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What is it Like to Live in Calgary, Alberta, Canada?

By Edited May 21, 2015 1 0

Calgary Skyline
In the summer of 1997, my family moved to Calgary, Alberta, Canada after spending a few months at my grandparent's place in Barrhead, Alberta. Previous to that, we were living in Takarazuka, Hyogo, Japan.

Calgary has been my home ever since. It is a growing, vibrant city with a great view of the Canadian Rockies. Banff and Lake Louise are favorite weekend getaways for many, and both locations can be reached in two hours or less by car.

Clearly, the best way to know what it's really like to live in a city is to actually dwell in it for a while. I will do my best to convey my observations, but ultimately the only way to understand how the living experience in one city differs from another is to live in it. Personal biases are inevitable.

Jobs

For most of my working life, I have been a self-employed entrepreneur or freelancer. I spent many years teaching guitar, which often involved driving from one part of the city to another, teaching students on-site in their homes. That has certainly become a less lucrative proposition in recent years. An increase in competition, and possibly even the fading of popular rhythm video games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band plays a part in diminishing interest.

I also have had some experience in retail, janitorial work, graphic and web design, beverage serving and even exchange student programs. I can't really speak to any of those things as they were generally short-term, though I have found even menial retail jobs can offer substantial remuneration at times.

There was a time when fast food joints would offer a working wage that was comparable to desk jobs, and though there are still a few, it's nothing like it was in the early to mid 2000s when positions couldn't be filled quickly enough. If you were smart, you were taking any job you could and saving up for a rainy day, which did arrive in 2008.

However, by and large, Calgary is an oil and gas town, and to work downtown is a status symbol. Calgary is an affluent city, and it largely has this reputation due to this thriving sector.

A lot of people come here because of the opportunities that are available. Certainly, there are jobs to be filled, but I have seen many aspiring engineers of varying expertise unable to find work in their field of study. Sadly, that is becoming the rallying cry of Generation Y.

Infrastructure

Olympic Ski Jump Calgary
To me, it doesn't seem as though there was much forethought and planning with the overall road and public transit infrastructure of the city. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as Calgary has one of the most severe cases of urban sprawl in North America, with its 1.15M population.

When I first moved here, we didn't have a ring road yet. The only major north/south route was Highway 2, also known as Deerfoot Trail. At the time, there were still traffic lights regulating the traffic flow on the south side.

Since they started building Stoney Trail, which is the ring road, we now have two major north/south routes. However, in my opinion, getting to the east side of the city has never really been an issue. The west side is where we have had some challenges.

Now that Stoney Trail is in place, things have gotten a little better, but the closest north/south route is still Deerfoot. I am not sure whether or not they are planning to build the ring road beyond Highway 1, but that would probably present some issues, as Canada Olympic Park is located just south of where Stoney Trail merges with Highway 1.  

This leaves us northwesterners with Crowchild Trail, which still has traffic lights, features fewer lanes as you get closer to downtown, and it ultimately leads you to Glenmore Trail, which is also fast becoming a bottleneck unto itself.

As for the public transit, I probably can't give you a balanced perspective. In Japan, where I used to live, the transit system worked so efficiently that I am effectively spoiled for life.

In Calgary, where the system seems to work well is downtown. You can certainly get to different parts of the city using the transit system, but it's a long ride to get from one quadrant of the city to another.

I am told by others that we have a pretty decent public transit system, however. I'm not sure what people are comparing it to; probably Ontario, because a good portion of the residents here seem to be from there.

In short, this is not a great place to be without a car, unless you intend to live a closed-in life downtown (not that there's anything wrong with that).

Culture

Canada doesn't exactly seem to be clear on its cultural identity. It may have something to do with the fact that it's still a relatively young country, at 146 years old as of this writing.

Calgary isn't that much different. You will detect notes of cowboy and Western culture, and possibly even oil tycoon style undercurrents, but ultimately people are people. In my experience, people here keep to themselves a lot more than in other towns and cities I've lived in. They're certainly not unfriendly, but they don't seem to be too eager to make friends either. Dating, for example, isn't done that casually here.

Even so, there is a hodgepodge of different pockets of culture in this city. There are skinheads, punk rockers, steampunks, Rockabilliy and pinup subcultures, Sikhs, skaters, weekend partiers, business professionals, and more. If you look long and hard enough, you can find a variety of interesting communities.

In a city of this size, however, it's a lot harder than you might think. I regularly scan for events in Calgary using a variety of online tools including EventBrite, All Events in City, Kijiji and Facebook, and I am often surprised by how little I find. Weeknights, especially Mondays and Tuesdays, tend to be pretty dead. The concerts start to show up on the calendar towards Thursday through to Saturday, but even the weekends tend to be pretty quiet, with many businesses and even clubs and bars shutting down early. People here do not stay up all night.

In short, staying on top of happenings in this city presents a challenge unless you do a lot of exploring, networking and note-taking on your own.

However, I must say that there are some tremendously talented musicians here. You wouldn't necessarily expect it - and Calgary hasn't really had its chance in the spotlight like Vancouver has - but you can find some top-notch performers playing half-empty pubs and coffeehouses most nights.

Events

Again, there are a variety of things going on in the city year-round, but some are easier to find than others. Some of the most prominent events (parades, street festivals and music festivals) happen in the spring and summer, when the weather is a little more accommodating.

Calgary is primarily known for the Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo, exhibition and festival held every July.

The Stampede (along with the grandstand show) is worth experiencing at least once, and I would never deter anyone from checking it out, but I have never once left the festival feeling satiated. I have always left feeling like I should do something afterwards (not knowing what), despite having spent an entire day in a stimulant-rich environment. There are carnival rides, concerts, skating demonstrations, dance groups, and a myriad of bizarre fried foods that most American residents would probably consider commonplace.

For me, some of the more enjoyable parts of the Stampede have been the concerts at the Coke stage, the skating demonstrations, and art exhibits. Beyond that, it's a matter of taste and interest.

Weather

For anyone that has not lived in a colder climate, Calgary will probably feel really cold. Winter conditions can vary quite a bit, but -10 to -20 Celsius is pretty normal. Thanks to a phenomena known as chinooks, weather and temperature can change rather rapidly, which makes the long, cold winters a little more bearable.

Calgary summers are quite pleasant, at times downright hot. We seem to see a large part of our rainfall during the summer, and at times it can even hail or snow. However, we do have a real summer (not just one week like How I Met Your Mother would have you believe), despite sarcasm to the contrary. I have heard some people even say that we have two seasons: construction and winter. It's really not that bad.

Calgary is also quite dry. Dry or humid is usually a matter of preference, but both extreme cold and hot conditions can feel considerably different depending on humidity. For example, 30 degrees Celsius would (and does) feel very different in Takarazuka, Japan than it does in Calgary.

Weather-related or not, I used to experience migraines on occasion. Some people would certainly testify to spending a day or two in bed thanks to these chinook winds. Yes, cluster headaches can be incapacitating, believe it or not.

Conclusion

Lake Louise
When I first moved here, I said that the only thing it was missing was a beach. In my mind, at 14, it was a perfect city aside from that fact.

Despite my naiveté, there's no denying that there are lot of things to do here. There are theatres and movie theatres, big box stores, music venues, swimming pools and leisure centres, climbing walls, and a whole host of other amenities and provisions. There is some pretty decent fishing to be had too.

Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise and other tourist traps and historical sites are mere hours away if that. On a clear day, in Calgary, the sight of the Rockies in the distance is awe-inspiring.

I don't know if you ever fully get adjusted to the weather, but this is a great place to be.

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