If you’re a Calgarian desperately seeking Vancouverdom, be careful what you wish for
By Kate Zimmerman
(Swerve magazine, February, 2012)
February in Calgary. It’s so cold that your eyelids creak when you blink outdoors. You’ve discovered that the freezer-burnt smell that’s been following you around is your feet. And then you see a newspaper photograph of a trim, rosy-cheeked Vancouverite—it might even be the city’s hunky mayor, Gregor Robertson—cycling past a field of crocuses in his shorts.
Who cursed you to live here? Why haven’t you joined the hordes who’ve made the move from all over the world to temperate Vancouver, where great skiing is 15 minutes’ drive from downtown’s cherry blossoms, ivy runs so rampant it’s considered pesky, and locals refer to a GoreTex anorak as “my winter wardrobe”? Hold on a sec, though. If you’re not one of the 20,000-plus Albertans who relocate to the province of B.C. every year, maybe you’re savvier than you thought. You might have suspected something folks out on the Wet Coast just officially discovered—that it’s lonely out there.
Yes, in a regional district of more than two million, loneliness is Vancouverites’ big complaint. As part of a 2011 research project, the Vancouver Foundation, which manages community endowment funds, interviewed 104 community leaders from an array of backgrounds, ages, ethnic groups and incomes about their most important concerns. Number one was “isolation, its consequences and the craving for connection.”
In response to an open-ended question about what bothered them most, many said that “they feel isolated within their own community,” said the Foundation’s Summer 2011 report. They felt disconnected from the various cultural and ethnic groups that populate metro Vancouver, didn’t know their neighbours, worried about the general lack of civic engagement, and described the city as “fragmented, disjointed, split along economic, ethnic, social, even geographic lines.”
I admit to a certain degree of smugness at seeing the Globe and Mail report on these findings in a story it called “Alone, so alone, in Vancouver.” I’ve been complaining about loneliness in my adopted city for years, often to skeptical Calgarians who spend their holidays merrily tromping through our rainforest. My husband has had two career moves that brought us to Vancouver from Calgary, the last time in 2001. This lovely city offers many pleasures; still, as we enter our 12th year here, we constantly dream of Calgary, where, when we visit, our generous, exuberant friends are as eager to seize any chance to see us as they were back when we lived there.
In those days, we got together all the time, no matter what the weather. At home in rainy North Vancouver, weekends come and go with nary a phone call. If we want to play host, we have to book people weeks in advance. As carpe diem types, that’s never been how we roll, so most of the time we roll alone.
On the Lower Mainland, the mere act of getting together is a hassle – something that never occurred to us in Cowtown. Vancouver city planners seem to have chosen beauty over connectedness years ago. Unlike Calgary, where freeways such as Deerfoot Trail allow drivers to get from here to there relatively quickly when it’s not rush hour, Greater Vancouver resisted this unsightly, if practical, approach to getting around. That tends to put the kibosh on spur-of-the-moment get-togethers. If, like us, you live in North Vancouver and want to meet at a beach on a sunny evening with friends who live across the Burrard Inlet in Dunbar, it will take one of you a good 45 minutes of stop-and-go traffic to make the get-together happen. And the tempting antidote of convivial drinks will have to be severely restricted in order to safely drive home. When I visited a sick friend in White Rock at Christmas, it took me an hour to get there and, because of traffic, two to get back. No wonder we see each other infrequently, and, since it’s no fun to drive at night in thepouring rain, it’s usually over lunch.Our kids, 21 and 17, have grown up here and have made lots of chums at school, work and the skateboard park. It’s we adults who are doing the whining. As it turns out, we’re not alone—at least, not in our unwelcome sense of solitude.
Of course, many experts have addressed the topic of the growing distance between people in general as, increasingly, we work solo from home and go to our gadgets for entertainment. Vancouverites use social media more than anybody else in the country—I suspect in lieu of face-to-face fun. A whopping 40 percent of the city’s social media users polled by Angus Reid in 2010 claimed they couldn’t imagine their lives without it.
It wasn’t hard to find ex-Calgarians with personal experiences that back up these research findings.
Raj Taneja is both popular and totally wired. Nevertheless, says the personable IT consultant, world traveller and Vancity resident of 16 years, “Vancouver has always been a lonely place for me.” Apparently it’s not enough to be warm and attractive if you want to have a social life there—you must have a concrete strategy. Taneja, who was born and raised in Calgary, found it so hard to get to know people that he took matters into his own hands, helping to run two successful social clubs.
