It’s December tomorrow.
Seriously, how is it possible that Christmas is just around the corner??
My last post was about New York, so today I’m posting again about that city. Here is a photo I took when I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art two years ago to check out their Christmas tree. This is an annual display in the Met’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Surrounding the tree are figurines from a Neapolitan Crèche dating from the Baroque era. The detail of these figurines is exquisite.
New York at Christmas time is magical — almost (but not quite!) as magical as Paris. Two of my closest friends are in New York this weekend, taking in the Christmas spirit, and I’m so pleased they get to experience the magic for themselves.
Everybody should, at least once.
A month ago today (a month? already??), I flew home from New York City. Here’s a photo I took from the High Line while I was there.
I love visiting New York. It’s one of those cities I return to every chance I get because there’s just no place like it. New York has all the energy. All the energy.
I was surprised when I stopped to count and realized this last visit was my fifth time in the Big Apple. What was also a bit of a surprise — when I stopped to think about it — was that it took five visits to make me realize that New York is not an easy place to live.
I guess I’ve never stopped to think about how, in New York, you do the kind of things that make up a life. Like where you buy your groceries. Where you walk your dog. How you cope with a minuscule apartment (because apartments in Manhattan are ti-neeee!). Or how far you might have to commute when you work in Manhattan but can’t afford to live there.
That’s not to say the Canadian cities I know best (namely, Vancouver and Toronto) don’t have their problems. But as I rode the A train all the way from Manhattan to JFK to catch my flight home, it hit me that all those exhausted faces I was looking at had to ride that overcrowded train every single day.
I won’t describe my week in New York as relaxing — New York is never relaxing when you’re trying to squeeze in as many museums and performances and restaurants as possible. But it was a good break from my work and my life.
As all weeks away should be.
It’s the end of an era today. At midnight tonight, Greyhound is suspending all services in Northern Ontario and Western Canada. The decision is justified, says the American-owned company, by a 41 percent drop in ridership since 2010.
Greyhound moves millions of Canadians every year, and has done so in British Columbia and Alberta since 1929. For those rural Canadians who don’t or can’t drive, losing the Greyhound means losing their ability to get to larger centres for services not available in their communities, like specialist medical appointments. It also prevents them from connecting with friends or family. And during our snowy, icy winters, travelling through mountainous BC is far safer by bus than by car.
It’s already being reported that 87 percent of Greyhound’s routes will be covered by smaller, private operators — including Indigenous-owned companies — which are ramping up as we speak. This morning the federal government announced funding to help fill the gaps and that it is working on a long-term national transport solution.
My student days of 18-hour Greyhound treks between Edmonton and Vancouver are (thankfully) long behind me. (I assure you, there is little that is more depressing than a 3 a.m. rest stop at Blue River in the dead of winter.) But I still regularly take the Greyhound for short hops between Calgary, Red Deer, and Edmonton. I typically take it during non-peak hours and the buses are always full. My fellow passengers are people of all ages and social classes. Many are tourists. Some of us choose to take the bus, while others don’t have a choice, In a country like Canada, with too much geography, public transit is not just a service. It’s a right.
This photograph is of the last Greyhound I will ever take in Canada, which I rode from Calgary to Red Deer last month.
Recreational marijuana, as of this month, is now legal in Canada. This has caused a flurry of media attention and a raft of bad puns.
The sentiment in Vancouver seems to be that October 17, 2018, was a non-event. Because, well, this is Vansterdam, after all.
It took a mix-up about a long-haul flight from Amsterdam to wake me up to the fact that Vancouver has a thriving underground drug scene. The mix-up started with me wandering up and down Schiphol’s cavernous terminal one morning, many years ago, looking in vain for the Air Canada check-in counter. As I retraced my steps, I noticed an information desk with a small Air Canada sign above it in an out-of-the-way corner.
“Hi,” I said, handing the agent my ticket. “I’m booked to fly to Vancouver today through Toronto. Where do I check in?”
The agent looked at my ticket, then he looked at me, then he looked again at my ticket.
“We don’t fly to Toronto today,” he said. “Weren’t you contacted about the new timetable?”
“No…,” I said, slowly. “Nor did anyone say anything about a timetable change when I checked in for my outbound flight two weeks ago.”
He started tapping his keyboard.
“I need to get back to Canada today,” I added. “I have to be at work tomorrow.”
“We’ll get you on another flight,” he said as he typed.
True to his word, in no time at all, he handed me a new ticket and a boarding pass. I was now booked on a KLM flight direct to Vancouver. And by the time he was finished with me, there was a line-up of people behind me, no doubt all of them wondering what had happened to their flights back to Canada.
