Category Archives: Oot & Aboot

How much does brand affinity matter?

It’s November. Which means NaBloPoMo. Let’s see what happens when I force myself to blog every day for a month, shall we? 
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I saw a post the other day about a bad airline experience, and how it tied into a bad email experience. The point the author was making: don’t send promotional emails to someone you’ve just made very unhappy – hit pause on their marketing preferences for a little while. This is very possible with modern marketing technology, so why isn’t it being done?

Not long after that, I came across the new Virgin America safety video:

 

And was surprised by my own reaction. I my chest swelled and my eyes teared up a bit. I thought about flying Virgin, and what that means to me. 

We flew Virgin when relocating to the UK. Their brand is tied up with a whole slew of emotions, and we had an amazingly positive experience at a very stressful time, from the check-in person who didn’t charge us for extra baggage to the amazing in-flight staff who were awesome to us and Isaac.

Even hearing tales of woe from friends who’ve had bad experiences on Virgin hasn’t changed that.

Conversely, I have had horrible experiences with United, and mediocre experiences with everyone else.

But what, exactly, does that change? I still book air travel based on:

  1. Price
  2. Points (though I don’t fly enough these days for a loyalty program to sway me much)
  3. (the aforementioned things being equal – which they never are) Experience.

The author of the first article I linked to also doesn’t seem to be likely to change her behaviour based on their shoddy email. She might think less of the airline, but she’ll still give them her business.

I can’t blame her – I do the same.

So why, then, does she think they should change their email practice?

A funny thing happened on the way from the Farmer’s Market

Over the weekend, Neil and I headed to the Summertown Farmer’s Market. Partly to check out what was on offer, and partly to partake in a (delicious!) pulled pork sandwich from Shredded Meat Co. who are setting up shop there each weekend this summer.

summertown farmers market

The market was lovely, and most businesses along the strip where it’s set up looked like they were doing a roaring trade, encouraging visiting marketgoers to pop through their doors as well.

All except one: The Dew Drop Inn.

And, as we soon discovered, for good reason.

We thought, you know what goes really well with a BBQ sandwich? A cold beer. So over to the pub’s patio we went.

The way the street is set up, there is a big plaza-style pavement, and the pub’s front garden space extends through it, all the way to the street. There’s probably seating for about 50 people out there. You actually need to walk through the garden if you want to cross the pavement frontage. The market was set up down the pavement on both sides.

While there are over a dozen food vendors at the market, many selling takeaway meals, there aren’t any beverage vendors. Anyone who wants to have a market lunch and fancies a drink with it needs to go into one of the grocery stores along the block to pick something up.

Or (as we did) go into the pub and purchase a couple pints.

Except, instead of capitalising on this opportunity to gain some customers and sell some drinks, we got a surly publican chasing us off their entirely deserted patio, for having ‘outside food.’

Fair point, you say, the pub serves food. If you want to use their tables, you should purchase their food. And if that’s the attitude one wants to take take, in a world of black and white, and curmudgeonry, sure. Point made.

But, in a world where pubs are generally struggling, and where most business people (I would think?) would welcome an increase in traffic, and a chance to make a good impression to generate repeat business on non-market days, perhaps some out-of-the-box thinking could help?

Were it my (nearly completely empty, inside and out) pub, I’d see the market as a huge potential. I’ve got the only reasonable seating area for market-goers, and I’m the only one, aside from the grocery stores, selling drinks.

I’d grab some colourful bunting, and section off a few of the tables that market-goers need to walk directly through, to be used for those who purchase food at the market and drinks from my pub. You can’t just park there with a random picnic, but market food +my drinks = ok. The only way market-goers are going to get a table to eat at, is going to be by buying drinks from me. The market vendors and I both win!

But what of the pub food, you ask? Two separate groups of customers. There was not one ounce of crossover between the food available at the market, and the pub’s menu. And I’m pretty confident that someone who’s heading for a farmer’s market lunch isn’t going to be suddenly swayed into having a Sunday roast.

In fact, a really enterprising publican might work with the market organisers to specifically advertise some complimentary snacks to go along with the market food. Maybe a jacket potato to go with the huge Paella that the fishmonger is cooking up? Or a side of chips for with your pulled pork sandwich?