Eryne Ordel joined one of them. A Vancouver native, she spent several years working, going to school and happily socializing in Calgary. “I meet people all the time who say Vancouver is a really hard place to meet people,” says the 28-year-old fashion, public relations and marketing manager. Ordel says she makes friends instantly everywhere she travels. Vancouver is a different story.
Having an outgoing personality has also proved insufficient for former Calgarian Rina Chong, a 34-year-old sales and marketing director. Chong has no problem breaking the ice in Terminal City—it’s progressing beyond social pleasantries to genuine friendship that’s the challenge. Invitations to dinner parties, for instance, are rare, except from her fellow Calgary transplants.
Being gainfully employed is no guarantee of office homies, either. Before Ordel got her current job, she worked at a company with 1,000 other people. Of those, she says, only one became a friend. Vancouver’s office workers “get in, get out,” Ordel explains. They don’t “do” lingering; they’ve got the gym or their lengthy commute on their minds.
Non-native Vancouverites often comment on the cliquish or “silo” mentality exhibited by locals who’ve constructed an impenetrable wall around the friends they made in their youth. Once they “have their 30,” Taneja says—meaning their 30 key friends—many of them seem to slam the door and set the alarm. It’s not just social awkwardness that steers their behaviour, in Taneja’s opinion; sometimes it smells like old-fashioned fear of strangers.
Vancouverites don’t just define their friendships on the basis of how long they’ve known you, but also on whether you share the same neighbourhood. In this sprawling city, the desire to connect only with people from your own neck of the woods plays out in the dating scene. Chong learned early on that most of her fellow singles wouldn’t pursue any potential romance that would demand they cross a bridge. She doesn’t get that—she’s constantly buzzing around town in her vehicle. But many urban Vancouverites don’t have cars. They can’t be bothered to take public transit or spend money on cabs in the mere hope of getting laid.
Chong lives near English Bay in the city’s West End. She loves Vancouver’s blend of sophistication and outdoorsy-ness, but finds its citizens’ lack of sociability puzzling. “I’ve heard that people don’t want to get that close to you because they invest time in you and then you leave anyway, because it’s such a transient city.”
It’s true that Vancouver tends to function as a way station, a place for goal-oriented people to pause for R & R between better career opportunities. In 2011, for instance, there were 94,000 foreign students attending post-secondary institutions in B.C. It’s unlikely they’ll settle down for good in the province’s biggest city.
“Vancouver is a really terrible place to do business,” says Taneja, who’s considering a move to bustling Bangkok. “The head offices left when the NDP came into power [in 1991]. A lot of them went to Calgary, a lot of them went to Toronto. So those high-paying jobs, where there’s room for advancement, where there’s a place for an ambitious guy to go, just don’t exist.”
As a result, men with ambition that extends beyond a perfect round of hacky sack at Spanish Banks tend not to stay in Vancouver. Meanwhile, the Beta males who remain on the Coast aren’t doing much to cure female loneliness. In a January 2012 Vancouver magazine article by Katherine Ashenburg entitled “Do Vancouver Men Suck?” a disgruntled single female asked rhetorically, “What are the main activities here? Dope smoking and yoga. Neither generates much mojo.”
If Vancouver men “suck” from a woman’s perspective, the women don’t get high marks either from their male, er, opponents. One online respondent to Ashenburg’s story, a single Mexican fellow named Jorge, described trying to strike up a friendly conversation with members of the opposite sex on buses or at the beach. No matter how innocent his opening remark, he writes, the woman’s eyes would flick desperately away and her hands would clench. Anywhere else in the world, Jorge continued, he might get rebuffed, but he could at least speak to a female stranger without setting off every alarm bell in her psyche.
It’s tempting to blame the city’s Scottish roots for the lonely mess it’s in. The Scots had such an influence on Vancouver’s history that there’s a statue of poet Robert Burns in Stanley Park. Last summer, a Winnipeg friend of Scottish descent told me that the Scottish approach to life can be summed up by this remark, best delivered in a thick brogue: “There’s a stranger. Let’s throw a brick at him!”
This mistrust of others readily aligns with Vancouverites’ predominant values, which Ashenburg sums up as “the importance of image, self-actualization, enlightenment and personal fulfillment.”
What about achievement? Examining the bigger picture? Connecting with your fellow man? Meh.
Urban planner and researcher Andy Yan, who works in the office of renowned architect Bing Thom, has a more sympathetic view. He believes Vancouver is a young city that’s still trying to find its feet as it transforms from a sleepy working-class burgh to a global metropolis. Yan, 36, points out that his hometown was only formed in 1929, with the merger of the cities of Vancouver, South Vancouver and Point Grey.
