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Posted by aaron at 07:01AM, Tuesday, December 07th, 2004

Oh Canada!

Vancouver seems like a clean, modern, progressive utopia to me -- at least in the Summer. It has a very high urban density, which is self-evidently the result of enlightened planning. Skyscrapers cover the city, and they're not ugly, dilapidated concrete monstrosities; they're sleek and functional and organic and complicated and almost entirely glass, to reflect and refract the gorgeous light from the sound and the surrounding mountains. Prices -- for food, at least -- seem very reasonable in Vancouver -- shockingly cheap compared to large American cities. The politics seem enlightened (in the sense that yes, there are major North American cities where the two most pressing urban problems do not seem to be the threats of gay marriage and medical pot), and everyone seems very relaxed and happy, for the most part. Ultimately, I start to wonder where the Soylent Green connection is, to pay the karmic price of this much chill, down-tempo love; I half expect someone to run through the streets shouting "Stop! BC bud is made of people!"

Our adventure started in Seattle, which I found to be pleasant, in a typical West-Coast way, if a little devoid of pedestrians, and with sidewalks and roadways scaled more for radioactive marine dinosaurs than humans. We boarded an Amtrak train that took us up the coast, and arrived in Vancouver about two hours late. On the way, we saw stunning vista after stunning vista (mist-shrouded mountains rising from the sound, picturesque fishing boats wending silently through the fog, a dozen eagles and osprey, by which our train-mates seemed oddly unimpressed, etc.) After going through customs, which was pleasant enough aside from the crotch-sniffing dogs (were they checking for drugs? Who brings drugs from the U.S. into B.C.?), we hopped into a cab, with a cabbie who not only spoke English, but was nice, and talkative, and displayed no signs of homophobia. (Those of you of a more breeder persuasion may not know how tough it is for two or more not-super-butch guys to catch a cab in Boston, or how much discomfort a non-native middle-eastern or African cabbie in Boston can radiate on sensing he's transporting marriage-subverters such as we are.) We got to our hotel, the Sutton Place, where, in stark contrast to the Seattle Westin, the staff was efficient, honest, helpful, and pleasant, and conducted business mostly in various thick Canadian accents. We checked into our room, which had a glorious view, and poked around downtown.

The food, judging from our sample size of about half a dozen restaurants, is outstanding -- and, like I said, cheap, by Boston standards. Sushi tapas, New American, straight-up Sushi, and enlightened, veggie-centric sandwich shops with good bread were some of the styles we tried. Aside from a brew pub, which was only mediocre, everything was very good (one place, Parkside, was incredible, among the top five meals of my life), and the prices would have been between cheap and fair had they been in American dollars. In monopoly money, they were great. We tried some B.C. pinots with various meals -- something I've not seen on the East Coast -- and were quite pleased.

The shopping was also wonderful, if not quite so cheap. Tourist shops had neat native-made goods. Canadian pride was in evidence everywhere (our first full day in the city was Canada Day, and tourists and natives alike sported Canada pins, flags, and t-shirts everywhere we looked). Random shops had t-shirts cut for people who weren't insanely obese (that is to say, rather than having to buy an XL to find a t-shirt long enough to reach down to my waist -- only to see that it was meant to fit someone who could fill its commodious width with about 80 pounds more of fat than I have -- I could buy t-shirts, shirts, and jackets where, for instance, a size M fit me in all dimensions. Insane!) There were lots of funky shoes -- not just the latest styles for frat boys; or ugly loafers for businessmen; or funky but poorly-made shoes, which only come in size 7, for Eurotrash; or the nice, but 170-dollar, Ken Coles -- which comprise the extent of our selection in Boston.

