Tuesday, the morning was spent on the internet, and looking at whatever media we could find to try and get an up-to-date picture of these blazes. My frustration grew as I realized that anyone who could be updating me had disappeared. Government, media, even the pundits on Reddit and Facebook had all booked off at 8 o’clock the previous night. If the fire changed direction or speed, or if you just needed to know what was happening now, not 12 hours ago, you would need to wait.

Western Head is part of a point of land just below Liverpool. It’s sparsely populated, and has one road that loops along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. That morning, while we waited for any information about the fires, the isolation that had been so appealing to us took on a different tone.

Ever since moving here people have told us that the summers have become hotter, and the weather dryer. Now I look at the forest and bush that surrounds us and find myself thinking about how fast it could all go up in flames.

And I’m thinking that if the fires are this bad in late May, what on Earth will arrive in July and August?

At one point on Twitter – apparently the best source for up-to-the-minute fire news – I read that Halifax Fire deputy chief David Meldrum had said: “Without a doubt … climate change is contributing to volatility.”

That statement is, in many ways, the one that frightens me most. Right now there are thousands of households evacuated, and multiple fires out of control. If you live anywhere in Nova Scotia you’re wondering if your town or county will be next. The one thing that’s agreed on is that this is not normal for Nova Scotia.

We moved here, bought our home here, to escape the pressures of the big city. A very large part of that decision was a chance to be more self-sufficient: to grow our own food, care for our own land, and rely less on governments and corporations for day to day needs. And yes, doing all of this in an environmentally friendly way is important to us.

Now I’m wondering if our dreams of a rural, green life were misguided – if we were fooling ourselves into thinking that we could remove ourselves from the fast-paced, plastic-wrapped scurry of city life.

The challenge for us now is to try and understand if the changes coming at us because of climate change will overwhelm whatever efforts we can muster to adapt to them. Yes, we can adapt our home, and the ways that we eat and grow our food. We can remove the old oil-burning furnace, and add solar panels. But is that enough to counter global warming, rising sea waters and forest fires?

So far, the fires have stayed away from us, and have even changed direction, but Nova Scotia is heading into a summer of hot and dry weather. Instead of relaxing in our yard, building a compost bin and cutting grass, I’m spending my day on the internet and watching press conferences to try and guess whether we should be loading up the car and heading somewhere else to be safe.

And, of course, I’m asking about the future of our grandchildren.

That, more than anything, terrifies me. So far they’ve survived this year’s fires OK, but what about the next ones, and the ones in the years that follow? Will it become normal for them to wake up to a hazy sky, the taste of smoke lingering on their tongues?

 

Sea Nova Scotia

Sea Nova Scotia 2023
By Barry Rueger
Published: Metroguide Publishing
Summer, 2023
Article: 1086 words
Sidebars:  632 words

Barry researched and wrote the South Shore section of the  definitive tourist guide to Nova Scotia.

Barry’s content: Download PDF (22 MB)

Entire Guide: Via ISSUU  (232 MB)

 

I’m not a morning person. But I’ve embraced rising early

By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail
December 30, 2022
935 words

This morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. The sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean was barely starting to show itself. It was dark and cold, and I stumbled downstairs to make coffee. And to wonder why, suddenly, I was waking up so darned early, day after day, week after week.

All my life I’ve been a night person, a late sleeper, someone who honestly despises mornings. Over years of working in events, in restaurants, or in radio, I have always been able to arrange my life to avoid rising early. This has been less of a choice than my natural state of being. My body and mind just weren’t designed to switch on before noon.

Now, in Nova Scotia, everything has changed. By 6:30 a.m. most days, my wife Susan and I are both awake, drinking coffee and eating toast in bed, our cat Beatrice between us. We’ll already be working on our laptops, and sharing ideas and plans for the day.

We’re both left asking the same question: What happened? The only change in our lives has been leaving France for a house at the edge of the ocean in Western Head, N.S.

