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“We could buy mother’s house from my brothers. They’d love that. But we’d need a ton of money to lick it into shape.”
“Not a bad idea except the time I spent in Ottawa in the seventies didn’t entice me to want to live with snivel servants and erstwhile politicians. Mind you, great food across the border in Quebec. And, good skiing in the Gatineau and Vermont.”
“Hmm. You have a point. Toronto we’ve already ruled out. Too many skeletons dangling in too many closets. And as you know, it wasn`t my favourite place when I lived there”.
We’re in a bar in SOHO, a trendy area in Hong Kong, an adjunct to the well-known Lang Kwai Fong which is a tad closer to Central and also wildly popular with locals and ex-pats alike. Our conversation is one of countless such encounters leading to our exodus from one of the busiest, most over-crowded cities on the planet. It’s the jam-packed Staunton Street Café on the kitty corner from my flat which boasted around 600 square feet encompassing three bedrooms. Three. Each with enough space for the bed and that’s it.
The Good Lady (‘TGL’) lives in similar opulence down the road, a 28th floor, two-bedroom flat with a small roof garden. Her mansion is around 550 square feet with a kitchen so small that the fridge was relegated to the second bedroom. The bathtub a luxury for people under five feet tall. And sorry I forgot, TGL is ‘Nini’, derived from Eugenie, and in 1995 we met on a junk on the South China Sea. But that’s another story.
Believe me, I don’t know how many conversations we had concerning this planned retreat. I had moved to Hong Kong from Toronto in 1985, Nini in 1990. Both of us arrived on ex-pat terms, by far the best way to ease into a network of over 7 million souls: some employers offer a customary large flat or a generous housing allowance which can support far more than the humble accommodation we now lived in on `local terms.`
But the time had arrived for a fond farewell. The years had moved on, particularly for me as my law practice had changed direction in the two or three years following the Great Chinese Takeaway. That’s what ex-pats call the change in sovereignty to China in 1997 when in pouring rain they lowered the Union Jack. I`m a `plastic Canadian’, possessor of a Brit passport by birth and a Canadian one I acquired as an immigrant. Nini is a `real` Canadian, born in Hamilton, and a former resident of Ottawa, Edmonton and Toronto. Toronto is where I practised law but we didn’t meet. Different lives.
Where to relocate in Canada was our theme song in those still immensely enjoyable, latter days in Hong Kong. Our joint absence for many years from our former homes meant that we were sadly out of touch, particularly in terms of how much cash one needed to survive and put Merlot on the table. Seeking help from old friends evoked guffaws of `how long is a piece of string?` or `do you want the Bentley or the Honda Civic?.’ Insightful ambiguities like this didn’t help.
How Vancouver became a contender I don’t know. Nini is an avid internet explorer, a past-time for which, generally speaking, I lack the patience. In researching a new home, she stumbled on a real estate link with a myriad of West coast houses, large and small, most subject to Vancouver`s hysterical pricing. Already we were learning as I looked at some of the more interesting on offer.
What was far more interesting was that one of the realtors had an unusual name which was familiar to me, a voice from the past. And with due respect to the Smith/Jones contingent, it wasn’t either of those. I won’t reveal the name as the individual in question is still plying his trade; but his name was identical to that of a husband I knew years ago in Toronto who was divorcing his wife. I was acting for her. During an uncommonly peaceful marital imbroglio, I came to know the husband quite well, even though he was on the other side. He was another Brit, immaculately dressed, a high-flying advertising man who drove an ancient Rolls Royce. After the divorce, he disappeared, the wife fled to California. I had heard from neither of them as many clients tend to come and go. Now, after all that time and confronted with the husband’s name, I surmised that perhaps he was selling real estate in Vancouver.
I called him from Hong Kong. He answered the phone, I knew he wasn`t my man: Canadian accent, all his years spent in Vancouver, and so on. Although I’m disappointed, we discussed his listings and within a few days I`m flying solo to YVR en route to inspect an array of homes and gardens. With the husband who never was.
“We MUST have an ocean view” asserted Nini before I left, an edict bolstered by others: a decent garden, proximity to rocks and water, and a dining room large enough to accommodate the grandfather clock, chairs and table with extensions and a gargantuan sideboard, all salvaged from the Ottawa house we didn’t buy. After viewing several properties I knew wouldn’t work, he showed me a house that hopefully fitted her bill, the last one on his list.
I took a ton of photographs back to Hong Kong. Over wine at the Staunton Street Café, Nini and I looked them over. She liked the pedigree of the last contender.
“Let’s go for it” she enthused.
So we put in an offer. It was accepted. Three or four months later we surfaced in Vancouver, wet behind the ears as returning residents. And Nini loves the 3,200 sq.ft. house she had never seen before she moved in. Thanks largely to the husband who never was.