Sunday, November 8, 2009

Goodnight, Vancouver - October 2009

Fifteen months ago, I moved out to Vancouver. It was my first time there, except for a brief visit the month before, but I'd heard all sorts of good things about it, and I thought it was time I discovered a bit more of this country of mine. If all went well, I planned to stay there about a year, before either going home or moving on to another city. As it turned out, my time in Vancouver was variably successful, and I ended up staying well over a year. Of the fifteen months I was there, I worked for nine of them and was unemployed for the other six. The working months were an important growth experience for me, while the idle months were rather lonely and depressing. I enjoyed living in the city, but didn't fall in love with it the way I expected to. I'd been told before going there that Vancouver was a beautiful city, one of the best places in the whole world. It certainly has its strengths, but compared with my hometown of Ottawa, I'd say it's on par, nothing more. Let's see how the two cities stack up:

- Vancouver has the Aquarium and Science World; Ottawa has the Museum of Civilization, the Natural History Museum, and the War Museum.
- Vancouver has Bard on the Beach (a Shakespeare festival) in the summer; Ottawa has a load of music festivals.
- Vancouver has a swing dancing scene; so does Ottawa, and it's cheaper!
- Vancouver has mountains and ocean; Ottawa has hills and a river.
- Vancouver has mild weather all year round, including a lot of rain; Ottawa has four seasons, including bitterly cold winters and scorchingly hot summers.
- In Vancouver you can buy milk in returnable glass bottles; in Ottawa you can buy milk in convenient four-litre bags.
- Vancouver has Granville Island; Ottawa has the Byward Market.

Still, if people want to promote Vancouver as the best city in Canada, I don't feel the need to stop them. Those of us who live in Ottawa know it's a beautiful city, and we don't need anyone else to tell us so.

Things I will miss about Vancouver:

- Stanley Park: a vast nature park right next to the downtown!
- Granville Island: a great place to browse, if too expensive to shop.
- Grouse Mountain: a fun climb with a great view.
- My church: maybe a bit too liberal at times, but definitely a refreshing change from my much more conservative Ottawa church.
- AVEN: I don't know what the AVEN scene in Ottawa is like, but I got attached to the Vancouver community.
- Cheap, plentiful sushi: I hope I can find some in Ottawa!
- Bakery bread: I don't think I can go back to the regular kind.
- The Vancouver Central Library: one of the best features of downtown Vancouver, in contrast to Ottawa's cement cinderblock, which is a blight on the landscape.
- The Burrard Street Bridge and English Bay: my favourite view in the city.
- The blue of the ocean

At the end of September I moved out of my apartment – and, yes, back into the hostel. The next week was a transition period for me as I said goodbye to the city and wrapped up some loose ends. The first weekend of the month was Mid-Autumn Festival, and as I'd done last year I went to the Chinese classical garden where I sampled their moon cakes and listened to Chinese music. I also paid my first and only visit to Lighthouse Park in North Vancouver. I'd been meaning to go there for a while, but never got around to it. I'm glad I finally did, because it must have been one of the most beautiful places in Vancouver. If you're ever in the city, I recommend it.

The next week my mom arrived for a visit, and I moved out of the hostel and into a hotel with her. I spent the next week showing her around the city, going back to visit some of the best Vancouver locations, and eating way too much. On Thanksgiving Sunday we took a bus up to Whistler. As it turns out, Whistler is a pretty little town, but not very interesting unless you're into alpine sports. We did take a cable car up the mountain, though, where we had a lovely view of the scenery. When we got back to the city we stopped in a restaurant that was offering Thanksgiving dinners. Even though it wasn't home-made, it turned out to be a really good meal.

At the end of a week my mom flew home, but I had other plans. Ever since I'd come back from Hong Kong I'd had the idea of taking the train back from Vancouver to Ottawa. It would mean being stuck on a train without access to internet or a shower for days, but I thought it would be worth it for the chance to see more of the country. So that's what I decided to do. Once I'd seen my mom off, I went to the train station and checked in my luggage. For my last meal in Vancouver I decided to go out for sushi: veggie combo, eighteen pieces, for $7.40 (with tax). I bought a magazine special on Law & Order to read on the train. I went to the library to use the internet, and then walked back to the station in time to get my train. It turns out that the cross-country trains are rather nicer than regular trains: the seats are larger, with more leg-room, and they recline for sleeping. I was also lucky that there were very few people in my carriage, and I was able to spread my things across two seats. I got settled in, chewed through two-thirds of my magazine, and then drifted off to sleep as the train pulled away from Vancouver. I spent the next four days travelling across Canada.

Day 1: I wake up at dawn somewhere in central B.C. We're riding through a mist-shrouded, forested landscape. The only sounds are the rattle of the train and the low, melancholy ring of the wheels rubbing against the track. The whole scene is hauntingly beautiful.

I polish off the rest of my magazine, but I've still got a copy of The Economist, a book by Charles de Lint, and my entire X-Files collection, so I'm not worried. Around mid-morning we see our first mountains. We slow down to take pictures by something called Pyramid Falls, then again by Mount Robson, which is apparently the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies.

We cross over into Alberta during lunch. The conductor tells us to adjust our watches for Mountain Time, but my watch has never left Eastern Daylight Time, so all I have to do is stop compensating by an hour. Soon after, we stop in Jasper to stretch our legs. Jasper is a tiny town surrounded by mountains, and appears to exist entirely for tourism. I go for a walk, enjoying the scenery and the smell of clean, cold, dry winter air. Then I stop into a grocery store for snack food: rice cakes, oatmeal bars, and canned sardines (I've never had sardines before, but it turns out they're really nice.*) As we pull out of Jasper we pass a herd of caribou, and later on we pass what appear to be bighorn sheep, although I didn't even know we had those in Canada! I don't manage to get any pictures, unfortunately.