Ours is the last home on the road to the Western Head Lighthouse. The house was built in the late 1800s, then added to several times, and has found the balance between modern living and 19th-century charm. We have many windows, and can see the breakers rolling in from three sides of the house. We hear the wind and the pelting rain, and we’re now awaiting with excitement the first real hurricane-force winds. We can’t help but feel a primal attachment to the weather and a respect for the changes that happen from one hour to the next. You can’t ignore the outdoors in such a place.

Nova Scotia weather is immediate and intense, and despite the cloud, rain and wind, it’s somehow joyful. We can wake up to intense blue skies on one day, or great overwhelming columns of white clouds on the next. We’ve become remarkably conscious of the patterns of light and dark. In a few hours we can go from bright sunshine to pitch-black skies punctuated with thousands of bright shiny stars.

But these mornings! Why so early? It’s not just the weather, the Atlantic, or the dramatic difference between the dark of night and the light of day. It’s not about exchanging urban life for rural. I’ve spent years living in the country, and never before have my nocturnal habits been disturbed.

Part of it is about finding the time to just stop, look, listen and enjoy what each day has to offer us. People here don’t rush, but they are not slow either. Things get done, and get done in about the time you would expect.

Yet every person that we know here will stop what they’re doing, look you in the eye and just settle into a conversation. They’ll ask where you’re from, whether you’re “just visiting” (and that’s the big question in a place where families can trace their history back for centuries) and where, exactly, your house is. The first time that they say, “Oh yeah, I know that house,” it surprises you. The third or fourth time, you accept that this is just how things are.

Since moving here, I’ve learned that if deciding on a plumber or a roofer takes me a month, or six months, that’s okay. I feel like I can slow down, take one step at a time and consider every decision for as long as it takes.

That space, time and freedom means that I can rise early. I can allow myself to just sit and enjoy the sunrise, to think and plan my day, and perhaps allow myself a third cup of coffee just because I have the time.

These early mornings are becoming a ritual. For the first time, I find I have the space to order my thoughts, file some away for later and deal with some right now. And when my brain feels like it’s close to capacity, it gives me permission to stop, look out my windows at the sea, the sky and the sun, and let the true world in front of me clear my head.

Which is wonderful. But why am I waking up so early? I don’t have a fixed schedule. I’m not heading down to the boats. I don’t have a desk job to be at by 9 a.m.

Ultimately it feels as if I’m doing this because it’s what you do if you live here in Western Head, on the coast of the Atlantic, in Nova Scotia. Just as watching the sunrise is now a normal part of each day, aligning my body rhythms with the cycles of the sun and sky is simply the best and healthiest thing to do.

After decades of fighting the morning, I’ve found that it’s something that unexpectedly and definitely works for me. After fitting my life into schedules that perhaps made waking difficult or impossible, I find that I can trust my body and my soul to choose when to rise – and when to sleep.

Now, when I look at the people around me in Western Head, and in Nova Scotia, I understand that we all share the same attachment to the sky, to the sea and to the weather. We’ve learned that our best happiness comes from recognizing the power of our natural world, and from integrating our lives into those rhythms – allowing us to be scheduled by the natural world around us, not by our alarm clocks.

What do you do with a small inheritance?

By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail 
October 7, 2022
1140 words

When my mother died last year her estate was small: clothing, knick-knacks, photos and the small bungalow, in Kelowna, B.C., that she bought for herself when my father died. My brother, sister and myself knew that a three-bedroom house in Kelowna’s Rutland neighbourhood wouldn’t afford us an early retirement, but Cameron McIntosh, an old high-school friend, now selling real estate for Royal LePage Kelowna, guessed that it might sell for as much as $650,000.

After decades working in small non-profit groups and charities, and then as a freelance writer, my savings are still pretty small. Like many Canadians, my investment background included two things: buying a home with a hefty mortgage, then selling it for marginal gains after a divorce, and a small registered retirement savings plan. For me, this inheritance will be about the biggest amount of money I will ever see.

My goal some time this year is to put my one-third share – say about $210,000 – toward a country home in France, where I now live. In the meantime, my question is: Between the time when I receive the cheque and when I’m ready to close my French house purchase, what should I do with what is a pretty large bit of money? It could just sit in my savings account, but is there a better route that might make me a little bit of money before we move it to France, and into euros, and buy that house?