The highlight (and end) to our shopping excursions was our (unintentional) visit to a personal fashion consultant in the gay village. We walked into a little shop that had some neat Diesel messenger bags in the window, only to be confronted by a short lesbian asking who sent us. The woman, who turned out to own and run the store, was a total trip; maybe just a little insane, but she knew her stuff. Brian was impressed at her ability to spot his jeans, and tell the size, year, style, and approximate price he paid right off the bat. She seemed impressed by her own client list, and the people she could tell to go away at the door. I was impressed by her ability to spot two guys she could charm, who would be willing to pay more money than we should for jeans; also, of course, by her stock, by her derision for all things Tommy ("Well, that's all just American shit, ja know?"), and, not least of all, for her ability to convince Brian he looked good in styles I'd been trying to persuade him to wear for years. Brian looks great in his new jeans and t-shirt, and we got the unparalleled entertainment of hearing her flip out about the drugged-up, hung-over "party boys" who tried to walk over the ladder she'd placed in the doorway of the shop after we came in, and didn't catch her hints that they should leave and come back later, until she finally kicked them out, then asked, rhetorically, "Do they think I'd sell my wonderful Swedish jeans, or my European clothes, to those jokers? Ja, right. Idiots." It's not every day that you see someone kick people out of her store because she thinks they're too uncool to sell to. I guess we're lucky we met her standards. Or maybe she just knew a good thing when she spotted Brian's Prada sunglasses.

Moving on from shopping, we walked through some of the city's parks. These were eye-opening, for north-easterners. Imagine a city with green space almost everywhere, where the Supreme Court building has an enormous Richard Rogers-esque green-filled atrium, and one of the three largest parks in a North American city is within walking distance of downtown. Imagine cedars and firs and mosses and huge ferns and National Geographic-style temperate rain forests standing just beyond rows of palm trees. Imagine huge, well-frequented changing rooms on the beach for bathers, unencumbered by paranoia about gay cruising (for that matter, imagine multiple beaches within walking distance of the commercial center. Or, since it's Canada, centre).

There are fountains, grottoes, and steps for sitting and looking at lush vegetation all over the place, and everyone goes there -- tourists, locals of all races and ages, homeless, teenaged street hippies -- rather than just the drugged-out homeless, sad derelicts of the Viet Nam war, which is pretty much what you see in Boston, except at lunch hour during the week, or at Pride. Now imagine that "everyone" includes more demographic groups than just "professionals on their lunch breaks" or "tourists in to see the flowers;" imagine if everyone included middle-easterners, Indians, Pakistanis, Japanese families and tourists, residents of Japanese or Korean or Chinese or Vietnamese descent, transplants from Toronto, Viet Nam War draft-dodgers from California, surfers, families, tourists, hipsters, hipsters carrying old-school Leica rangefinder cameras, hipsters carrying digital Leicas (seriously, I saw two people with Digilux 2s in one day; wow), retirees out for a stroll, etc. etc. This is a melting pot in a way I haven't seen around home, ever.

On the subject of lush vegetation, the weather we saw was spectacular; there was a little drizzle and mist, but it was sunny at some point every day, and beautiful for all of two days. The climate we saw reminds me of nowhere as much as San Francisco. Plants are huge and shockingly green; flower gardens are filled out to a degree they won't be here in Massachusetts for a few more weeks, by which time they'll start to get singed by the Summer sun; tropicals and succulents and deciduous trees and perennials and evergreens thrive together in Eden-like profusion. We asked our waitress at our last meal if the winters were cold. "Oh yeah, it gets down in the 50s, maybe even the 40s." She seemed incredulous when we told her how much snow we got in Boston this winter.

Vancouver isn't perfect, obviously; perfection is a bit of a naive idea, I suppose. Still, the planning here seems very rational and humanist, and that alone makes it better than at least 95% of U.S. cities. Imagine if, instead of investing billions in a Big Dig that really just made it easier for suburbanites to drive to the airport, and created a lot of leaky tunnels and revenue for defense contractors, but did nothing appreciable for mass transit, Boston had invested in downtown redevelopment that substantially increased the housing density within walking distance of both the waterfront and the park, including a lot of mixed-use zoning, and had dramatically increased infrastructure for electric surface-level mass transit, all with the aim of stabilizing housing costs and reducing dependence on cars for city dwellers. That's the kind of crazy thinking I'm talking about. When I put it that way, it suddenly sounds odd that more cities can't do what Vancouver has done. Obviously, a mostly new city has a lot of advantages when it comes to building from scratch (that's not to say that Boston didn't seize a lot of property to build the central artery, or that it couldn't have put said property to more constructive use). Other new-ish cities like LA don't seem to be doing a lot to curb sprawl and increase density, either (remember the LA streetcar system? Me neither.) Places with sizable natural barriers to growth -- in this case, water and mountains -- have to face sprawl a lot more directly and urgently, which I think is a big advantage.