But hey, I suppose that if your idea of a good time in pub ownership is to take a protectionist stance and enjoy chasing ‘rule-breakers’ off your property, that’s your prerogative.

But it’s also mine to decide not to return to the Dew Drop (where I have previously enjoyed both drinks and Sunday lunch), and take my dollars to a pub that’s more interested in generating some goodwill, both in the community, and with its current and potential patrons.

India Part 2: Golden Triangle

Neil and I really couldn’t fathom going all the way to India without packing in a bit of tourism, so once the wedding festivities were over, we flew up to Delhi to experience India’s Golden Triangle: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur.

Taj Mahal at Sunset from Moon Garden

And as a Western tourist, this is probably as close as I’ll ever get to experiencing the “Real India.”

Until now, my Indian experience could be summed up thusly: Slumdog Millionaire, Bollywood Romances, Russel Peters.

The country is, in fact, everything and nothing like those.

Waiting for the light

We’d opted to book a five-day private tour, so we had a hope of seeing the key sites in the week we had planned. That left us a day on each end to explore Delhi on our own a bit, which was exactly enough time (for me at least) to experience, throw a tantrum about, and get over, the unnerving experience of being a caucasian tourist in a developing nation.

In India, acknowledgement is an invitation to barter. Saying no means you are just playing hard to get. Stepping outside becomes an exercise in self-preservation. Every encounter is evaluated on the merits of how much energy I have, and whether I have the mental fortitude to talk my way out of the situation if it turns out to be an especially persistent tout.

Street Scene, Agra

But, and here is where India starts to shine, it is almost always worth it.

Sometimes (especially closest to the major tourist attractions) you’ll just get into a shouting match with a jaded rickshaw driver. But most often you’ll end up engaged in a colourful negotiation with a driver or vendor, which is really just a treat to behold, even if you end up fleeced (remember, a fleecing in India is paying £5 for something that should cost £2) or laughed at.

Amber Fort

And very occasionally, you just get to chat with a local who wants to know what you think about his city, country, and tell you about his friend who moved to Toronto, and works in IT. Or shake hands with a group of young guys, on vacation themselves from a more rural part of the country, and pose for pictures with them, so they can go home and tell their friends about the real! live! white person! they met!

Wine & Bear Shop

I still can’t quite put into words what a different kind of place India is from anywhere I’ve been before. It’s absolutely a land of contrasts, with the marvel of the monuments and architecture, the strange mashup of technology, bureaucracy, and local customs, the devastating level of poverty right next door to immense wealth, and the inescapable, unrelenting mass of humanity.

I hated it as much as I loved it, and in retrospect, I think that’s the hallmark of some of the best adventures you can have.

India Gate

Six years later

It’s grey here today. Exceedingly grey. And cold.

And there is nothing like reminders from Timehop about the fact that this time one year ago, I was in Cuba, and two years before that, in Thailand, to make me feel extra grumbly about the grey and cold.

So I scrolled further back in the past, and whaddya know, it was six years ago today that we were in Oxford. My first trip here.

Oxford's Bridge of Sighs

Six years ago, Neil and I were engaged, and planning to move into our condo in Kits (which wouldn’t actually be completed for an additional 6 months). There was still no plan or idea of Isaac. The dog didn’t have a hint of grey in her now salt-&-pepper muzzle.

Neil didn’t yet have a UK passport, and wouldn’t for another 4-ish years. Moving abroad wasn’t anywhere on the radar. Heck, I had barely traveled anywhere at all before that year.

And yet, there was something about our visit. Something that sparked the idea of moving abroad at some point. Something that made us think, as we wandered around the city, that maybe one day we could live here.

It wasn’t so much about Oxford, as just going somewhere Other Than where we were. Making our world a little bigger than it had been. It became a gauge by which we’d categorize all trips we’d take: interesting, but could I live here?

View from the Tower

It was six years ago that we ventured the furthest from the hotel we’d gone, into another neighbourhood via a narrow street lit by bare overhead bulbs. Where we turned right, onto a street anchored by the iconic Oxford University Press and full of interesting looking boutiques and eateries. Where we looked up one of the side streets and saw the bright streak of pastel row houses, and I said “if we ended up in an area like this, I could totally live here.”

