I warn you now, this is going to be a long rambling post…..
If you ever fly into Vancouver airport, the approach to the runway that sits on the edge of the ocean is either from the East or the West. If you are lucky, the plane will approach from the West; coming from Europe the flightpath will follow the coast mountains, descending towards the snowy peaks that hug the shoreline. The plane will then arc out in a semi circle over the ocean and fly directly towards land; a glittery, reflective city in the distance, perched on the edge of the continent, surrounded by water, mountains and evergreen trees will come into view as the plane glides in over the ocean, touching down just as it reaches land. I think it’s one of the best air approaches in the world…..and this view is most rare, because in order to see this sight, it has to be clear skies. And Vancouver is not known for abundant sunshine.
Our road approach to our final destination from the East was not so romantic, but still interesting. Leaving Kamloops, we needed to cross another mountain range using the Coquihalla highway, the most direct and least populated route to the coast. It is a bit of a crazy road with huge climbs and descents, and we were firmly back in classic BC territory with forest on all sides. The final descent out of the mountains was pretty epic, and as we left the altitude, the road flattened out and we reached the Fraser Valley, which stretches all the way to the Pacific.
The first town in the valley is called Hope, and has definitely seen better days…but dig around a bit and there are a few surprises. Anyone remember the Rambo film First Blood? It was filmed in Hope. We went to the tourist office to ask for directions to some of the Rambo sights, but were also directed to a place called the Othello Tunnels, which I had never heard of, but where everyone seemed to be heading that day. It is a beautiful walk along a path, through interconnected man made tunnels, into a very narrow gorge, which has a crystal clear river running through it. It was a most surprising detour.
Then it was back in the car, and another two hours to the city of Vancouver. The Fraser Valley at it’s most Eastern point is full of farms, producing great produce, which again you can stop at road stands and load up on fresh fruit and vegetables. At the Western end of the Fraser Valley, the Greater Vancouver area begins, which has continuously grown and sprawled out over the last 30 years.
The arrival by road was certainly not as dramatic as the one by air, but it was full of relief, and accomplishment to a certain extent; when we started out on May 26th we had a rough plan to cross the country; but actually realizing and executing that plan has been fun, rewarding, educating, tough, hot, and full of amazing experiences.
So, to Vancouver. AKA: Rain City, Lotus Land, Hollywood North, Van Kong, Hongcouver, City of Glass….
Canada’s third largest city has many things and (paradoxically) almost nothing in common with the big two in the East (Montreal and Toronto). The geography and climate are so totally different from any of the other regions. Montreal and Toronto exude the history of European settlers and the beginnings of Canada….Vancouver has managed to transform from provincial outpost to an Asian influenced midsize city within 30 years. Like Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver is urban and diverse. It is a place built on immigration and evolution. The Vancouver that I left 14 years ago is certainly not the Vancouver of today, which is a good and a bad thing.
The geography that surrounds the city is its great calling card. There are few places in the world where you can kayak in the ocean in the morning, be skiing on a mountain overlooking the city in the afternoon, and then pop into a modern, clean, multicultural city for dinner. Vancouver came into its own when Asian investors began developing the city in the 1980’s. The result was a dense downtown core, surrounded by water and populated by glass skyscrapers where people actually worked and lived, contrasting typical North American cities that are generally punctuated by highways to the suburbs.
The climate in Vancouver and the surrounding areas is not your typical Canadian environment. Generally, it does not snow in Vancouver. Yes, you heard correctly. It rarely goes below freezing in the winter. I have explained this patiently to many people in England, only to be dismissed as being crazy. I then sarcastically tell them that I grew up in an igloo, and that seems to satisfy them.
But what it does do is rain. Constantly. You may be able to walk outside in winter wearing your shorts, but you are going to get wet. It’s not for everyone, but then again, the minus 30 degrees the rest of the Canada experiences in winter is not for everyone either. And besides, when summer comes, it’s glorious.
Vancouver is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world. I would have agreed with that when I moved to England 14 years ago, but this notion has been severely tested in recent years. The Asian money that transformed Vancouver from sleepy backwater has made housing virtually unaffordable today for most people on average wages. Asian investors have ploughed money into real estate and then left houses empty, creating ghost neighbourhoods in the most affluent areas. This is a phenomenon being repeated across the world – we have seen the impact first hand in London. What makes Vancouver different is the lack of big business and industry. London is a financial powerhouse; Vancouver is essentially a resort town where people park their money. The ideal city where people live and work is disappearing, and with it the sense of community and responsibility.
But, after all these years it’s still home. England is home too, but Vancouver has always been deep in my veins, and even with its problems, I think it’s still a very nice place to live.
The other day, we went to Spanish Banks and Locarno Beach to the West of downtown Vancouver and looked out to the entrance of Burrard Inlet; I was instantly reminded of The Narrows in St. John’s Newfoundland, the harbour opening that looked east to Europe. Now we were in another harbour, facing West towards Asia. There’s a big country in between, trust me.
The long Canadian travel journey may be finished, but another one is starting. There’s a lot to do to when you emigrate. I’ll continue to post about my experiences and reflections as a returning expat….who knows what will happen next.