I’ve never been in a position to do investing, so I asked some people who know that field. After talking to experts about what I should do, the answer turns out to be “not much” – but with a heavy proviso that we do live in interesting times. Between rising inflation, a war in Ukraine, rising interest rates and falling house prices, it seems that nothing is simple.

Andy Eisenbock is an investment adviser with Odlum Brown Ltd. in Vancouver, and someone my wife has worked with for several years. His advice was simple:

If the money is being held for my home purchase it should be in some form of liquid investment I can access at any time, and I should stay out of the stock market. He suggests that I need to watch the exchange rates between the Canadian dollar and euro, and investigate how best to make that currency conversion. He was right. At the moment the euro is at a historic low compared with the Canadian dollar. I’m crossing my fingers that it stays that way for a while longer, but am also comparing rates at my bank, and at money transfer services such as Wise.

Even though interest rates are rising, Mr. Eisenbock said that, for me, it was better to stay low risk, and liquid, than to try and chase a few hundred more dollars in potential income. That advice was echoed by Mark Tremblay, founder and director of Cinq, a French company that specializes in insurance and investments. I talked to Mr. Tremblay about what my options would be if I moved my money over to France instead of keeping it in Canada. His advice about liquidity and risk is much the same, but his suggestion is that in France many people would invest in l’assurance vie – life insurance. Savings plans based around life insurance are still very popular in France. As well as protecting your family should you die, they allow ordinary people to save for retirement over the term of their working lives.

L’assurance vie investments are very liquid – important if we’re buying a home. The safest place for my money would be a euro fund, a type of investment specific to life insurance, which provides significant security. It will give you a low fixed interest rate (around 1 per cent at the moment), but you will be sure to get your money back without any possible losses; the return is virtually zero-risk. We could get a slightly better rate with life insurance that includes a Unité de compte, or unit of account, an investment vehicle with more risk but better returns. And if more than 40 per cent of your life savings are in a UC, the interest rate is increased. In either a UC or a euro fund you’re encouraged by the government to keep your money there, saving for your retirement. Mr. Tremblay pointed out that after your investments have been in a euro fund for eight years, you’ll see a reduction in taxes paid on returns.

In Kelowna, I also talked with Steve Hatch, a wealth adviser with National Bank Financial. Right now interest rates are climbing, but I’m wondering whether they might come back down just as quickly. Mr. Hatch’s advice: If I believe that, I should choose the time frame I expect to park the money, and move it into a relatively safe place, such as a guaranteed investment certificate.

Or if I think rates will continue to climb, I could look at something like a money-market account with a variable rate that allow me to “reap the rewards of higher yields.” Ultimately, again, the choice is mine: more safety, or more return.

Mr. Hatch also has some Kelowna-specific advice: While home prices are dropping in major centres in Canada – in some cases by as much as 20 per cent – my mother’s modest bungalow may be immune to that drop because it still hits the sweet spot of being priced as a “starter home.”

There’s not a lot out there for single family residences between $500,000 and $750,000, he said. With that location and a price point of as much as $650,000, “I would hazard a guess that you’re probably going to get about the price that was suggested.”

The lawyer who has been handling the probate process for much of the past year says that even after the house has been sold it will likely be another two or three months before the proceeds arrive in my bank account. In the meantime, I’m left with more than enough time to choose the country where I will likely park this windfall, calculate my time frame, watch the currency exchange rates and determine the kind of security I’m comfortable with. Then I’ll need to put the cash in a safe, but income-generating, place.

The lawyer who has been handling the probate process for much of the past year says that even after the house has been sold it will likely be another two or three months before the proceeds arrive in my bank account. In the meantime, I’m left with more than enough time to choose the country where I will likely park this windfall, calculate my time frame, watch the currency exchange rates and determine the kind of security I’m comfortable with. Then I’ll need to put the cash in a safe, but income-generating, place.