It was six years ago that I stepped into the road to take the photo currently used in the blog header.

Neighbourhood and street names long-since forgotten, we found ourselves actually moving to Oxford. And against all odds ended up moving to that neighbourhood. I only recognized it because of the pastel row-houses, and had to dig out the picture to be really sure. They are the same houses. Observatory Street.

And we found them, via Walton Street in Jericho, by heading down Little Clarendon street, illuminated at night by bare bulbs strung across the street. Now our regular stomping ground, but feeling eerily familiar, in a dream-like way, from having seen them so many years ago.

Six years ago it happened to be sunny this week. Uncharacteristically so. Except for that one day in Henley-upon-Thames when it was so rainy and windy that my umbrella blew inside-out and practically tied itself in a knot. And the river was flooded that year, just as it is now.

But that little blast-from-the-past now has me thinking a lot less about today’s cold and grey, and about the immense amount of adventure the past 6 years have held. And how absolutely clueless about it all I was back then.

And I’m wondering what, or where, on earth I’ll see in another six years.

India – Part 1 – Wedding in Madras

So, India! We went!

I am always at a bit of a loss when it comes to describing trips to such iconic places. Like I should have more to say, or have come to some great spiritual revelation, or have tales of a long, strange trip, returning with tales of the walrus, set to sitar music, koo koo ka choo.

The reality is, we were Western tourists. Strangers in a strange land. Observers for a brief time in one of the most populated, chaotic, colourful, cultural places on earth.

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First thing you notice, that everyone says but you can’t really fathom until you feel it, is the mass of humanity. Especially having grown up in a place like Canada, where you could literally walk for days without seeing another human, it’s a bit disconcerting to realize that you will never, ever, truly be alone.

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Along these lines, the only personal space you’re entitled to is the physical space you’re occupying at any given moment. Nowhere was this more evident than during the wedding.

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Totally contrary to what one expects at a Western wedding, the only people who seem to be expected to pay attention for the duration are the bride, groom and priest. Various family members float in and out to participate or observe, while elsewhere in the venue there is a stream of guests eating in the dining hall. This, by the way, is how you deal with a 1500(+) person wedding. With a steady flow of people in and out, eating, watching, or catching up with neighbours, there are never more than a few hundred in any one area at once. As a guest, there’s no pressure to be anywhere or do anything in particular, so it all feels very smooth.

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Even the wedding hall (nay, even the wedding stage) is not exempt from the “personal space” rule. The ceremony part of the wedding hall is about the size of a high-school gymnasium, with a stage at each end. On one side, the bride and groom are going through the rituals associated with being married. On the other side, the wedding band is playing music. And somewhere in the middle, there is a crew of men building another stage for a dance performance the next evening.

That’s right. Wedding on one side, music on the other, hammers, nails, plywood, logs and foremen in the middle. Not because of a lack of time to do it beforehand, but because why would you do it earlier? I am told this isn’t unusual. After all, the wedding is *over there*. On the other side of the room.

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But even the ceremony stage itself wasn’t immune to distraction. One of my favourite moments was when the groom’s sister was participating in part of the ceremony. She was up on stage with the rest of the family, standing just behind the bride and groom, talking on her cell phone the entire time. She paused the call when it came time for her to play her part, then resumed talking again once the focus had shifted on to the next set of prayers & blessings.

This one was maybe a bit more unusual, but none of the Indians seemed phased. After all, she’s a doctor, and the ceremony is three full days long, with astrological charts dictating the particular times certain things need to happen. You do what you’ve gotta do.

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But don’t let the overall nonchalance fool you.

Most people did find their way into the wedding hall for the moment the groom tied the mangalsutra around the bride’s neck. And when he did, the hall erupted into 1000 cheers of celebration, and 1000 pairs of hands let fistfuls of vibrant pink petals fly into the air to shower the happy couple with love, light, happiness and prosperity.

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Home for the Holidays

I’ve always wondered what it’s like for people who take trips “home” for the holidays. When they live somewhere either away from family or the place they’re from, and make their way back to that place at Christmas time.

Now I know.

And it’s simultaneously very nice and very strange.

First of all, I have been trying not to refer to Vancouver as “home” anymore.

