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Thu, 31 Jul 2008

Oh, Canada

All right, I will admit it: this whole thing was probably an early-onset symptom of male menopause.

Earlier this year, in one of my more reflective moods, it dawned on me that my peers and I were suddenly and a bit unexpectedly deep in the throes of middle age. Our working lives were firmly established, our family lives for the most part strong and stable (although there were some among us who never quite got the knack of the marriage and family thing). A non-negligible number of people I knew in high school, or college, or early in my working career, were already dead -- some by accident, some by illness, all of them well before the proverbial threescore and ten. My hair is more than a bit gray around the edges, and it is noticeably starting to thin on the crown of my head. All of us are starting to deal with the onset of the inevitable infirmities that come with middle age -- some fairly easily managed (glasses for driving, a few pills to swallow each morning), some far more immediately serious.

I found myself thinking that, all things considered, I was fortunate to be doing so well. But this year my peers and I would turn fifty -- and I suddenly felt old.

I cast my mind back to earlier times and places, to memories that time cannot readily stale. Back to a time when I had fewer responsibilities (a girlfriend, not a wife, and certainly no kids), relatively more disposable income, and most of all, a greater degree of freedom of action, when plans could be made on the spur of the moment, and there were few if any constraints on what we did, and where and when we went. In particular, I remembered a trip two of my friends and I made nearly twenty years ago: the three of us assembled from the various places we called home, drove up to Syracuse, New York, and got on a plane to spend a long weekend in Montreal, Quebec. The ostensible reason was that we were going to have a bachelor party for one of us, and there was certainly enough time spent bar hopping and visiting clubs like the Chateau du Sexe to make that statement no lie. But in a way, the motto of the expedition, our rallying cry, as it were, was expressed by my friend Shiloh to some twelve year old kid in the next row as the plane pulled away from the gate at Syracuse: "We're the only ones on this plane who are going to Montreal for no apparent reason."

A more succinct statement of the freedoms of youth would be hard to come by.

And that's when I knew what I had to do -- not to try to recapture that lightning in a bottle, since that Montreal trip was clearly a one-of-a-kind adventure (and because there are few things sadder than a bunch of middle-aged fogies trying to relive their days of youthful glory) -- but to recapture some of the "let's go someplace we've never been for no apparent reason" spirit. A little lack of regimentation, a minimum of planning, pack the suitcase, and let's go! Let the wife and kids fend for themselves for a week!

Well, it turned out to be not quite as easy as that.

I shared my idea with the original Montreal cohorts, and with Myron, another good friend from college. Everyone's response was immediate and favorable. So the next thing we had to decide was exactly where to go.

An amusing subtext to this whole adventure were the negotiations that went on among the members of the group on planning exactly to where we should "spontaneously" go. My original message suggested that, since we had originally opted for eastern Canada, perhaps we should go in the opposite direction this time: Seattle or Vancouver. The e-mail exchanges quickly morphed into a fascinating socio-psychological study in individual and group preferences. Suggestions flew back and forth, some relatively close (New Orleans, Memphis), some much further afield (London, Paris, Jerusalem, Australia). At one point Dan pointed out that the group was seeming to cleave on an interesting line, with the more conservative members of the group tending to suggest places that tended to be destinations in their own right (Las Vegas, Key West, Hawaii), and the more liberal minded suggesting places that tended to have a reason for existence other than tourism (and which also tended to be located along rivers), like New Orleans, Vancouver, or Memphis. Other than agreeing that we should go someplace that none of us had ever been (easy for me, who never really goes anywhere; not so for the frequent business travelers among us), we had reached an impasse. We agreed on an approximate timeframe (June or July), but nothing else.

I was worried that the whole trip would flounder on the shoals of indecision. A month passed with no progress. Finally, Dan decided to cut the Gordian knot by going ahead and booking flights to Vancouver in July. Suddenly the multiple decisions for the rest of us were reduced to essentially one -- to go along or not. I opted in almost immediately, finding a flight at reasonable times and which didn't burn up all my accumulated frequent flyer miles. But Myron and Shiloh were oddly quiet. I gave them a week, and then took matters into my own hands, calling each of them to find out their intentions, yea or nay. Myron and I chatted a bit (we'd only exchanged e-mails from time to time over the last coupe of years), and he agreed that, in spite of a recent bad experience flying with his family, he would go. Shiloh, to whom I hadn't spoken in person in an even longer time, was also favorably disposed, although he suggested that his frequent flyer plan involved flying standby on cargo planes, or some such improbable scheme. But at least we were all going!

Of course, thew wrangling over where to go foretold the next set of negotiations -- where to stay. Fortunately, these negotiations were much more quickly completed, and we agreed on a hotel on the edge of downtown Vancouver, reasonably priced and with all the desired amenities, including free WiFi for those in the group who just needed to be connected at the drop of a hat (or after a call from an important customer). It was a little suggestion of how things had changed since Montreal -- not only had the technology evolved to allow us to have things like Blackberries and WiFi, but now many of us were now far enough along in our careers that we needed to be able to be in touch with the office, even on a "vacation" trip.