 

Shopping for a Greener Home in France

By Barry Rueger and Susan Evans
Published: Asparagus Magazine (PDF Scan)
September 2022
1622 words

It’s been almost 10 months since we arrived in France with hopes of settling here for life. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible that we could have blithely sold up and closed down everything we had going on in Canada, and set off with two suitcases and a cat on a plane to a new life in a new country on a new continent—all taken on trust, sight unseen.

There have been waves of regret and tsunamis of self-doubt, but one thing remains constant: in almost every way, we love this new country of ours, and are resolved to take the time necessary to build a secure sense of belonging, the one missing piece of the puzzle.

For the most part, we feel, France is getting “it” right, culturally, socially, and politically. The French government assumes a position of social, national, and global responsibility that we aren’t used to, coming from a country where ecological tragedy can be brushed aside in favour of preserving a few more years of profit from oil, gas, and coal.

Yes, we all know about the mountains of paperwork and forms to fill out before anything moves forward in France. But move forward it does, logically and steadily, if maddeningly slowly. And it’s all worth it in the end, because we reap the benefits of belonging to a system that’s “doing it right.”

From the moment we arrived here—despite all the difficulties of language and not knowing a soul here—we felt supported. Moving through different government departments, we encountered a rational, thoughtful, unrushed way of doing things, and received help from government staff every step of the way.

We soon began the process of purchasing a house in Alençon—a small municipality in Normandy, about 200 km southwest of Paris—and found ourselves navigating a universe of carefully planned regulations and funding programs aimed at making French homes warmer, greener, and more comfortable. And it is heartening that these programs are designed specifically to benefit average working people, and not just well-heeled home renovators.

When looking at heating choices in Canada, our Vancouver homeowner brains were wondering: “If we can’t use gas for heating and hot water, what’s left? And if it’s electricity, isn’t it expensive? And how about the ecological and environmental costs of generating electric power?”

In France there are many more central-heating-system options than are commonly available to Canadian home-owners. Examples include heat pumps, condensing boilers, wood-pellet or “biomass” burners, and solar-powered heating. Many are more eco-friendly than gas or oil, and more economical to run. But what makes them even more attractive are the generous government subsidies that can cover up to 100% of the costs of upgrading.

In Canada we tend to focus on automobile emissions and power generation as key areas to reduce carbon emissions. But according to a 2020 European Commission report, “Buildings are particularly energy-intensive, accounting alone for almost 45% of final energy consumption and 25% of greenhouse-gas emissions in France… [And] 7 million dwellings are poorly insulated and almost 4 million households struggle to pay their bills or deprive themselves of heating.”

From the beginning of July 2022, homeowners in France were prohibited from installing a new oil-fired furnace, and owners of new homes were prohibited from installing gas heating. The government of France declared that new installations of equipment for heating buildings or water must fall below a conservative greenhouse gas emission ceiling. Meaning you won’t be allowed to install an oil, gas, or coal-fired heating appliance except in exceptional circumstances.

The house of our dreams was a big 18th-century mansion with many floors, many rooms, fireplaces, and a lovely setting in the middle of Alençon. It was a two-minute walk from the historic round Halle au Blé, from our favourite sidewalk bistro, and from a great boulangerie (bakery). Lovely though it was, we faced the challenges common to owning houses built two or three centuries earlier: as well as the expected renovation of wooden floors and 300-year-old walls and ceilings, we would be facing bills for heating and energy-use very near the top of the chart.

Those gigantic fuel bills, and our general concern for reducing our own contributions to climate warming, made it obvious that we would have to spend many thousands of euros to bring the house up to something approaching 21st-century energy efficiency. We eventually decided against purchasing this house, but first we had a chance to explore what that process might look like.

In France, home buyers are very well protected. They’re given a wealth of information about the house that they hope to buy, and everyone involved takes the concept of vices cachés (“hidden defects”) very seriously. These can include everything from structural issues, to neighbouring development projects, to troublesome neighbours. And work done on the house, whether by a professional or a well-meaning do-it-yourselfer, is subject to a 10-year period of warranty called une garantie décennale.