Not only does it make it harder to really lean in to our experience in Oxford, conjuring up bouts of melancholy homesickness, but “home” as we knew it in Vancouver doesn’t exist anymore. While we have family and friends here, and enjoy being surrounded by some of the places and things we left behind, our life in Vancouver (the place we lived, the jobs we had) doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t truly go “home” that way.

It’s been really excellent to spend time with friends and family, but there’s also a tinge of detachment overhanging it. The experience is temporary. The gang’s all here, but most members are making plans for next week when the status quo returns; we’ll be gone again.

This all sounds quite melancholy, but it isn’t, really.

It’s (so far) exciting to pack up and head out on another trip. To share the holiday experience of returning “home” with airports full of others.

It makes the experience of spending time with those friends and family sweeter, more intense. I find myself being much more present with friends & family now, because chances to spend quality time with them are fewer and further between.

It solidifies which traditions are really important and worth preserving, despite the challenges of timing, weather, and distance.

It makes it very obvious that as much as so many other things have changed over the years, others stay predictably, comfortingly, blissfully the same.

Santa

Even Jetlag is no match for Santa

Home and Away

Neil and I just got back from a trip to India, which was incredible, but more on that later.

Taking the trip meant leaving Isaac behind. Just shy of a fortnight away from the kiddo.

You guys, it was SO GOOD.

Much as we love the little bugger, it was really excellent for Neil and I to go away for a while and remind ourselves that we’re awfully fond of each other as well.

Lovers at the Love Monument

We had initially planned to take Isaac along, but the more we thought about the destination, the pace of the activities we had planned, and Isaac’s personality (nearly 2-year-olds are not known for their logic and patience), it seemed like an increasingly bad idea to bring him.

So rather than a round-trip ticket for Isaac, we bought one for my mum instead, and my parents got to have some quality grandkid time, while Neil and I got to explore the way we used to.

We’ve had a lot of fun traveling with Isaac so far. Bringing kids along really changes the way you travel in a few ways. Your pace is slower. Your range is shorter. Your luggage is much more cumbersome. But your encounters with others are so often deeper. You connect with locals and fellow travellers far more easily with a kid in tow.

Toddlers are crap at monuments, museums, long car rides and staying up late. But we have only ever been mistaken for locals when travelling with Isaac. Smiles to others aren’t returned nearly as often when you don’t have a kid along who’s also grinning away. We spend more time in parks, at playgrounds, and shopping in local stores instead of tourist traps, since that’s where you find baby supplies.

I’d love to take Isaac to India some day.

But in the meantime, during the long and sometimes intense days that come along with caring for (chasing after, negotiating with) a toddler, it’s also really nice to take a break and travel with a light bag and an even lighter sense of responsibility. And the rejuvenation that comes from sleeping and waking on one’s own terms is not to be underestimated!

Although, in case you were wondering, absence does make the heart grow fonder.

On a Boat

This past Sunday we spent an afternoon on an English Canal Boat. And I kindof fell in love, a little bit.

I spent much of my youth RV (rather than tent) camping, and this is basically camping, but with less woods, more waterways.

We all know that the essence of camping is alternating relaxing, adventure, tomfoolery and naps between meals. And the waterways of the Canal and River Trust seem like a perfect way to do that.

The boats are fitted pretty similarly to how I remember our RV; small galley, head, fold-down dinette that converts to a bed. The bigger boats have dedicated bedrooms and bigger lounge areas. Many have aerial antennas and small TVs.

And you’re not confined to the canals. Pull up next to a pub to stop for lunch (there are many directly on the canals). Consult the local ordnance maps and stop next to an access point for a stroll or cycle along a public right-of-way. Or just throw stale bread to the ducks off the bow. Mix up a jug of Pimms and remain just sober enough to operate the locks along the way.

It’s entirely civilised.

So who wants to go boating next summer?

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The Friendly Skies – 4 tips for flying RyanAir with a lap infant

We just got back from a few days visiting friends in Stockholm, which was also our first experience with RyanAir.

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Photo by Mikelo on Flickr

We’ve flown other discount carriers before, but RyanAir is often held up as the example of how much discount carriers can nickel-and-dime travellers, and exactly how deep the race to the bottom has gone.