The remaining time flew by pretty quickly, but there was only one remaining glitch -- Shiloh wasn't responding to our e-mails to tell us his travel plans. Another call to him about a week before departure, and he finally confessed that he was "too exhausted" from work-related travel to join us. That was a real shame: I would miss his companionship and his own unique take on the scene. I felt bad for him, but I was also a bit annoyed that he couldn't work up the oomph to join his friends on a sojourn like this. But I've had my share of times when I put work before other things that were really more important (as my kids sometimes remind me), so who am I to cast aspersions on my friend? We all have to do what we have to do.

Unlike my companions, I have not done a great deal of traveling over the course of my life, either for business or pleasure, so I am not so jaded or cynical (yet) to not think that flying out to the west coast is a big thing. That's why, when I do fly, I still take a window seat whenever I can -- to me, the view from 35,000 feet is still just as entrancing as it ever was. I still think it incredible that a trip that took months by ship, weeks by stagecoach, or a week by train, with all the attendant hazards and discomforts, is now a journey that thousands of people routinely take every day in a matter of hours. Until we get those Star Trek style transporters working for everyone, I'll still think plane travel today is quite remarkable. I also wonder if after a while the pilots feel like they're driving a bus -- I mean, can you fly over the Continental Divide in the Rockies of Colorado and fail to be impressed? Maybe it's like Jim Bouton said in his book,Ball Four: sometimes, running wind sprints across the outfield at Yankee Stadium, he'd look up at the stands and have to remind himself of just exactly where he was -- "Sometimes, I'd be running across the grass, and I'd forget to tingle."

So I got some nice views of the Rockies (and the Cascades as we passed to the east of Seattle), and then we started our final descent into Vancouver. Even having scanned the maps ahead of time, my first glimpse of the city was certainly impressive, for lines on a topographic survey don't do justice to its setting. To the south and west, Boundary Bay (aptly named for where the 49th parallel runs through the Strait of Georgia) and Vancouver Island show the way to the Pacific Ocean beyond. To the north, the North Shore Mountains, with heights of 1000 to 1700 meters, loom up beyond the downtown area. And to the east, the Fraser River and the rest of the peninsula on which the city sits connect the city to the rest of Canada. All the photos on the Chamber of Commerce web site or on Wikipedia don't really do it justice. You have to be there.

Rather than a recitation of "what I did on my summer vacation", with a day-by-day travelogue of where we went and what we did, I think I would rather describe my trip by giving a series of impressions of people and places, not necessarily in chronological order.

A Small Big City

According to my research before the trip, the metro Vancouver area has a population of about 2.2 million people. The city's suburbs do spread out to some extent to the south and east, so that doesn't seem outlandish. But the downtown core of the city proper is only about 44 square miles -- compare that to New York City's 300 square miles, and you can begin to understand just how compact Vancouver really is. From a small area at the highest points of land downtown, you could walk around a few blocks and see downtown Vancouver from end to end to end in all directions, without having to ascend into a tall building.

Part of the sense of smallness is due to a somewhat monotonous regime of architecture. Whether by accident or design, the overall sense of the Vancouver skyline is one of sameness and uniformity, with a high degree of reliance on plain-vanilla concrete construction, moderate and fairly uniform in height, studded with balconies, and wrapped in dull teal blue plate glass. Myron aptly characterized it as being in the "Jetsons style" (although I didn't notice any round buildings on stilts so high you could not see the ground). But it certainly does resemble those 1950s and 60s Bauhaus-style views of the world of tomorrow, mounds of uniform German worker housing cubes piled twenty stories high.

One afternoon, shortly before our departure, I found myself talking in our hotel lobby with a representative of the Vancouver City Council's planning board (they were having a meeting in a conference room elsewhere in the hotel), and I asked her about the uniformity and sameness of the skyline. How did it come about? Was it accident or design? "A little of both," she replied. The biggest contributor to the way the skyline looks were a series of laws passed in the 1980s and 90s called "View Protection Guidelines", which were intended to keep Vancouver "from winding up looking like Seattle," as she put it.

(For those of you who don't know what she's talking about, you'd need to look at the Seattle skyline from east or west of the city -- a boat trip on Puget Sound is best. What you notice is that as you scan the skyline from north to south, the buildings get taller and taller, each one having been built higher than its predecessors in order to get a better view of Mount Rainier fifty miles to the south of the city, and thus each taller building spoiling the view for those now stuck "behind" it. Once you're aware of it, it's almost an amusing thing to see.)

So the guidelines keep Vancouver's buildings from blocking the view of the mountains and the water for all and sundry, but at the cost of a dull uniformity in height and design. Frankly, I realized I had been taking advantage of the views as a handy way to get my bearings from pretty much wherever we were. Overall, it didn't seem like a terrible price to pay to avoid the Seattle effect of only being able to see other buildings.