I certainly wouldn't mind seeing slightly more hard-edged modernism in Vancouver; the architecture, while pleasant, was generally a little bland. Still, it seems to be a great walking city, and the skyscraper architecture, the use of space and light and proportion, helps that a great deal. I'll concede a little blandness if that's the price of the other advantages. And, culturally, there seems to be a lot going on to compensate for any blandness.

Vancouver itself wasn't the only thing that left me awestruck about our stay there. These days, it's tough to get any outside perspective on what the world thinks about the U.S., at least here at home. Even American liberals and leftists are living in a reality-filtering bubble regarding news and world events. It's fascinating to read editorials and letters in the Globe and Mail, especially those pertaining to U.S. politics. The beastly debate over gay marriage here seems to be a bit of a joke in Canada, where, if the papers are to be believed, the overwhelming opinion is "can we please stop talking about this already? It's not an issue. It doesn't affect straight people, it's good for gays, and it helps us feel better about our view of ourselves as a forward-thinking country, so just shut up already." Canadians seem to view the U.S. as a backwater, which, unfortunately, has a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons; with the man whose finger is on the button a religious nut-job; where the constitutional hoo-ha about separation of church and state is so much hypocrisy; religious wackos in general have too much power in government; and celebrity culture is over the top. Our chief exports, as they see it, seem to be war, the aforementioned celebrity culture, and corporate misconduct. They think our news is a joke, and we are rabidly paranoid about everything. The link between our behavior and growing global anti-American sentiment seems pretty direct, when viewed from Canada.

While such views aren't exactly vastly different from my own, it's a bit astonishing to see them so frankly articulated in mainstream news, be it on TV or in the national papers. At home, even in "liberal" Boston, people look at you funny if you dare give voice to what's on everyone's mind. Abroad, you might afford the luxury of thinking these viewpoints are hooey, but you come up against American paranoia pretty directly as soon as you try to reenter the country.

We had to go through customs when boarding our train back to Seattle. Customs is fine, of course; I've been through it many times. We presented photo IDs to the woman at the counter, and she glanced at them -- then demanded to know which of us had stopped wearing glasses. Now, I'll admit that both I and my husband are men, slightly over six feet tall, with brown hair, and with similar weights. Still, when one has a photo ID to consult -- and that photo ID lists different eye colors for the two people standing in front of one, as well as comparative evidence of their appearances -- this should be an unnecessary question. I don't so much mind the question itself; I mind the odd, caustic, mocking, sneering tone of it. Brian explained his glasses were in his bag, and the woman, still sneering and derisive, waved us through. We started walking forward, which was evidently a mistake, since she barked a "No!" at us. Brian asked which way to go, and she said "Look around, use your eyes." Now this is just downright weird. There were no signs, and no one to wave people through. We started following the two other people we saw going through from their checkpoint, and the woman, in a sickeningly patronizing tone, said "That's right, good."

I don't mind being asked questions. I understand the importance of guarding a border. I do mind feeling like Homeland Security personnel are trying to play mind games with me as part of some elaborate lie-detection process. I'm paranoid enough to see more than just a touch of 1984 in that, and it freaks me the hell out. I would think this was a one-time occurrence, except that I noticed the same fake-pleasant-with-a-hint-of-menace weirdness and strange, incoherent, off-putting and disorienting questions the last time we crossed the border, coming back from Montreal into Vermont, a couple months ago; and again, over a year ago, crossing in the midwest. This behavior is disquieting, and it's bad PR for the image of America abroad. I happen to think it's also downright un-American. Picture the no-nonsense, upright, honest icons of America's ego from the middle of the last century -- picture Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart -- spouting such strange, sneaky, espionagey psycho-probing nonsense. I can't. It's not in my image of being American. It's more like the greasy Nazi weasels Bogey was always defeating.

