Vancouver I Hardly Knew Ye: Week #43 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On missing a place one has chosen to leave
A couple of years ago I briefly became famous for hating Vancouver. By “famous” I mean that a hundred thousand people or so read an essay I posted on Medium, and for a few weeks it became a part-time job to answer emails from well-wishers, cranks, and haters.1 (Now, thank God, I am blissfully obscure again and all my emails are from manufacturers of undereye creams and students asking questions that are answered on the syllabus.) By “hating Vancouver” I mean that in the essay I wrote, which was in response to a truly nutso anti-American screed by Wade Davis published in Rolling Stone, I used Vancouver as a test case to refute Davis’s claims of Canadian superiority. It was too easy, in a way: Davis held up my former hometown as an example of income equality and social justice, which is sort of like using the Marquis de Sade’s château as an example of Buddhist lovingkindness. In my response, poor Vancouver—which has many other excellent qualities—was the innocent victim of an essayistic drive-by shooting; my aim was elsewhere, but she got caught in the crossfire.
But lambasting real estate greed and excoriating the hypocrisy of the municipal government are not all I have to say about Vancouver. I would also like to complain about the weather. Just kidding! Well, not kidding: I really do like to complain about the weather, but that is not what this essay is about. This is a love letter to a place I left, a place that I wanted to leave and do not regret leaving and yet miss, deeply and tenderly, every single day. It is also an essay, I suppose, about why my spouse and I decided to leave Canada and relocate to Mississippi, a move that never ceases to amaze anyone who hears about it. I mean, fair enough—without more information, I suppose such a move seems akin to relocating from a Buddhist monastery to the Marquis de Sade’s château.
We moved to Vancouver in the summer of 2006, after I was offered a tenure-track position in the English department at the University of British Columbia. It was a last-ditch move to stay in academia, and the spouse and I made the staggering decision to move to another country, another climate, and another culture (yes, really) based on a two-day job visit in which I saw only campus buildings, the interiors of two restaurants, and endless windows streaked with rain.2 (Scott, of course, had never visited at all, bless his heart. I reassured him that it kind of looked like New Zealand.) There were some early clues that the move was a bigger deal than I had bargained for—one of my campus interview questions was “Do you realize that you would be moving to another country?”—but when the field you have chosen to pursue has only one position per 500 applicants and you are offered the prospect of moving anywhere with gainful employment, you don’t stop to think too hard about whether the beer is going to be expensive. Academics are used to dragging themselves to alien environments for the chance to teach 300-freshman sections of Intro to X for subsistence wages, so I felt pretty damn lucky to be offered an actual tenure-track job in a place with free(-ish) health care and few(er) guns. Oh, and also mountains. And the sea.
As soon as I found out I had the job and that Scott was going to be offered subsistence wages to teach 300-freshman sections of Intro to British Literature,3 we immediately set about obsessing about our new homeland from a distance. We put the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” on constant replay and danced around our living room like lunatics as we sorted through our worldly chattel deciding what was worth dragging through Canadian customs (answer: not much).