An Eco-Friendly City

I haven't been out of the country in a long time, or even out to California in several years, so I don't have a great deal to compare it to, but I have to say that I was impressed by Vancouver's seemingly effortless eco-friendliness.

The first thing that struck me in that regard were the taxis I saw all around us on the city streets as we drove back from the airport to the hotel. In all the time we were there, I didn't see a single big cab -- no Crown Victorias, no Ford LTDs, no minivans, no SUVs. Instead, the taxi fleets seemed to consist mainly of Toyota Priuses and Nissan Sentras, moderately-sized cars that would be relatively easy on gas (and at the going rate of about US$6 per gallon, that's no small consideration). Hybrids like the Prius clearly make sense in a downtown setting, where they can take maximum advantage of their electric drive. And to me, the nice thing about it was that there was no "in your face" about it, no "look at our environmentally correct taxicabs" decals on the rear bumpers. It seemed to be a much more matter of fact thing, and that was a pleasant surprise.

Another environmental plus was how much of the city was given over to bicycle lanes. Cyclists could be seen everywhere, and, although I'm not a cyclist myself and thus don't know what' it's really like to bike there, there were many streets that had dedicated bike lines, as well as dedicated bike paths which wandered hither and yon. The city was certainly making an effort to be bike-friendly -- certainly compared to cities like New York, where you take your life in your hands trying to pedal down a bike lane on one of Manhattan's major avenues, an easy target for impatient cabbies more than anything else.

Stanley Park, at the northwest end of the city, was a pleasant and surprisingly large oasis from the glass and concrete. After a five minute walk into the park, you could be essentially isolated from the city beyond, wandering the miles of paths among the half million or so trees. Larger than New York's Central Park, it differs from most city parks I have visited in that it was not the product of the vision of a landscape architect, but instead evolved slowly over time without a master plan. Myron and I spent a morning and early afternoon taking a leisurely hike along the 10 kilometer seawall path around the perimeter of the park, a truly enjoyable commune with the landscape and the ocean.

Finally, there's an aspect of Vancouver and its relation to its environment that I can only describe as "building close to nature". Again, a comparison to New York City will help explain: New York attempts to subdue its surroundings, paving them over, building atop them, throwing dozens of bridges over any river, creek, or inlet that dares get in the way of the city's expansion, and then sprawling out for miles and miles in all directions. When I was young, where we lived (about 50 miles north of New York) was unquestionably rural in character; today, it is unquestionably suburbanized, full of housing developments, malls, and big box stores; the line between suburban and rural his shifted at least twenty-five miles further north -- the northernmost point on the commuter railroads is over eighty miles from Grand Central Terminal.

Vancouver is different. Even though its modern history goes back almost as far as New York's does, it's apparent that Vancouver's goal was never to fill the earth and subdue it. Perhaps it's a reflection of the Canadian stereotype of seeming somewhat modest compared to their brassier neighbors to the south, but Vancouver appears to be far less built-up and sprawling, following and respecting the natural contours of land and water. Perhaps it's a result of having such a dramatic landscape in which to put the city, with the mountains and rivers and oceans all around -- compared to greater New York's monotonous flatness, which probably acted like a red cape waved in front of a bull in taunting the city to expand and grow with reckless abandon. Vancouver's few very tall office, condo, and hotel towers seem almost ashamed of their presence, odd spikes sticking out from the rest of the skyline. If more such buildings are built in the future, this impression may change, but for now, Vancouver is still, "buildings here, water there, trees there, mountains over there; let's see if we all can't just get along".

Finally, the "close to nature" concept extends in some unexpected ways. Vancouver is noted for its large number of drinking and dining establishments which incorporate many influences from the northwest, Asia, and other places from around the world. On this trip, we certainly found a couple of microbreweries which produced some really fine local beers. We also came across an outstanding seafood restaurant, where we enjoyed several bottles of regional wines, and some awesomely prepared food. Now, I loathe fish and seafood of almost all kinds -- just an aversion I have never been able to overcome. But when one of my fiends invited me to take a taste of his grilled mahi-mahi (which he was gushing over), I was intrigued enough to put aside my aversion and try a mouthful without hesitating. It was fresh, and tender, and delicately herbed and seasoned, and, I have to honestly admit, it was pretty good. It wasn't super fancy, or elaborate, or fussy, just good fresh fish prepared simply and excellently.

San Francisco used to be my favorite west coast city. It has a lot going for it, but compared to Vancouver, it now strikes me as too big, too sprawling, too many steep hills. Any city that has a restaurant that serves fish so tasty that I would want to come back to make a meal of it has got to be doing something right. The Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver in just two years, and I plan to go back to watch, and enjoy the place all over again.

Posted Jul 31, 2008 at 02:59 UTC, 3272 words,  [/richPermalink