RyanAir is known for being exceedingly tight-fisted across the aviation industry. We were chatting with a check-in agent on a different trip about our (heavy) luggage and he dropped into the conversation that “hey, we’re not RyanAir here, our parents are married.”

So to say I was a bit nervous about how we’d fare on this trip was an understatement.

Turns out that if you channel that nervous energy into checking and re-checking the conditions of carriage, and have exactly no expectations about any standard of service, you might just be pleasantly surprised!

There are a few things you need to know about how RyanAir operates that are likely a bit different from some other airlines. These can be especially frustrating for frequent travellers, who are used to their routines and like to arrive as late as possible to spend as little time waiting around as you can (I am totally one of those people). So your first tip is to arrive early. No seriously, I mean it.

RyanAir closes their bag-drop, passport-verification and check-in desks 40 minutes before flight times. They make this fact well-known. But they don’t tell you they also have a skeleton staff checking people in for flights (fewer employees means lower fares!), so if you need to get to the desk before your flight, you should count on an additional 30 minutes (at least) of line-up time. And unless you are an EU citizen, checking no bags, you need to visit one of those desks. We definitely needed the line-up, since Isaac and I had to have our passports verified, and we had to get a luggage tag for our gate-checked stroller (the one and only (and appreciated!) freebie) as well as check-in the travel cot we’d paid for.

And here’s where I give you tip the second about traveling with an infant on RyanAir: check a travel cot. Cabin baggage restrictions are stringent (one piece only, max 55cm x 40cm x 20cm and 10kg). Any personal items (laptop, camera, handbag) must fit inside that one piece. Infants get no cabin baggage allowance, and it’s expensive to purchase checked baggage (£25-£40 per direction).

But! If you are traveling with an infant you can purchase a checked travel cot for £10 each direction, and it can be up to 20kg. We managed to roll Isaac’s fleecy blanket, some jeans and sweaters of our own, and a bunch of diapers up inside the thing while it was all folded down and bagged up to squeeze those few extra items onto the flight.

Ryanair cabin
Photo by bigpresh on Flickr

Boarding is also a special experience.

Like other discount carriers, RyanAir employs a “general admission” process. Queue up, and pick a seat once you’re on board. There is no special treatment for those traveling with babies. If that happens to be you, here’s tip the third: pay for priority boarding. The cost is negligible (usually about £5 per direction), but it puts you up a the front when it comes time to board.

When going with a tiny human, you’ll find the extra cost totally worth it as you can store your cabin baggage nearby and find a block of seats with your party (the last to board generally end up split up over an assortment of single seats). You can pay £20 for reserved seats, but the priority boarding is really totally adequate.

So! You’re on the plane, adjusting to the bright yellow and assortment of public-transit-esque ads, and ready to go! Just make sure that if you have timed your flight so your tiny-human might sleep, you employ the fourth tip: have a setup prepared to block out some noise and sound for your baby.

Another way RyanAir keeps fares low is to plaster the inside of their planes with ads, and bombard you with offers to purchase things (duty free! snacks! drinks! smokeless cigarettes! lottery scratch cards! more snacks!) for the duration of your few hours with them. There is literally an effort to part you with your money every 20 minutes during the cruising time of the flight.

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Photo by JayFreshUK on Flickr.

It’s not a hard sell, just a constant barrage of offers. They’re fairly easy to tune out as an adult, but not conducive to sleep for babies who are startled and/or bothered by a constant stream of announcements and carts up and down the aisles. It also means they never turn down the cabin lights while cruising. If your kid depends on some dark and/or quiet, it’s worth getting some earmuffs and/or jury-rigging some sort of tent-ish thing during the flight to try and insulate them a bit.

It also helps for those times a couple cretins and their brood of hellions who like to throw toys at each other over the seats and rile each other up into a vibrating, shrieking frenzy end up sitting a couple rows away. Not that I’d know what that’s like or anything. At least it makes your baby seem extra angelic in comparison.

Other than that, it’s hard to argue with jetting across the continent for less than it costs us to take ourselves and our car on a BC Ferries return trip from Vancouver to Nanaimo. Or less than a fancy dinner. It cost us more to park our car at the airport than one of our tickets.