(Together) We will go our way
(Together) We will leave someday
(Together) Your hand in my hand
(Together) We will make our plans
(Together) We will fly so high
(Together) Tell all our friends goodbye
(Together) We will start life new
(Together) This is what we’ll do
This is what we’re gonna do
(Together) We will love the beach
(Together) We will learn and teach
(Together) Change our pace of life
(Together) We will work and strive
(Go west) Life is peaceful there
(Go west) In the open air
(Go west) Baby, you and me
(Go west) This is our destiny
(Go west) Sun in winter time
(Go west) We will do just fine
(Go west) Where the skies are blue
(Go west, this is what we’re gonna do)
The song is really about leaving Soviet-bloc countries for the promised freedom of the United States, but without very much tweaking at all we turned it into an anthem about moving to the West Coast to teach nineteenth-century British literature. Seriously! The only lyrics that didn’t work were those about the sunshine and blue skies—if we’d been moving to L.A. we wouldn’t have missed a beat.4
I still remember with great fondness that giddy feeling of excitement and promise (and psychological projection) we shared before making the actual move. Our first year in Vancouver we sublet a small house in a neighborhood called Kitsilano—a former hippie enclave turned Lululemon5-and-scented-bath-bomb outpost—from a couple of UBC zoologists on sabbatical. Within minutes of our pulling up to the wee purple house on Maple Street in our moving van, two incidents occurred that were to define the terms of our Vancouver residency for the next 13 years. First of all, I walked up the hill to Fourth Avenue to get beer. I went into the tiny private liquor store on the corner and started poking around for an interesting-looking local brew. The first one I picked up cost $18 for a six-pack. (Remember, this is in 2006. At that point, a six-pack of fancy micro-brew might cost $8 in the States, while six Miller Lites would set you back less than $3.) Holy fuck! I thought. That is some precious beer. I started combing the shelves and quickly discovered that there was nothing available for under $15. At that point I decided to ditch the plan of getting to know my new region through its local beer and went straight for the American piss-waters in the refrigerated section, where I discovered that a six-pack of Budweiser cost $12. I stood dazed and disoriented in the glaring light of the beer cooler for several moments. The cardboard handle of the familiar red-and-white carton was cutting into my palm, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t asleep, but perhaps I had gone through a wormhole in the space-time continuum? I reassured myself that this shop was an insane anomaly whose sole purpose was to gouge people on Sundays when the provincial liquor stores were closed, and that later I would certainly be able to purchase beer for a price that did not require me to default on my student loan payments. (Spoiler alert: this turned out to be untrue.)
The second incident occurred when Scott and I decided to take a break from unpacking and head down to the beach, just a few blocks from our new house. It was a warm summer day with a slight salty breeze off of English Bay, and every single resident of British Columbia was out trolling for admiration in the gentle sun. The sand was packed with volleyball players, the beachside pathway was thick with rollerbladers, and the triple-Olympic-length outdoor heated saltwater pool was thronged with swimmers. Scott and I wandered around in a daze staring at the vigorously healthy glowing youth around us (I swear there was no one over the age of 40 for a two-kilometer radius), feeling lost and a little lonely. “You know that phenomenon of being in a new place and not recognizing anyone?” I asked him. “It’s such a weird, disorienting feeling.” “Yeah,” he replied. “You keep expecting to see a familiar face and then remember you don’t know anyone.” “Well, at least we can look forward to eventually feeling at home here! It will take a while, but someday we’ll see familiar faces all around us in our neighborhood.” “Yeah, that’s a nice way of thinking about it. These people are all strangers now, but some of them might become our friends.”
(Spoiler alert: that feeling of isolation never went away, not in 13 years of living in Vancouver.6 Scott and I would sometimes think back on the conversation we had that first day and imagine teleporting back in time to whisper in our own ears that the wistful outsider feeling we were then experiencing would never change.)
At this point you’re probably wondering where the “love letter” is coming in.
When you get off the plane at the Vancouver airport—after you wend your way under the soaring glass cathedral ceilings past the indoor waterfall and between the towering Musqueam totem poles to collect your bags and go through Customs—there is always a startling moment that happens as soon as you step outside. Prepare yourself as you push through the last set of glass doors separating the arrivals hall from the outdoors. (There used to be an umbrella vending machine right there—which tells you all you need to know—but I think it’s gone now.) Pause. Stand for a moment and take a really deep lungful of air. You will never smell such sweet, delicious air anywhere else in the world. It has a wonderful scent, yes (slightly piney and with a hint of ocean fishiness), but it’s the texture that’s really stunning: soft, moist without being sticky, always with a slight edge of coolness even in summer. You are inhaling the breath of a vast colonnade of trees, stretching from where you stand straight to the Arctic Circle, an enormous regiment of conifers generously bathing you in oxygen from head to toe, twenty-four hours a day.
