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Stateside With Rosalea: North Of The Border

It is an astonishing season for azaleas and rhododendrons. Peach and pink, mauve and red, they are everywhere in total bloom. And by everywhere I mean from the Bay Area, where I live, to Vancouver, where I’m visiting for my annual vacation.

Vancouver is a city of bridges, apartment blocks and shoes. Every conceivable style of shoe, fancy or casual or athletic is for sale here. The apartment blocks all through the city – and especially the new condos being built down by Coal Harbour – give it a similarity to Hong Kong. The bridges are splendiferous in their variety, from the graceful harp-like bridges for the monorail to the utilitarian Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, so named because of a fatal construction accident that took place when it was being built in the fifties.

Vancouverites seem to like their unions. The transit drivers have been on strike for 60 days now, bringing the bus and ferry commute to a halt and damaging businesses near public transit terminals and along the routes. But there is scarcely a mention of the inconvenience the strike is causing the city from anyone I speak to, and the cover page of one of the local freebies shows a young woman dressed for the office clutching her skateboard. Posed, no doubt, but there are plenty of people around on rollerblades and bikes and I don’t think it’s all recreational.

My recreation consists of strolls through this beautiful University of British Columbia campus, where you can stay in a student hostel during the summer vacation for the princely sum of $37CDN a night. OK, so the taxi into the city costs $20 each way, but that’s still a good price for a private bedroom in a 4-bedroom apartment with a shared bathroom, kitchen, lounge and balcony looking out towards English Bay. The swimming pool and rec center are just across the way, as is the student union building, which has some good eateries.

I like being this far from the city, away from roads and throngs and television. My sporadic forays into the tourist world often leave me bad-tempered and glum, but it’s been worth doing the obligatory tourist bus tour around Vancouver and Victoria on Vancouver Island, if only to hear the strong opinions of the tour guides. I also went on a Coal Harbour cruise, which had the added bonus of going by a logging ship that was being loaded.

A big boom of logs had been towed alongside the vessel – presumably from way up the Fraser River - and men were walking around on the logs tying them into bundles so they could be lifted up on to the deck. That and the float planes coming in to land against a backdrop of Douglas firs were the icing on the cake that is tourist-book Canada. (Or is that ‘the maple syrup on the pancake’?) Whatsmore, in a souvenir shop in Victoria I found a fleece lumberjack shirt – needed for the sudden drop in temperature – and that was enough to make me forgive that city all its pretentiousness.

I suppose that having been brought up looking towards England I feel that British Columbia’s capital city suffers – not benefits - from its ‘quaintness’. For the price of another night at the hostel I could have had English tea in the Empress Hotel, but since I remember such things from my childhood and Bertie’s Tearooms on Broadway, Stratford, I was spared the need to authenticate the colonial theme park experience in such a manner. American tourists throng here, having been cruelly starved of being a colony by the Boston Tea Party among other things.

In Victoria I visited the birthplace of Emily Carr. She is a sort of Frances Frame, if you will – a cross between Frances Hodgkins and Janet Frame. She was studying in Paris at the same time as Hodgkins, came back to Canada and decided to preserve pictorially the totem poles being destroyed and forgotten so went up into the NW forests and painted watercolours of them. She was unknown as an artist until the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recorded readings of the little book she’d written about her experiences during that time.

Now she has an institute of art and design named after her in Vancouver, and a big exhibition of her work – both word and vision – has just opened at the Royal British Columbia Art Gallery in Victoria. Her birthplace is preserved in much the same way I suppose the Katherine Mansfield House is - period furnishings and household regalia with interpretive displays linking her art and writing to events that took place in the house. The ancients had it right when they said that all attempts to lionize giraffes end up with the giraffe getting eaten anyway.

Emily Carr wrote. She painted. She kept a monkey for a pet and suspended chairs from her ceiling because she hated clutter. That’s all.

You’re right. I’m jealous. Moreover I’m miffed that not one but two different people came up to me in the lobby here and asked if I was a vision teacher, but not one person has come up and asked if I’m a writer. This is also a conference centre and teachers of visually impaired children are here at one conference; members of the Canadian Writers Union are at another. I hope that lack of instant recognition of a kindred soul is simply because writers are less gregarious!

Oh, I didn’t mention the other thing that Vancouver is full of. Australians. Every fifth person is an Aussie, I swear. Studying here, working here, traveling here. And it has hedges and fences, something people down in the Bay Area don’t bother with since they’re responsible for their sections right to the edge of the curb. In some California suburbs house-owners don’t even leave the sidewalk there, forcing people to walk on the road. I guess they must drive anywhere and think everyone else does too.

As Marie Antoinette would say: ‘Transit strike? Let them take cabs!’

Lea Barker
Vancouver, Canada
Saturday, June 02, 2001


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