Day 2: I wake up just as we're leaving Saskatoon. I can tell we're in Saskatchewan because it's really flat; I'm actually surprised by how well the landscape is conforming to stereotypes. I adjust my thinking again for Central Time. The day is pretty dull, and I spend most of it reading and composing long-overdue blog entries. In the afternoon, the landscape becomes much more hilly and forested. We enter something called the Qu'Appelle Valley, and soon after, we're in Manitoba. That evening we stop in Winnipeg, but it's late, and there isn't much we can do except grab a snack and get back on the train.

Day 3: I've finally figured out how my reclining seat is supposed to work, but I've still slept fitfully for the third night in a row. When I wake up, my watch says 9:00, and this time I believe it. For the first time in days, the sun is out, and it lights up a landscape that seems to be all lakes and trees. This must be Ontario.

I'm thrilled to see the sun again, and the landscape is lovely, but by this time I'm getting seriously sick of the train. I'm especially tired of sitting down, sleeping badly, and not showering. We only get one short stop, in a small northern Ontario town, and I spend most of it walking up and down the platform. On the plus side, I'm half-way through my book and my blog's in pretty good shape.

Day 4: We pull into Toronto. I snap a picture of the C.N. Tower, grab a snack, collect my copious luggage, and board the train to Ottawa. Once I get home, I do three things I've been really looking forward to: taking a shower, eating a hot meal, and having a good night's sleep. In a bed. Horizontally.

All-in-all it was a somewhat uncomfortable experience, but worth it. I'll definitely have to go back and spend more time if I want to see central Canada properly, but at least I got a glimpse of it. I wouldn't do it again, but I'm definitely glad I did it this once.

In the news, Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize. For… I'm not quite sure what, and neither is anyone else, apparently. Not that Obama doesn't seem like a swell guy, but if you're going to award what's probably the world's most prestigious honour to someone, you'd better have a darn good reason for doing so – and "giving people hope" doesn't really qualify in my opinion.

T.V. shows I've seen this month:

– Well, not this month, but over the past year I've seen almost every episode (94%, anyway). I remember not hating it in high school, but it turns out it's actually a really good show – at least for its first five seasons or so.

Books I've read this month:

Three Cups of Tea
by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin – Pretty interesting true story about a man building schools in Pakistan.

The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan – Stories about Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. I appreciated all the references to Chinese culture, some of which I got, and some of which I didn't. I also found the characters surprisingly real.

* According to my mom, I did try sardines when I was a child – and hated them!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Hold On To That Feelin' - September 2009

The Labour Day weekend was my first free weekend in a month and a half. After my busy August, I decided that the best way to celebrate would be to spend the entire time doing nothing – or, more specifically, sitting in my room in front of my T.V. and watching a truly appalling amount of Star Trek. In three days I saw four of the movies (two of them for the first time) and eight episodes of the original series. Although I feel a strong, if grudging, affection for Next Generation and its sequels, I've always been quite antipathetic towards the original Star Trek, but the recent movie has given me a bit of an incentive to get into it. I'm now actually at a place where I can watch and enjoy it – much as one watches and enjoys Bugs Bunny cartoons, without ever taking them seriously.

At the beginning of the month my boss told me he would have to let me go at the end of September. That actually works quite well for me. I'd been planning to stay in Vancouver only as long as my job lasted, and once I knew it was ending, I started making plans to leave. I'm actually lucky that they kept me on this month. Enrolment has been quite low, and they've already let go most of the teachers they hired to help with the summer surge. Unfortunately, I lost the class I was teaching in the morning, which was at the intermediate level, and was given the beginner class instead. I found teaching beginners quite challenging, and not nearly as much fun as teaching higher-level students. Teaching the very basics of English – how to make five-word sentences, how to count to one hundred – isn't very interesting, and it's difficult to make the class fun while keeping it simple enough for the students to understand. Fortunately, a more experienced teacher was also teaching the same level, and she gave me a lot of advice and ideas about activities. On my last day I brought in icy moon-cakes to share with everyone, in honour of the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival. I was really sorry to leave, but I think I've learned a lot over the last four months. My boss had good things to say about me, and my co-workers were really nice about saying goodbye. I hope I can find another job like it in Ontario.

So far my only plan for when I return to Ontario is to apply to the JET Programme again. I didn't get in this year, but I still really want to go, badly enough that I'm willing to go through the whole process all over again! I'll be pretty disappointed if I'm unsuccessful again, but it would be worth it to go to Japan. In the mean time, I don't know what my chances of finding a good job in Ontario will be, but it will at least be nice to be home again.

Movies I've seen this month:

The Visitor – An interesting little movie about undocumented aliens and the challenges of the U.S. immigration system. I thought it was pretty good, although I wish it had focused more on the immigrant characters. (Three stars)

Plays I've seen this month:

Othello – I'd read this play before, and liked it a lot, but this was my first time to actually see it. It's definitely one of Shakespeare's better plays – not quite Hamlet, perhaps, but then, what is? Compared to his other major works, it's not the best-written, but it makes up for that with a pretty strong story. Moreover, the production I saw was really good, with strong performances from everyone, especially the protagonist. In fact, it was the best Shakespeare production I can recall seeing.

Books I've read this month:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain – I couldn't always tell in this book whether Twain was poking fun with his protagonist, or at him, but I prefer to think that he's doing both, and to see this book as an indictment both of the barbarism of the middle ages and of the "myth of progress" that dominates modern American thinking.