And the rain. The rain in Vancouver is relentless, but after living there for a while you gradually reach a kind of détente with the weather. (Repeat: kind of.) You start to recognize different strengths of rain and to develop an impressive vocabulary to denote various sub-types of water falling from the sky: shower, mist, sprinkle, drizzle, mizzle, downpour, torrent, deluge. To be fair, it hardly ever rains very hard in Vancouver (when you’re slowly dispensing your product 24 hours a day, there’s no need to get all pushy about it), so mostly you get good at differentiating various kinds of mists and sprinkles. Is this a hooded-raincoat-only day? Do I need an umbrella and/or boots as well? Will we need to Uber an ark? You will eventually acquire a staggering number of personal waterproofing objects: by the time we left the city we had over 20 umbrellas (granted, a large number of them were left to us in a single mysterious bolus), and I owned five different kinds of raincoats and three pairs of Wellington boots.
And oh! so many other things: the looming mountains, the downtown East Side, the sushi, Lee’s Donuts in Granville Island Market, the French crooner who would busk right outside Lee’s Donuts, the ubiquity of yoga, the Rose Garden on the UBC campus, my old office in Buchanan Tower, the Public Library downtown, Belgian waffles in Kits, the secret pathways of Charleson Park, the Stanley Park cricket oval, the Lion’s Gate Bridge, the food shopping on Commercial Drive, the Italian dudes playing bocce in Victoria Park, cross-country skiing at Cypress Mountain, Crab Park, Strathcona, the izakaya places, the waterfront houses along Wall Street on the East Side, the Culture Crawl, the bald eagle’s nests in Kits Beach, the Second Beach pool, the Capilano salmon hatchery, burgers at the Jericho Sailing Centre, the Bloedel Bird Conservatory, the billions of gelato shops, the 99 and 14 buses, Smuggler Cove Park on the Sunshine Coast, BC Ferries, the pen shop in Gastown, jazz at Pat’s Pub, the walks, the beaches, the bike paths, the beer.
Why would anyone leave such a paradise, you are probably wondering? And here is where my essay takes a sudden dark turn. (But please note how my skillful foreshadowing has prepared you for what is about to come!) Dear Reader, it was not because of the shocking cost of living or the unfriendliness of Vancouverites or even the crippling winter depression. In the end, the real reason we decided to leave was that relentless, low-grade, nagging anti-American hostility eventually corroded the lining around my heart. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the majority of Canadians despise the United States, and many of that majority extend their hostility to its denizens as well, whether current or former. Some are subtle about it and some will yell right in your face about it. (The latter type is rare because: Canadians. But it does happen.) I’m a pathetically sensitive person who does not handle being disliked very well, and being bathed in subtle animus day after day eventually became too much for me.
One of our first big social events in Vancouver—a Canadian Thanksgiving celebration at the home of a colleague’s friend—featured the drunken host yelling at me and Scott about how the United States was a hellhole, and the South in particular a wasteland that had never offered the world a single important cultural product. (Yes, a native of rural Ontario was deprecating the region that birthed jazz, blues, Zora Neale Hurston, and chicken and waffles.) Not too long afterward, a dental hygienist took the opportunity of my mouth being propped open to bitterly demand why I felt I could move to Canada and use up their free healthcare resources. (“Because I am paying taxes and educating your children?” I mumbled through wads of cotton, but I don’t think she understood me.) December of that same first year saw me standing in the dripping rain at a bus stop after a French conversation hour, chatting pleasantly with a Québecoise woman while we waited for the Hastings bus. Once our conversation progressed to announcing where we were from, I watched her face close up and the familiar bitter lines appear around her mouth. Because we were speaking French, I was blissfully unable to understand all of the insults that followed, but I was also unable to mount an effective defense. Not that there was any point, really. It’s not like you can convince the residents of an entire nation to drop a deep-seated, longstanding prejudice through personal charm alone—even in your native tongue.
I think three incidents is enough to establish a pattern, particularly since they all occurred within the first few months of our moving to Canada and they were repeated ad nauseum for the next 13 years. I also had a control group living right in my house—my non-American spouse—who regularly attested that No, I was not imagining the hostility and Yes, it was bad. It’s hard to explain exactly why it is so demoralizing to hear your country—a country that you also hate much of the time, critique relentlessly, and often want to abandon in disgust—slagged to your face. It’s just … tiring. You start to develop anxiety about meeting strangers and their reaction to your shameful secret. People are not good at keeping the theoretical and the personal separate. “I detest the postwar foreign policy of the nation in which you were born” shades too easily into “You suck.” I think that on my side, anyway, there was also a little bit of “I’m allowed to diss my mother but if you open your mouth against her I will cut you” going on. People are complicated.