Thus, “Vancouver has yet to write its story,” Yan says, adding that every great city needs one. New York’s metropolitan identity centres on the American dream of rising from nothing to create your own success, he says; L.A. has its Hollywood mythology. In my opinion, Calgary’s persona is a celebration of persistence, resourcefulness and a cheerful determination exemplified by the phrase, “Let’s get ’er done!”
“What is the narrative of Vancouver that can connect everyone together?” Yan asks, noting that the city’s densely packed condominium buildings hardly invite camaraderie. “We’ve attempted to backfill this (void) with consumerism, with stuff, whether it’s skis or bikes or snowboards or the latest designer threads from all over the world.
“I don’t find my meaning in my stuff—I find meaning in my friends,” he adds. “I find meaning in my community.”
But how do you create a cohesive sense of community in a city where two out of three people come from outside the province, Yan asks, citing figures from Statistics Canada, and where 40 percent of residents emigrated from another country entirely. Next to Toronto, Vancouver has more foreign-born residents as a percentage of its total population than any other major North American city. And it’s not like these newcomers have any shared history on which to capitalize when they arrive from such disparate regions as the Middle East, China, India, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.
“We are truly a city of immigrants, all trying to find our respective places,” says Yan, who lives in an enviable-sounding East Vancouver enclave where his Italian neighbour shares his homemade prosciutto and people shovel each other’s sidewalks on the rare snowy day in Shangri La. Yan wonders about the identity some Vancouverites favour, an emerging demographic called “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability” (LOHAS), which focuses on health, fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living and social justice. He fears it may define Vancouver’s emerging story line—that of “the Lululemon economy.”
Maybe that stretchy, synthetic raison d’etre accounts for Vancouver’s ungraspable ethos. This is a place where any Peter Pan can thump his bongos on a beach for hours without anybody observing that it’s a Tuesday morning and he ought to have more productive things to do.
Indeed, for many, life in Vancouver has nothing to do with work, and everything to do with following their “bliss.” If, as a newcomer, your hobby happens to mesh well with others’, you might have a built-in community. If you’re an avid mountain-biker, a “burner” (Burning Man enthusiast), a perpetual joiner of groups, or gay, you’ll likely fit into a pre-existing clique that welcomes ardent newbies.
“It’s sort-of a hobbyist’s city,” says Calgarian Zak Pashak, who founded Cowtown’s Sled Island festival, still co-owns its Broken City Social Club and owns Vancouver’s cabaret The Biltmore. Pashak moved from Terminal City to Detroit in 2011 to start a commuter bicycle business. He has his own tongue-in-cheek definition for Lotus Land: “Vancouver —where 25-year-olds from Calgary go to retire.”
He loved the pick-up games of kickball, soccer and street hockey he got to play year-round when he lived on the Coast. “That’s why I didn’t decide to settle down there,” Pashak explains. “It felt like retirement a little bit. After a while, I thought ‘I’m going to end up being an old man who’s hung out for a long time.’”
Pashak thinks the 2010 Olympics warmed locals up, and the constant influx of energetic Calgarians is making the city a friendlier place, at least for the young. Maybe. I’m still looking to make a real connection with native Vancouverites who have Calgary-style joie de vivre and appreciate good company. A couple of anecdotes say it all.
Last year one of our best Calgary friends, Brian, learned that his family’s housekeeper’s son had been injured in an accident in Vancouver. The housekeeper wanted to visit him. She would need a vehicle when she got to the Coast, but was too distracted to drive there. Without thinking twice, Brian left his own family, hopped in his car and drove her the 12 hours to Vancouver. He slept at our place and flew home. That, to me, is Calgary style.
Meanwhile, a few years ago, my father was gravely ill in Vancouver while my mother had terminal cancer. We’d been buddies with a couple of Vancouverites for about seven years; the man referred to us as their “best friends” and they had few others. They’d enjoyed many Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving dinners with our extended family, but during this sad and stressful period, they were completely M.I.A. There were no calls to see how we were doing, or invitations for tea or a walk. After my father died, with my mother on the wane, I had brain surgery for what turned out to be a benign tumour. When our “best friends” got wind of this through the grapevine, the man called to express his concern, and asked how long we’d known about the tumour. “For about six months,” said my husband pointedly. That was the end of the conversation, and the end of the friendship. They mailed me a card. We haven’t heard from them since.
Say what you will about generalizations. My thesis is this: For the most part, Calgarians know the difference between what’s important—the people in your life—and what isn’t. Many Vancouverites haven’t yet worked that out. Yes, in a good year, we have daffodils inching up in February, and you don’t. Here’s what I say to that: Big effing deal.