Monday, March 01, 2010

from the "Vancouver Love Fest" dept.

Dear Vancouver:

I think I love you again.

Our relationship began way back in the fall of 1997. I arrived, fresh off the turnip truck, from Winnipeg. I had come to Vancouver for work. A new television station was launching and I was lucky enough to be part of it.

You welcomed me with a garbage strike and an unseasonably warm fall. The two didn't go together very well, but it sure was an adventure. Those years were rocky, but fun. And I was shocked by the lack of winter. Warm. Green. Wet. Decidedly un-Canadian. Winter was never far away, though. Twenty minutes north of downtown there were mountains covered in white stuff – right where it belonged.

Now, the job wasn't perfect (and neither was I). Though jobs (and I) seldom are. After a few years I left the TV station and started freelancing. This allowed me the freedom to follow my one true passion: Travelling. Even though I would wing off to places like London or Budapest or Copenhagen, I found that every time I returned to Vancouver, I felt warm and fuzzy. Walking past the waterfall in YVR was like a hug. “Welcome home,” it would gurgle. And I'm positive that Raven, in the Bill Reid sculpture The Spirit of Haida Gwaii, would always wink a greeting towards me.

But Vancouver, I hate to say, you almost lost me. There was a stretch there where your dumb civic politics and fear of anything fun made you almost unbearable. It seemed that any time a group of more than two people gathered downtown, the police would sense a riot and tell citizens to stay away. How many New Year's Eves were we warned to remain inside – too dangerous to be out. This was not how a supposed world-class city should act, I thought.

After a while, thankfully, you seemed to chill out. You were a growing city and maybe this growth scared you. You responded with things like Illuminares, the Folk Festival and my favourite of all: The Parade of Lost Souls. How could I not love you for that?

Plus there's all the things I miss when I'm away: the weather (and I include the rain), the beaches, the patios of Commercial Drive, especially during the World Cup, meat pies, good beer, great coffee and the seawall.

And then you went out and bagged the Olympics. I remember when you won them all those years ago. Cool, I thought, but really -- I didn't care. I figured they would be a massive boondoggle and security nightmare. You would become super no-fun city. I couldn't have been more wrong.

As the Olympics became more real (thanks, CTV, for the countdown clock), I started to get excited. Everyone started to get excited. And then: I moved to Guatemala. And then Edmonton. But even from a distance, I knew that I couldn't miss the games. I was lucky enough to score some tickets online. My employer let me take time off. A buddy offered his couch. So, little more than a week ago, I flew into town for the second week of the games.


The ride on the new Canada Line from YVR (with my big bags) was an eye opener. People from around the planet in party mode. When I hit the end of the line I took a wrong turn and ended up in the middle of thousands of happy people dressed in red on Granville Street. It was electric. Mouth gaping, I made my way to Waterfront station and eventually SeaBus and eventually Deep Cove.

Over the next week I revelled in the Games. I proudly wore red. I bought a hockey jersey. I walked – a lot. Like when I visit New York. Granville, Robson, Burrard – all rivers of people. Happy people. Smiling people. And cops. Lots of cops. Happy cops. Smiling cops. And not a submachine gun to be seen (although I'm sure they were never far away).

Everyone was cool. No knife wielding drunks. No terrorists. And other than a couple of knuckleheads early on, no anarchists either. The protests I don't mind. It's a free country. But busting innocent windows and beating up defenceless newspaper boxes? Those morons must feel proud – and be incredibly unhappy and very alone.

Day after day the party continued. On the streets, in the bars, on our TV sets. We won medals and cheered. We didn't win medals and cheered. Our athletes were awesome. The fans were awesome. YOU were awesome, Vancouver.

An example: I went to the women's gold medal hockey final. I have never, ever, been in a building with that kind of energy. If you could bottle it, it could power SkyTrain for a decade. Canada beat the USA for the gold. Unlike most of the other events, the medals were presented after the game. The house must have been 90% Canadian – with the rest mostly American fans.

The US women's hockey team was long faced when they were presented with their silver medals. And you know what happened? The ENTIRE building erupted with cheers of “USA – USA – USA.” I was gobsmacked.

Then there was the Sunday that will live in our memories until we die: That gold medal men's hockey match between Canada and the USA. Hockey is Canada and Canada is hockey – although I don't think we realized just how much until that Sunday. Talk about a nation's pride being on the line.

I watched the game in a bar – it was a nail-biter that came down to overtime. And Sid the Kid brought home the gold – just like that. You couldn't have written a better ending to the games (closing ceremonies notwithstanding). Afterwards I headed downtown into the biggest crowd I've ever seen, anywhere. Flags everywhere. Red and white everywhere. The Team Canada jersey everywhere.

Patriotism exploded. And not that kind of exclusionary “we're better than you” stuff – more like, we're a cool place to be and we're glad you're here to party with us. I think we've been swallowing our pride for so long, we weren't quite sure what to do with it. Might as well share it.

So we sang O Canada on the bus. And even the Star Spangled Banner. We wore our toques, mittens, scarves, hats, and jerseys. We smiled at each other. We talked to strangers. We offered Russians Tim Horton's and high-fived police officers. It was a cathartic moment. We were all Stuart Smalleys saying in unison: “I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” We said it to the world. We said it to ourselves. We've done it in the past, usually on Canada Day – but this was entirely different. We didn't do it because we thought we should, we did it because we felt that true patriot love.

I won't riff on the closing ceremonies, but I will say this: Neil Young singing Long May You Run has replaced that treacly I Believe nonsense with something deeply Canadian and real. It has been in my head for more than 24 hours – and it will live in my heart and remind me of you, Vancouver (and Whistler), for the rest of my life.

Today was a hard day. I rode the bus and it was quiet. The destination sign no longer flashed Go Canada Go. No one wore red. I longed to high-five a stranger, but it felt inappropriate. Downtown was empty. The Olympics are over. The scarves and mittens and pins and jerseys are all packed away. But I think that the Olympics – at least the non-corporate spirit of these games – will remain with us for a long time to come. And I hope that we don't lose the exuberant friendliness that we showed the world. Let's smile at each other. Let's greet each other. Let's enjoy what was always here, just buried under the surface. Let's wear red and fly the flag – if only in how we act towards each other. That will be the legacy of these games. That will make you world-class city.

Vancouver, you blew me away. I guess I forgot how great you are. Yes, you're expensive. Yes, you can be shallow. You have some serious social problems that will require a lot of work to fix. But you're also warm and welcoming. You're spring in February. You're salmon jerky. You're cheap (and good) sushi and dim sum. You're Diaso. You're Spanish Banks and The Drive. The North Shore and Steveston. The burbs and the West End. Yaletown and Strathcona.

You make me want to come back and stay. Yep. I love you. Thanks for the best week of my life. And now, I'll be heading to Galiano Island for a week of recovery. No offense, but it's quieter over there.


By the way, you can see my OlymPIX HERE.


Wendy said...

This is awesome, Doug. Well said.

Lorin said...

Thanks for the personal perspective Doug! Particularly insightful coming from an "outsider!" My relationship with Vancouver has been strained at best -- I long for things it eschews; adequate roadways, convenient parking, neighbourhoods (as opposed to merely large concentrations of residents), maybe a WalMart -- but the last week or so has me both seeing the city a little differently and rethinking what I want in a home. We'll see what shakes out in the coming months.

JENNIFER said...

well said indeed. your captured it all.