I hate that.

Next we went through the X-ray inspection. Brian thought this process was run by Amtrak, and I thought it was run by Homeland Security. We didn't have to put our luggage through X-rays coming from Seattle to Vancouver, so this didn't seem to be an issue of train security as much as border security. I asked for a hand inspection of my film, since I had a lot of undeveloped slide and print film I'd taken between Minnesota and Vancouver. The X-rays they use for carry-on and checked baggage in airports these days are much higher-powered than the ones they had in the 90s, which were safe for film. They're not safe now, particularly for slides, which the new machines are very likely to fog. The FAA and Homeland Security have made provisions for photographers, though -- there are prominent signs that must be displayed when going through airport security, alerting passengers to the danger to their film, and informing them of their right to hand inspection. My film canisters were out of their boxes and in a transparent zip-lock bag, to make this all easy. The inspection had taken all of two minutes last time I went through the airport security check. Once I found out our stuff was getting X-rayed before we got on the train, I assumed the procedure at the train station would be identical to the airport.

When I asked for the guy behind the X-ray machine to hand-inspect my film, he refused, and told me just to put it on the conveyor belt. I said no, I wanted it hand inspected. He murmured something to the effect that he couldn't, and when I asked why not, said he didn't have time, then that there was no one to do it, then that there was no superior he could contact, that there was no one to help him -- the standard litany of feeble, inconsistent excuses one tends to hear on these occasions. I explained that the FAA always allowed passengers to have film hand inspected, and asked why this was different. I was trying to be polite, but I was starting to get pissed at this guy's refusal to help me, particularly as he seemed to be, like the customs agent, sneering and smirking a little, taking vindictive joy in his refusal to help. Five minutes later, after consulting with the constable on the scene, and after another annoyed passenger berated the rude security guy, we convinced him to radio for an assistant. A friendly man who spoke better English appeared and explained that these were different, "newer" X-ray machines that wouldn't fog film as long as it was under 800 speed. I'm not sure I quite believed him, but I appreciated his much better attitude, and plonked my film through.

I understand that the rude guy probably gets paid shit money. But that's the decision of the people who hired him, and if hiring people who don't speak English very well as a way of avoiding offering real train-customer service (and, incidentally, of avoiding being obligated to follow Homeland Security procedure) seems like a good idea to them, they're retards. This isn't this guy's fault, but it's not good karma for him, or whoever he works for, either. And I'm sick of this stuff marring the experience of entering what should be the best country on Earth.

We finally got on the train and made our way South. We stopped at the border for Homeland Security to board the train. Those guys were pleasant enough, and affable; but still, they were a troop of big men with guns and jack-boots, boarding a train, and checking everyone's papers. That's all pretty ominous, and my store of pop-culture memory resonates unpleasantly with images of Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman being hassled by the SS. As the Homeland Security guys were walking through our car, a buzzer or clicker started going off, and they got animated. They ran back and forth for a minute, and then one of the guys asked, "Has anyone on this car had a recent medical procedure?" The little old lady behind us put two and two together and mentioned she'd had a GI scan with a radioactive substance, and was that what was setting the Geiger counter off? They said yeah, that was probably it. Much joking ensued; her cute little old lady companion said "Oh, she was hoping you'd haul her off to be searched!" and they tittered about that. The nice ladies did a great job breaking the tension, but, again, this all strikes me as much more Third Reich than the America I grew up in, and I had to wonder who would be stupid enough to try to smuggle fissionable materials into the U.S. via a train, rather than along the thousands of miles of woods that mark the border. How much does all this have to do with preventing terrorism -- and where are the metrics to prove that -- versus just instilling fear in the populace and visitors, and stifling dissent by making it feel extremely intimidating to do something as innocent as try to get Homeland Security guidelines observed while putting your luggage through the X-ray machine?

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful. It was quite a shock after Vancouver, which, again, strikes me very much as my idyllic vision of what the City of Tomorrow would look like, to come back through this. What a horrific image foreigners must have when they first enter the U.S. these days, and how paranoid and adolescent America must seem. How relaxed and sensible Canada was in comparison.
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