Everyone loves to complain about the horrors of flying discount airlines, but it’s a compromise. And as long as you’re prepared, it’s really not much different than flying with an infant on any other carrier. Be ready to deal with longer lines, comply with the baggage restrictions, and employ a shred of the manners your mama taught you about living in polite society, and both your wanderlust and your wallet will thank you.

Weekend Adventure: North Devon

One of the things we were most looking forward to doing after our move was some weekend adventuring around the UK and Europe – we kicked that off with a small trip to North Devon last weekend.

The drive out was a bit shambolic – the M5 turns into a parking lot most high-season Saturdays – but it was so, so worth it once we’d gotten there.

Driving into North Devon
Driving into North Devon

We stayed at the lovely Shaftsboro Farm B&B with its impecable garden and assortment of animals for a couple nights while we explored the area.

If you have never been to the South West of England, let me tell you that the picture you have in your mind when someone mentions “English Countryside” is a picture of North Devon. I was instantly transported back to my pre-teen self, reading through the pages of James Herriot’s books and imagining what the farmgates and country roads might’ve looked like (yes I know he was from North Yorkshire, not North Devon – I’ll adjust my nostalgia once we’ve been to Yorkshire).

But the most stunning thing, to me at least, is how the lush, rolling hills drop off so suddenly and turn into seaside. I am used to the green pastures being quite far from the seaside, with a lot of suburban sprawl and urban development in between.

From Lee to The Shack
Putsborough
Putsborough

With just a weekend (including a few hours’ drive on either side) we didn’t do much more than a day exploring Lee (including partaking in the required Devon Cream Tea) and a couple excellent pub dinners, but we had glorious weather, stunning vistas, excellent hosts and a perfect break from the not-quite-yet-routine routine.

Lee Village & Bay

Freedom!

One of the things I had to decide when planning this move is what on earth to do about a cell phone. In a first-world problem of the highest degree, I am unwilling to go without an iPhone.

Credit history doesn’t carry over to the UK from Canada, so getting one on a plan there could potentially be tricky. Also, the new iPhone should be coming out in a few months, and I didn’t want to spend $550 for the same phone, or $750  for the latest model of an unlocked phone here (or even more over there) on what will soon be an old iPhone.

That also didn’t solve the problem of being in a contract with Rogers that still had 18 months of service left owing. I could sell the phone and contract on Craigslist for $100 or so, but that still left me phone-less and with very little coin in my pocket for a new phone.

Enter: the Rogers Factory Unlock service.

I had heard this rumor swirling around, and after checking with iphoneincanada.ca and calling Rogers, it is real, and it is FABULOUS.

Rogers policy is that you may break your contract if you are moving out of any areas they service, but you do still need to pay off your phone subsidy. You can also just opt to have your phone unlocked by Rogers if you are traveling, etc. as long as you pay any remaining subsidy first. Once you’re subsidy-free, there is a $50 unlocking fee.

The unlock process is very simple (though I still managed to get confused):

  1. Call the Rogers Unlock Team (this is only available by phoning customer service – stores do not provide the service)
  2. Rogers will take payment for your remaining subsidy, the unlock fee and plus applicable taxes.
  3. You tell the agent from the unlock team your phone’s IMEI number (under settings/about), and they submit that to Apple. The Apple database now has your phone registered as permanently unlocked.
  4. (This is where I got confused) Sync your phone with iTunes (NOT iCloud) to create a backup, then reset your phone to factory defaults. This will cause a sync-up with the Apple databases and install the latest version of the unlocked firmware on your phone. The unlock team agent told me I had to set up my phone as a new device, or put in an active SIM from a different carrier and sync, to complete the unlock. It was mostly semantics, but I didn’t really understand a reset to factory is the same thing, and that I could restore my backup after that with the unlock intact.
  5. Restore to your backup, continue to use your shiny! new! unlocked! iPhone with whichever damn SIM you choose.

So what did all that cost? I paid $260 (-ish? am I remembering that right?) for a new iPhone4 on a Rogers 3-year term about 18 months ago. According to Rogers, I owed $280 on the subsidy. Then there was the $50 unlock fee. And my phone is now as good as the factory unlocked model people paid $749 for when it came out.

Overall, technical confusion notwithstanding, I’m pretty pleased with how that all worked out. And it’s one less thing for me to hyperventilate about as we tick ever closer to D-Day.