In Canada, when you purchase a house you’ll sign a sales contract that might run five to 10 pages long. If you’re lucky, there may be a home inspection report as well, but it’s often a case of “buyer beware.” In France, you’ll be reading and initialling every page of a document well in excess of 100 pages, and sometimes much more than that.

As well as telling you everything you don’t want to know about the structure, the roof, and the presence of asbestos or lead paints, it will outline in detail how energy efficient the house is. It is government-mandated that you be told where your heating efficiency lies on a scale from an excellent A to a very sorry G, and how many CO2 emissions your home will generate over a year, also measured on a scale from A to G. Every real estate listing also includes the charts showing these ratings.

Fortunately, the French government also is very generous in helping homeowners improve both of these numbers. Depending on the project, the government will pay up to 100% of the costs of an upgrade, but the specific amounts depend on several factors. First, household income, and the number of people in residence. Unlike in Canada—where equivalent funding programs only look at how much is being spent—the funding available is much greater for homeowners with less income. Second, the extent of the improvement provided by the upgrade: Will your efficiency move from the bottom-most F or G levels to something in the middle, or will you reach the topmost A or B levels?

All of this work begins at the MaPrimeRénov website where homeowners can apply for funding to replace old heating systems, insulate their homes, and replace aging windows with new triple-glazed ones. There is also funding available for solar and geothermal heating, and for other ventilation improvements. The funding process is complex, but if you’re a homeowner, it’s too generous to ignore.

One of the biggest expenses we looked at would be a new furnace. The quote for that was approximately €20,000 (about US$20,000).  If we had purchased the house, we could have received significant financial assistance for a more sustainable form of heating. As well as exchanging the old furnace for a new heat-pump, pellet-burning, or geothermal unit, we also could have applied for funding to cover some or all of the other improvements listed above. We’re advised that we would have saved at least 60% of our household fuel bills.
To be funded, all of this work has to be completed by a professional installer: do-it-yourself tinkerers need not apply. And landlords must promise that the home will remain a tenant’s principal residence for at least five years after the work is finished—an Airbnb property won’t get the subsidy.

There are also programs to offer zero-interest bank loans to homeowners doing energy improvement work, through a program called éco-PTZ. Works that can be paid for with these loans include: roof, wall, window, and door insulation, and installation of renewable-powered heating. One of the benefits of taking out an éco-PTZ  loan is that there is no requirement to demonstrate income levels to support it. You must simply be the property owner.

From this September, anyone who wants to sell a property that is ranked in the F or G categories will also need to pay for an audit énergétique—a far more precise measure that aims to inform future buyers not only of their likely energy bills—but also of the cost of renovations needed to make the property fall into the B class. And in July, the new laws made it illegal for landlords to increase the rent of properties with ratings of F or G, and illegal to rent them out full-stop from 2025.

Living in North Vancouver, we were always made to feel guilty for the less-than-ideal environmental choices we’d made. Even when alternatives weren’t offered, were beyond our means, were untenable because of our age or situation, or, at best, were incredibly difficult and time-consuming to achieve. In France, it feels like the powers that be are truly helping citizens change their habits and lower their impacts.

When we finally find our new house in France, multiple financial incentives will make it much easier for us to renovate or replace inefficient heating systems, poor insulation, or draughty windows. The French government uses financial aid as a carrot incentive to encourage us to improve our home’s energy efficiency. There is no punitive stick of guilt or financial loss if we don’t have the means to pay. What our new government understands is that we won’t solve the climate crisis by only handing money to corporations. It’s often a much better investment to help individuals and families to make their houses green.

 

Save lives, money and reduce pollution: Why roundabouts are a solution for every city

Published: Globe and Mail
May 7, 2022
920 words

Round-aboutCOVID-19 restrictions are disappearing and France is expecting another one million Canadians to visit the country this year. Many will arrive after a lengthy flight, collect their luggage and clear customs at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then climb into a rental car. Minutes later, they’ll suddenly find themselves immersed in a stream of French drivers circling around a traffic circle or rond-point. And once they’ve escaped that first traffic circle, they’ll immediately find themselves in a second, and a third, and in all likelihood, yet another.