If you are an American who has never lived in Canada, right now you are incredulous. Basically, you refuse to believe any of this. But Canadians are so friendly! you are thinking. And we’ve always gotten along so well! Canada is practically an extension of the United States! you protest.
And that thought—that last one right there, the one you just had—is why Canadians hate us.7 Can you blame them? We barely acknowledge they exist, while they are obsessed with us. Does the older brother even notice the tears of his little sister when he shoves her aside and yells at her to stop pestering him?
And that hatred—or more precisely, that fear, resentment, irritation, bitterness—born of living cheek-by-jowl with a country that hogs an outsized portion of the planet’s resources, wields its military might like a cudgel, and lures away all of your best comedians is also why I want to end this essay by apologizing. Not for being hurt by the constant anti-American slurs and barbs—that is plain rudeness and I will be patiently awaiting my apology (preferably directly from Justin Trudeau) for those incidents. No, I want to apologize (preferably directly to Justin Trudeau) for not trying harder to plumb the wellspring of those insults. To be fair: I did kind of try! I became a Canadian citizen and everything! I pledged allegiance to the British monarch and all her heirs and successors in both English and French! But I wish I’d tried harder to push past my own initial defensiveness and meet my Canadian neighbors, colleagues, interlocutors, and (yes) friends8 halfway. Or even more than halfway—I was a guest in their home and a guest should always honor the house rules.
I guess in the end this essay is kind of a love letter to someone who broke my heart. I was bursting with optimism and excitement at the beginning of my relationship with Canada, and I never really recovered from those first few new-couple spats. I wasn’t patient enough and I wasn’t willing to go to counseling to try to salvage something for the sake of the kids. Maybe if I had swallowed my own hurt pride a little more, Canada and I would eventually have reached a comfy détente—the heady initial days of passion behind us, but years of cozy Netflix-and-chill stretching into the future. I’m not sorry I left—I truly love where I live now (even though I suspect that Mississippians are just better at hiding their anti-Yankee ressentiment than Canadians)—but I am sorry that I felt I had to leave.
Dear Vancouver, I do miss you—often painfully. I think about you a lot and wonder how you’re doing. Sometimes I stalk you on social media and get a little jealous if you look like you’re having fun without me. I want you to be happy, but I also hope that you’re a little sad I’m gone. I wouldn’t trade our years together for anything. I’m a better person for having known you. I hope we can still be friends.
I was also on the radio! Lynda Steele interviewed both me and Wade Davis on her CKNW afternoon talk show.
He did eventually secure a tenure-track position—and tenure—in the same department, but not after a great deal of agony and drama. But whatever. The Spousal Hire Two-Step is the topic of another essay, an essay that absolutely no one wants to read.
The official music video, linked above, has over fifty million views, and the comments section is unbearably poignant: testimonials in multiple languages from people all over the world who yearned—and yearn—for life in the United States. It is humbling.
No, literally. The headquarters of Lululemon was around the corner from our house.
And I tried, my god I tried! I am an utterly relentless joiner and gatherer and entertainer, and in my time in Vancouver I started approximately 25 different book, hobby, gaming, and conversation groups; threw 872 parties; went to 6,472 openings, readings, exhibits, and talks; did volunteer work for 800 different organizations (Democrats Abroad, Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue, the Insite supervised injection center, Girl Guides, on and on and on); started a neighborhood block association; took dance lessons; ran the social committee in my department; started a faculty research reading series; etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. (I’ve forgotten half of it); and yet I never managed to shake my feeling of loneliness. I have never felt that before or since, in any other place I’ve lived or visited.
This is the point where I mention that we really did make many excellent friends in Vancouver—people we love who are still in our lives. We’re looking forward to visiting in a few months! It’s just that our good friendships never gelled into a more coherent sense of community—and this is not just the critique of an outsider.