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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

30 August 2002

Canada, Summer 2002

Back when I was an undergraduate, about to finish my third year of the English Lit BA at the University of Warwick, Before uni, my holidays were a family trip to either Germany or Turkey, in both cases to visit our relatives. The only exception I can think of was when the family went to Paris for some reason, while I was still in high school. During uni, in late 2001, I went to Prague. That was the first time I'd travelled without my family.

I would go considerably further the following year. A friend of mine decided that she wanted to take part in the BUNAC work scheme over the summer of 2002. I hadn't considered doing something like that before, as it not only involved working (I'd never had a job at that point), but travelling all the way to Canada in order to do so. BUNAC help you with the work visa, but everything else is up to you, most importantly securing accommodation and employment.

After lots of dithering and a presentation at the University of Birmingham, I finally agreed I would tag along, leaving shortly before the end of the third term in June. Proudly wearing my BUNAC t-shirt, I stepped off the plane into Vancouver. I can remember feeling there was a lot of space, as opposed to the cramped cities I'm used to in England. It was also hot that day, as we headed to our hostel, before the SWAP orientation (at least, I assume that was the day after we arrived).

The work scheme itself was going to take place in Banff, further up into Alberta. The town is a popular holiday destination, surrounded by mountains and lakes, similar to other resorts, like Whistler and Jasper. My friend had wisely organised a job with accommodation before arrival: I was hoping to just find something when I arrived. Unfortunately for me, even hostels were at something of a premium, due to a national holiday BUNAC helpfully hadn't mentioned to me.

That meant I ended up splurging a good chunk of my spending money on a tent and sleeping bag (which for some reason I thought was the logical solution), then walked to the camping ground a few miles out of town. I think the only other time I've been camping, if you could call it that, was when my school got us to put up tents in the school field. Which doesn't really count.

Anyway, having organised somewhere to sleep, I started scoping out Banff for jobs. Wandering through various hotels asking if they had any work, I eventually walked into a souvenir shop on Banff Avenue, called Orca Canada. I don't remember much about my interview, except that I had two: one with a female manager, the other with the male owner. The main thing that seemed to impress him was my interest in martial arts, as he was an aikidoka.

Somehow I got the job as a retail assistant, which basically meant folding shirts, eating left-over biscuits and trying to chat to the variety of nationalities that made up the clientele. I was also pleased to hear some German, as that meant I could try and show off my mother-tongue. Sometimes that went well, other times my vocabulary seemed to melt in the face of some unfamiliar scenario (like trying to direct somebody to a shopping centre with statues of people skiing).

The major ethniticy wasn't German, however. It was Japanese. Banff got so many Japanese tourists that Orca Canada had special discounts set up for Japanese tour groups, along with four Japanese employees. At that point, I was still heavily into my Japanese and Chinese obsession. That had lasted since I first saw Uproar in Heaven a few months after I was born, until the time I finally went to China in 2004. Strangely, it seemed to fade a little afterwards, especially once my kung fu training started to drop off in favour of Brazilian jiu jitsu. I'm still a big fan of anime though: I doubt that will ever change.

So, the presence of both Japanese customers and Japanese co-workers got me very excited. I took any opportunity to talk about Akira Kurosawa, anime and Japan in general, much to the amusement of Fumie, Junko and Tetsuya (there was also a more senior member of staff, Megumi, but I didn't get to interact with her as much). I also ended up learning various snippets of Japanese, the most random of which was definitely 'waribikiken omochideska'.

Apparently, that means "do you have a coupon?" (due to all those Japanese tour groups, who indeed did often have a coupon). I was shown how to write my name too, which I've long forgotten, though it is probably still on a piece of paper somewhere amongst my hoarded junk.

Amidst the various life experience goodness of working abroad was the considerable boon of being a 'resident'. As official residents, my friend (who soon left her pre-arranged job, which proved to be something of a nightmare, to instead work at Mountain Tops) and I could jump in the gondola and head up Sulphur Mountain for free. Amazing views and delicious poutine. :)

One of the great things about Orca Canada was the fact that accommodation was right above the shop. I was in a room with Erwin, a guitar fanatic from the Netherlands, who introduced me to people like Steve Vai (interesting and certainly impressive, but not really my kind of thing). Like everyone else, he found it highly entertaining that because I got so annoyed at all the mosquitoes, I shoved my mattress inside my tent. Made for a much better night's rest, as I was getting bitten less and didn't have the damn things buzzing next to my ear.

On our days off, my friend and I were unsurprisingly keen to explore the beautiful landscapes on offer around Banff. Among numerous tours, we travelled round the lakes and mountains, along with a trip to the Crowfoot Glacier. I can't remember all that much about the glacier, except that it had massively receded due to global warming, and that they sold special 'glacial water' at ridiculously high prices from vending machines. We tried to drink some directly from the glacier, which as you'd expect just tasted like really, really cold water.

There were so many gorgeous lakes it is difficult to pick out one as especially memorable, particularly as I'm writing this in 2011. So instead, I'll just stick up a picture of Emerald Lake, with the usual Canadian mountain in the background. Canada has a lot of lakes, given that it has an enormous percentage of the world's fresh water. So if you ever go, a lakes tour is almost guaranteed to be on your itinerary somewhere: well worth it.

Banff itself was also very pretty, so there were plenty of spots to enjoy. We would often head to the gardens, paddle in the river, hire some canoes or just chill out in the park. We apparently went white water rafting at some point too, according to the photos, though I really can't remember it. I've never been fond of extreme sports, so I guess it didn't make much of an impression on me.

I get a lot more excited about history and academia, so managed to sniff out some kind of educational institution nearby (I'm still not sure if that was a university or not), where I could nose around the library. There was also a library in Banff, which my friend and I both joined. I can't remember taking out any books, but I do remember lending some Wagner operas on CD (might have been the ring cycle, but I'm not sure). Bit of a change from all the complex prog-metal in Erwin's collection. ;)

The BUNAC thing ended around the end of August, meaning we had to head back to Vancouver for our return flight to the UK. We had a few days to explore Vancouver, taking a dip in the Pacific, and also a brief trip over to Victoria. It's a shame I wasn't a jiu jitsu guy then, or I could have checked out some of the local schools (although I'm not sure what the BJJ scene was like in 2002). By a random coincidence, my sister married a Canadian four years later, who happens to hail from Vancouver (well, technically he's English, as both his parents emigrated from the UK to Canada. But meh: he's big, he has a Canadian accent, and he likes hockey. Canadian enough for me ;p).

I'll probably update this entry later, as all my Canadian memorabilia is in storage while my parents move house. I had things like tickets for the gondola and my BUNAC details, which might trigger a few more memories.


  1. I'm glad your experience in Canada was a positive one. I was born and raised in North Vancouver and have been training BJJ for just over a year and a half. I can confirm that today Vancouver has an excellent range of BJJ schools to choose from (Gracie Barra, Vancouver Jiu Jitsu, North Vancouver BJJ, where I train), but I doubt it was that impressive in the early 2000s.

    Just to confound your stereotype of Canadians (I found it amusing, don't worry): I'm skinny, of medium heights, and loathe team sports, especially hockey (we just had a riot over "our" team not hitting a puck into a net a sufficient number of times - stupid). I do, however, have a Canadian accent, which results in Europeans and Brits assuming I'm American. : P

  2. I would really like to go back and check out the local BJJ scene. My sister and her husband may move there, but their kids will be starting school soon, so I imagine they are going to be in the UK for a good few years yet.

    The only way I can ever tell if someone is Canadian is either if they end their sentences with 'eh' a lot, or I get them to say 'about'. ;)