Vancouver – A Baptism of Fire
17th July 2014. The Big Day has arrived !
The alarm sounds loudly. I slap it off – there will be no Snooze button today. In an attempt to forget just how much I am not a morning person, I instead take a moment to get my head together before sailing off into the unknown.
I am, I realise, both incredibly excited and a little pensive. Excited, because, let’s be honest, three mates let loose on the world are probably going to have a good giggle. But a bit pensive, because the idea of spending pretty much all the hours God sends with two people, undertaking the pedestrian task of crossing a land mass 22 times that of France, from North to South, without using train, plane or bus, is, call me old fashioned, a bit daunting. But, like Michael Jordan (I imagine), I just take a breathe and lace up my shoes.
A bowl of cereals and a sip of orange juice later, and Ivan and I find ourselves outside Matthieu, AKA Sheepy’s house – we call him that thanks to his soft, gentle nature. We barely have time to do our secret handshake and shout « Sharing Bros » before Slav, our driver from Djump – a car sharing service and, happily, a partner, picks us up to go to the Airport.
That’s where everything picks up pace : Mum gets a kiss, the grinding of the Ring-Road, queuing at check-in, the friendly pat on the bottom through security, boarding, a few films, a limp chicken salad so lacking in meat a vegetarian could happily enjoy it, and, best of all, watching the little plane fly over the big blue ocean on channel 99 of the fight TV. Then, a little snooze, a few nuts, and we’re there.
So, now what ?
Arriving at a foreign airport without the possibility of using the Underground or a Bus is a bit like bringing your own food to someone else’s dinner : if you have a good reason to it’s fine – it can even be nice – but nevertheless it feels rather strange. You need to think outside the box. And so we arrived at our first « Blue Sky thinking » brainstorming session, the purpose of which was to work out how not to break our cast iron pledge to only travel using the collaborative economy a whole 13 minutes after arriving ?
Where could we find people with space in their cars that could drop us off into town ?
The Drop-Off Point !
Four minutes later, and we’re sat in the back of a pick up truck, with our first transatlantic friend Dwayne. As Canadian as it gets, Wayne likes salmon fishing, skiing, his two girls, and Chuck Norris. We chew the fat together, talking about us, about him about everything and nothing. It’s marvelous. Everything is going well. The adventure can really get going !
Dwayne of course is the first friendly face to welcome us to Vancouver : Mai, Priscilla, Tobias, Hilary, Nathalie, Franck the Champ’, the Chamber of Converse Quartet, Joseph and so many others. Thank you all !
Vancouver – The Green Giant
It’s 10 in the morning and we’d just scoffed down a good half a dozen pancakes. Sheepy is flushed, whereas Ivan pleases the waitress with his ‘feed me’ smile. For my part, I try and perfect the Quebecois accent, with, it must be said, very limited success. Bloated, but satisfied, we decide to stretch our legs along the Burrard Bridge. It’s quite a view: To our right there are mountains, and below, clear blue water. We stride off to the centre of town. It’s a bit like Disneyland – everything is new, exciting. The world is a playground. Our playground.
Cars follow each other, yet are completely different: a suited lady drives a Smart. A butcher follows in his pick-up. Then a businessman in a Mustang, or a Chinese teenager in a BMW 6 series. We end up at West Hastings St. This little metropolis is the place to be seen for any self respecting Sloane or Preppy young thing. There are offices of start-ups, Amsterdam style « Coffee Shops », shining buildings, some tourists. (And us). But 50m away, East Hasting Street, or « Miracle Place » is like Silicon Valley for crack addicts or dealers. In a nice display of community spirit, they sell any surplus and sort out their next hit. The next street along is Chinatown. Everything is in Chinese. As you’d expect.
You get the picture. Everything is crazy. Kind of.
That’s the funny thing with Vancouver. Everyone that lives there must feel different, and alike in that difference: Old, young, Asian, Western, rich, poor, urbane or rural, everything seems to fit. And everyone seems to know each – other: People chat on the bus, wave on the Metro; strangers dance in the bars.
We do what we can to integrate. Sheepy speaks about sport (presumably ice-hockey) with someone on the bus, whereas Ivan, to universal surprise and admiration, dusts off his rudimentary Mandarin to introduce himself to a Chinese person. His new friend replies in Mandarin. We have no idea what he said, but we happily assume it’s a Chinese proverb about travelers and then try and get through a rather awkward silence together.
You really do feel that Canada is a cross between the United States and Europe. The locals have a capacity for enthusiasm for anything, whilst still keeping something of a reserve that reminds us of good old’ France. Meanings are clear without being obvious, and you have to stay on your toes to read between the lines, and to work out that some things are simply not done: Sheepy had the crazy idea to cross the street while the light was red – his gung-ho manœuvre was met with utter outrage and disgust from pedestrians and motorists alike. #howtolosefriendsandalienatepeople.
Of course, not everything is sunshine and rainbows in Vancouver. It has some of the highest living costs in North America, and rental cost account for up to 70% of household income, which doesn’t leave a lot to play with at the end of the month.
Vancouver also faces a problem of social isolation. Whereas elsewhere this problem is often associated with the elderly, in Vancouver the 25-34 age group also suffer. As the Vancouver Foundation explains in its report, the never-ending stream of new arrivals causes problems of integration, which often lead the migrants to feel alone and isolated.
« In Vancouver, everyone is friendly, without necessarily becoming a friend. »
– Brennan, one of our Couchsurfing hosts.
Far from being pessimistic though, many see a great potential. I think in particular of people like Hilary, an active member of Share Vancouver, an organisation that promotes and facilitates the collaborative movement throughout the region. For them, the collaborative economy gives the possibility to : a) better manage and share resources, and b) to meet like-minded friends. This doesn’t seem all that crazy, particularly since Vancouver is gunning to become the worlds Greenest City by 2020.
Equally, its probably no coincidence that there are so many collaborative projects around the place: Modo (a car sharing cooperative) Suite Genius and the HiVE (office sharing and co-working hubs) and Tool Library (a DIY and tool exchange centre) to name but a few.
For more info about the collaborative Vancouver, check out the Bro’s Gazette!
Vancouver then, is Johnny Depp. Its elegant and charming, without being pretentious. Independent minded, it’s accessible whilst still being quirky and offbeat. It doesn’t try to impress or dominate – simply because it doesn’t have to.
Equally for us, it’s like a first love. On our collaborative adventure, its shown us more than a few things, and prepared us for what comes next. And whilst there will undoubtedly be others that come after, your first love is often the most special.
Thank you to everyone for a crazy and interesting week!
Particular thanks to : Dwayne, Hilary, the Chamber of Converse, Franck the Champ’, Margarete & Jeremy, Mitchell & Josh, Nathalie, and everyone else who made us so welcome. And last but not least: MAX! For his swift prose and kind assistance in translating this article.