Why Vancouver? Why You?
7 essays that came close to making the top ten
Thank you all for submitting your entries.
To help me with this essay, I asked my ESL students, “What does Vancouver present to newcomers?” They shared an honest, sometimes startling, collection of observations: Sneaky moss; coffee galore; free tennis; city folk who look like they are going camping; dogs in houses; potheads; the smell of rain; “nerds” on bicycles (no offence); healthy seniors; boating traffic; Prince-of-the-world attitude; Chinese signage; tofu brains; complaints if the temperature lies outside 19 to 21 degrees; yoga wear; Haida artworks; laughing at the rest of Canada in March; and freedom of expression. But the question posed in Shelly Fralic’s column is, Why Vancouver, Why YOU? For me, Vancouver is about grass, flamenco, and roots.
Grass is a luxury. It soaks up money and water, just sits there, doesn’t DO anything, neither shelters nor feeds. Nevertheless, ask anyone, “Have you ever lain in Vancouver’s soft grass with someone you love, head on his/her belly, gazing at the sky?” You run your hands through its green silk in June, yellow rustle in August. You sit on it and have extra long, intimate conversations with friends, nieces, or passing strangers. Picnic optional. You pad through it bare-foot when your shoes start to pinch. Rest on it when you’re weary. Make music from its blades, necklaces from its miniature daisies, blow wishes from its dandelion puffs. Pick your teeth with the long wild stuff. Collapse on it when you are sad.
While Europe’s cobblestones are beautiful, I do think about the poor Parisian enfants growing up there without grass. Many foreign cities do have beautiful appearing grass, but on closer inspection, it is coarse and spiky, or laced with mud. Many renowned parks sentinel their grass, “Look, don’t touch.” Beach destinations are often sea, sand, and mushrooming hotels. Vancouver’s parks and beaches, meanwhile, even the margins of its roads, are lined with comely grass. For rich or poorly, it’s free to all. Vancouver’s grass is democratic.
And yet, man does not get high from grass alone. There is also duende, the trance that ensorcelates via the beauty, intensity and complexity of flamenco. North America has two bastions of el arte. In the United States, it’s Albuquerque. In Canada, it’s Vancouver. We boast five studios where you can learn the dance, song, or guitar. With our two flamenco cafes, this may be the only place outside of Andalucia where you can take in sangria and Sevillanas almost any night of the week. Lose yourself in the percussive rhythmn or plangent cante. Performers with years of arduous and committed training happily share their artistry withyou, and all they request in return is a small donation into a basket. Local impresarios import the best talent from around the globe. Flamenco aficionados belong to a vibrant Vancouver sub-culture which is always happy to welcome newcomers.
Beyond grass and flamenco, the main reason I live in Vancouver is because I was born here. People transplant themselves to Vancouver from elsewhere; the fortunates who were born here don’t leave. Lore has it my ancestors were the first Jewish family to birth a baby here. They had planned to detrain in Winnipeg, but the Louis Riel Rebellion was unfolding, so they stayed on board till the end of the line. The early Jewish community settled mostly in Strathcona, the city’s oldest residential neighborhood. On the corner of Pender and Heatley Streets, you can see Vancouver’s first synagogue. It’s an apartment block today, but you can still make out some of the Jewish symbols. Nearby is Jack Benny’s sweetheart’s house. Vancouver’s second mayor, David Oppenheimer, as in Oppenhiemer Park, secured land for a small Jewish cemetery. My ancestors are buried there among its roughly hewn headstones and shaggy grass.
In the 1950’s, plans were afoot to raze the old buildings of Strathcona, its bachelor boarding-houses, Buddhist temples and Ukrainian churches, and replace them with “modren” apartment blocks. My father joined the movement to protect the area from the wrecking ball. Strathcona is now the neighourliest of Vancouver neighbourhoods, where folks perch on their front stoops, greeting passersby. Corner stores and cafes are tucked inside its residential streets. These days, the heritage homes of former Japanese fishers and railyard workers are being lovingly restored to their original “true colours” of ochre and deep purple. Strathcona has grassy parks, and even a flamenco studio.
Do yourself a favour, and take time to enjoy Vancouver’s unsung treasures. Raise a glass to our sowers of seeds, artists and visionaries, builders and pioneers. You could make a toast while you’re watching a flamenco juerga, or sneak a sip from a brown paper bag while you’re lolling on our soft green you-know-what.
Semifinalists - 10 essays that can still win! Voting continues