Welcome to France, and the first of more than 30,000 traffic circles, the multilane roundabouts that challenge visiting drivers to learn new rules, new signs, a new language. They also provide no chance whatsoever to just stop and figure out where you’re going.

It is an item of faith in France that the roundabout was invented in Paris in 1907. The goal of its creator, the architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard, was to better manage the horse-and-carriage traffic throughout Paris. His first roundabout was at Place de l’Étoile in Paris, (since renamed Place Charles-de-Gaulle) where multiple lanes of circulating cars, motorbikes, vans and buses still circle around the Arc de Triomphe.

More specifically, these drivers battle for supremacy over 12 unmarked traffic lanes where cars entering the circle from the right have priority over everyone else. The result is legendary chaos and massive traffic jams.

Regardless of where traffic circles were invented, it was in Britain, not France, where they first became popular, with an explosion of construction in the 1950s and 60s, and a rethinking of how they functioned. It was the British who decided that incoming traffic should yield to those already on the circle. It was the success of this improvement that led to the adoption of the new British design in France.

The first French version of the “English roundabout” was opened in 1976 in Quimper, near Brittany’s Atlantic coastline. The rond-point’s official entry into the French Highway Code happened in 1983, the same year that decentralization moved much of town planning to local governments.

These town and village governments embraced the roundabout with enthusiasm. Since gaining popularity in the 1980s and 90s in France, roundabouts have been adopted in every corner of the country. And civic pride has led to another French tradition: the sculptures placed in the middle of the traffic circles. From the beautiful to the bizarre, these emblems of local pride have not only become important landmarks for lost tourists, but have led to websites, documentaries and Pinterest groups celebrating – or mocking – these roadside artworks.

The modern rules for French roundabouts are simple: Entering traffic must yield to the vehicles already circling. Once you’ve entered, keep to the inside, left-hand lane, with your left-hand-turn signal activated. Once you approach your exit, switch your signal to the right and move to the outside, right-hand lane, then exit. For drivers used to traffic lights and street corners, it can be nerve-racking to figure out which of the three, four, or even five exits you want, before you can change lanes and escape.

All of this happens while you’re watching both rear view mirrors and trying to spot a directional sign that almost never matches what your GPS is telling you. Having a spouse to act as navigator is a big help. (My wife Susan says that depends on which spouse is providing the navigation.)

Roundabouts aren’t just another French oddity – they’re actually a solution to a few problems that are faced by every town and city.

They completely eliminate stop-and-go traffic. Instead of dozens of cars sitting with their engines pumping out exhaust fumes at every red light, traffic moves constantly into and out of intersections. And because they do away with the need for stop lights or advanced left-turn signals, infrastructure maintenance costs are dramatically reduced. For small towns and villages, this saving is a valuable advantage.

Most importantly, though, roundabouts turn out to offer significant advantages in traffic safety. Every car entering a traffic circle has to slow down, so cars, trucks and buses move more slowly than usual. There are no red lights, so there are no drivers who accelerate through the intersection on a yellow. Deadly 90-degree collisions are a rarity in France. And because everyone moves in a counter-clockwise direction, and exits to the right, there’s little chance of cars appearing out of nowhere from your blind spot.

The result, according to a 2018 report by the European Commission, which examined 44 studies where junctions where converted to roundabouts, is a 41-per-cent reduction in traffic accident injuries and a 65 per cent reduction in fatal accidents.

In addition, a World Economic Forum report from December found the United States is saving lives and energy costs by replacing lights with roundabouts. It also notes that France has by far the most roundabouts per capita, about double the number per capita of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“Here’s a controversial idea that turns conventional thinking about road safety on its head: traffic lights cause accidents, increase pollution and we’d be better of without them,” starts the report.

Still, when your jet-lagged self is suddenly dealing with multiple roundabouts, you’ll appreciate the two big secrets to manoeuvring around them. First, it’s okay to circle two or even three times until you know where you’re going. Second, in the event you take the wrong exit, in all likelihood there’s another roundabout just ahead, so it’s easy to double back to where you got it wrong.