Vancouver, Eh?

I’m just back from Vancouver, British Columbia.  I’m exhausted by its beauty and appalled by its weather, dismayed by its costliness and disenchanted by its friendliness.  I hate this place, and I don’t know how anybody but a tourist or a visiting professor could stand it for more than a weekend.

Everywhere you look there’s something marvelous, and I mean this in the old-fashioned sense, it’s the marvel of seeing dark green mountains overshadowing waterside high rises where the yuppies are outnumbered by half-naked men reading Marx on their balconies.  The tenants of these buildings, yuppies or not, are looking down at a working port, waters roiled every minute by globalization—it’s not some preparatory bay where Ivy League assholes log time on their Lasers, it’s where small sailboats compete for recreational space with huge tankers and container ships.

In other words, this is not a resort: it’s not merely a tourist destination.  The beauty of the place is not that distant, photogenic thing you call Nature, the mute vista that startles you into appreciation of your own insignificance—as if you were an apprentice poet—and thus produces the aesthetic imperative that moves you to take very bad pictures when the sun sets, or when it rises.

No, the beauty of this place is all around you, not just at that strange remove of the mountains or the sunset, the compass and destination of the holy fools who claim a romantic lineage.   It resides in the way that people create space for flowers, and trees, and buses and bike paths, also pubs where soccer is on the wide screen—these are not something grudgingly given by the powers that be, forcing the real aims of civilization off the road, unto the unproductive paths of mere public parks, no, this is what civilization looks like when it’s lived rather than admired.

That’s why I hate this place, it looks and feels like something you could care about because everybody around you cares about it.  For god’s sake you have to yield to municipal buses—well, I tried not to, but I was cowed into civic obeisance, and there I was with my trophy rental car, a Chrysler 300, an automobile as big as my living room.  For Christ’s sake riders thank the drivers of these buses as they get off, I mean in real rather than masturbatory time.  What kind of place allows for this attitude?

The kind of place that charges you $17.99 for a six-pack of Corona. The kind of place where the cost of universal health care is inscribed in every transaction (HST)—and everything is a transaction, you pay for every service, even parking in the magnificent public parks—so that locals explain the cost of living as a function of the state’s intrusion on their lives, but with a smile and a shrug.  “Look around,” they say, with their eyes or in very few words, and in their eyes or the words you will hear this question: “Where else would you live, at what price?”

The people who live here actually say “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.”  I’ve heard this all my life, having grown up in the Midwest, where hemispheric extremities are routine because there are no large bodies of water to modulate the techtonic collisions of North and South, cold air and hot (the Great Lakes are stage-left bystanders on the tornadoes and the droughts that define the prairies).  But the saying makes more sense here.  The rain comes and goes, it never stays.  And if the clouds cover your part of Vancouver, drive west or east—or up, you can get higher than these grey skies, to where it’s always sunny.

Still, I hate this mercurial place.  It costs too much.  Everything you do has a price attached—it’s as if the receipt you get at Starbuck’s on 125th and 7th Ave in Harlem carried a boring explanation of the taxes it pays to the city: 25 cents of this tall dark roast goes to the Sanitation Department, which cleans your streets, picks up your garbage, and recycles your cans, bottles, newspapers.

And please note the irony involved: where they have socialized medicine, everything has a price.  The market hasn’t been displaced here, it’s been foregrounded, unlike over there—the USA—where it’s been repressed and mutilated by ignorance.  In Canada, you know exactly why you’re paying this much tax for that commodity.  In the USA, this price tag is absent, so morons can continue to ask why they pay property taxes to support public education before, after, or in the absence of children who will attend the local schools.

You might well ask why I went to Vancouver.  That’s easy, I was there to visit my girlfriend, who’s teaching a summer graduate course at the University of British Columbia.  I arrived on Friday afternoon after a six-hour flight, and immediately got lost in a city that’s as grid-determined as Chicago or New York.  And yet the owner of the B & B that was my destination kept asking me “where are the mountains,” because that’s North, but the blunt low clouds and the jagged contour of the place hid them from me, so I drove blindly for an hour.

I suppose you could say “where is the lake” or “where is the river” if you were giving directions in Chicago or New York.  Think about it, though, how would your foreign friend begin to know this location, and orient themselves accordingly?  That’s the difference between these cities.  In Vancouver, Nature is neither underfoot nor underground, in short it’s nowhere near horizontal—it rises above you, always reminding you of where you’ve never been.

Heaven, you mean?



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2 responses to “Vancouver, Eh?

  1. Meditation on public goods and the market, eh? It’s interesting how you drift toward environmental history without flying that flag. This essay should go into some future edition of your short pieces. Not everything that you throw into the back lot that is Politics and Letters deserves to be included in this imaginary volume; but, this piece certainly does.

  2. It’s a good thing you never made it across the Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island. The old-skool Britishness of Victoria amid the old growth rainforest would have made your head explode.

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