IT is not beautiful.
Its architecture, for instance, stinks. Its winters drag on and on. Its summers could be tactfully described as “sporadic,” but more truthfully summed up as “glancing.” They touch down briefly for refueling, en route to somewhere else.
Its mosquitoes are voracious, its birds -- overcompensating -- are too loud. Its lakes are man-made; its beaches, faux.
To get around from one absurdly named suburb (Tuscany) to the next (Saddle & Sirloin -- I kid you not), you must take hideous freeways, with nothing to commend them but the speed with which you can proceed from entrance to exit.
Yet I love Calgary, and nine years after we relocated to Vancouver, it still feels like home.
It wasn’t always thus. When I first moved to Cowtown (for love) in 1980, I was appalled by its appearance, in particular its nondescript bungalows. Used to the handsome old brick houses of Ontario, and that province’s glorious maples, towering elms and stately public buildings, Calgary’s virtually tree-less, austere ’50s aesthetic seemed ill conceived to a snobbish and insular 22-year-old. Why did the city planners and builders elect to go with all that flatness, I wondered. Why the devotion to stunted saplings?
I had no appreciation for the fact that when a snow-packed wind barrels down on the prairies from the mountains, one hardly wants a house that stands on tip-toes in the middle of the storm. Likewise, those suburban “saplings” might have been 50 years old. Decades of unwelcome June blizzards and beloved January chinooks had confused the poor things so they hardly knew whether to grow up or down. Just last week – nearing the end of May, for goodness’ sake – most trees in the city were just starting to sprout new leaves.
So it took a long time for me to understand the merits of a place where people prize other people’s company over natural beauty, household decor or the arts.
Not that they’re lacking in any of those departments. Of course there are the spectacularly beautiful Rocky Mountains hovering on the horizon, and locals use and appreciate them. When it comes to home decorating, in boom times especially, Calgarians pay as much attention to sprucing up their houses as anybody else in Canada. And the city boasts thriving theatre, dance and visual arts components.
But what Calgarians do best is love and treasure and welcome in their friends.
It’s a prairie thing.
A few years ago, I wrote a big report for VANOC on lasting legacies of North American Olympic Winter Games. One of the reasons for the success of the Salt Lake and Calgary Games was the astonishing spirit of volunteerism both events enjoyed, something that continues to this day. In my interviews with people who headed volunteer agencies in each city, it emerged that they had long been national leaders in that arena.
I was told that this strong volunteer culture was rooted in farming communities, where people really have to rely on each other. Historically, if your barn burned down, your neighbours would get together and help build you a new one; and when their barn burned down, you’d be right there to return the favour.
In Salt Lake, big-hearted farm folk were complemented by a large, equally generous Mormon population, with grand results. Meanwhile, in Calgary, the city’s central celebration -- the Stampede -- was always organized by volunteers. Former Stampede Board honcho Frank King eventually became CEO of the Organizing Committee for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games. So a tight, supportive community is simply the norm there.
Not so much, here on the Lower Mainland. For one thing, we have fewer barns. Additionally, we have almost no fear of getting hopelessly lost in a snowdrift, or requiring a tow from a buddy in -40 C.
We simply don’t need each other -- or at least, we think we don’t.
My theory is that people here have too many alluring alternatives. Everything is laid out -- beaches, mountains, ocean, great restaurants, good shopping, stimulating art. Friends tend to take last priority, after exercise, gardening, hobbies and home redecoration projects. The outward appearance of things -- including one’s self -- seems to be of primary importance for many. Maybe that’s because when you live in such a beautiful place, you are already fixated on that aspect of life.
Of course it’s lovely to be surrounded by massive trees and bowers of rhododendrons of every hue. And to the naked eye, there are few pastimes more inviting than, for example, a balmy beach picnic on a local shore. But for me, there’s something missing from that picture. The night at the beach is not great because of the beach, it’s great because of the friends at the beach with you. The slow, mellow sunset, the lapping waves, the prospect of seal sightings -- these are mere varnish.
Sure, you can enjoy such an evening with passing acquaintances, and the experience might even turn them into friends. Ideally, time plus affinity equals intimacy, but most of us know there’s a lot more to making a real friend than that. Your true friends are the people who know both your foibles and your worth, as you know theirs. You’ll stand by each other no matter what the physical or emotional temperature. Metaphorically speaking, you help rebuild each other’s barns every time you meet.
Great friends are as good as family. So I’d suggest that if you have lots, you ought to nurture and treasure them -- but if you do have lots of friends, you already know that. Whether or not your income levels coincide, your favourite things become their favourite things, and if by chance the dinner gets burned so all the group has to eat is humble KD instead of a feast, it doesn’t matter. You are delighted to get together.
I admit that a glorious summer night on a North Shore beach is almost impossible to beat. I just came back, however, from a visit to Cowtown. Its buildings and roadways are still eyesores, and I noticed a familiar chill in the air. But my, what warmth there was in the Calgarians themselves.