Some ten hours later, I was going through the usual routine that seems to take forever when you’re jet-lagged: the long walk through the international terminal, the long wait at customs, the brief chat with the customs officer, the long wait at the baggage carousel, the handing of my customs form to the customs officer at the exit doors….
Which is exactly where the routine stopped being routine.
“Please go through there,” he said. That woke me up. He was pointing to the room where they send you when they want to search your luggage. Groan. Why me?
A customs officer waved me over and told me to set my suitcase on the table in front of her. She looked at my customs form and asked to see my plane ticket, then opened my suitcase and proceeded to look through my belongings.
She looked at my ticket again.
“You bought this ticket this morning?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I bought it months ago.”
She continued looking through my suitcase and asked me about every non-clothing item.
She’s being awfully thorough, I thought.
“You bought a one-way ticket this morning?” she asked me again.
And then the penny dropped. She was looking for drugs.
“Oh!” I said. “No! I bought the ticket months ago, but Air Canada changed its timetable and didn’t think to let me know, so they booked me on the KLM flight to get me home,” I explained. “There were a whole bunch of us.” (Except it wasn’t until later that I remembered the “whole bunch” was put on a flight to Toronto, whereas I was likely the only traveller flying all the way to Vancouver.)
My story seemed to satisfy the customs officer. She told me I could close up my suitcase and go on my way.
(As an aside: I don’t know how Canada Customs knew that my ticket had been issued only that morning — this was pre-9/11 — but that incident made realize that my government watches me in many more ways than I will ever know.)
Back to the beginning of my post. Pot is simply so not part of my world. Yes, I occasionally notice a pungent odour when walking along one of the beaches in this city. Sometimes I see people smoking up on the street. Whatever. But for me to be suspected of being a drug courier? That’s a laugh.
However, in the past few years, Vancouver’s status as the Cannabis Capital of Canada has become too obvious for even head-in-the-clouds me to not notice. That’s because of a federal program allowing the production and sale of marijuana for medical use that went into effect in 2013. The number of pot dispensaries in Vancouver jumped from about a dozen to almost a hundred. But only a quarter of them were approved by Health Canada and so, in 2015, the city council passed a bylaw to regulate and license the dispensaries, much to the disapproval of our beloved federal government. The city’s response was that it was taking action because the federal government had failed to do so.
The bylaw requires dispensaries to pay $30,000 for a business licence, and they are not allowed to operate within 300 metres of a school or community centre or another marijuana dispensary. And so, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to regulate the sale and distribution of a drug that was illegal under federal law except for medicinal use.
Fast forward to this month. Canada is only the second country in the world to legalize marijuana for recreational use. (The other is Uruguay. Contrary to popular belief, marijuana consumption in the Netherlands is tolerated, but not legal. Kinda like Vancouver before now.) Smoking laws must still be obeyed, so you can only smoke up where it’s legal to smoke cigarettes. In Vancouver, that rules out the beaches and parks. And, erm, the building I currently live in.
As of today, 19 of Vancouver’s medical marijuana dispensaries are licensed, 46 have land-use approval but no licence, and 75 are operating illegally. The illegal ones have been advised to shut down until they are provincially licensed to avoid prosecution — and I noticed the other day that my closest medical pot dispensary is shuttered.
Incidentally, I went through customs at Vancouver Airport on October 17, exactly an hour after recreational pot became legal in the province of British Columbia. Lo and behold, there was a new question on the declaration form: Was I bringing cannabis into Canada?
Just as I wasn’t all those years ago when I flew from Amsterdam to Vancouver.
I can’t imagine pot tourism coming to Vancouver anytime soon, but with recreational marijuana still a budding industry, who knows what the future holds? The tourists might come for our scenery, but stick around for the unnatural high.
That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.
Maybe all of Canada.
One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.
Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.
The story has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.
Another island I hopped to this summer was Salt Spring Island. I go here often, thanks to the hospitality of one of my dearest friends.
These Highland cows are at Ruckle Farm on Salt Spring’s South End. Salt Spring has a long agricultural history and Ruckle Farm — founded in 1872 — is one of the oldest farms in the province. It is still being farmed by the Ruckle family.
Fun fact: Highland cows are a Scottish breed of cattle and my friend who lives on Salt Spring Island is a proud Scottish-Canadian.
Just though I’d mention that.
One more note: The haze in this photo is due to the smoke from BC’s wildfires, which blanketed the southern coast of the province the weekend I was on Salt Spring Island.
I did a bunch of island hopping this summer — one of the perks of living on BC’s West Coast. My first stop was Galiano Island. I took this obligatory sailboat photo at that island’s Montague Harbour.
When the temperature drops ten degrees in two days, you know that September is just around the corner. Wildfire smoke aside, it’s been a fabulous summer here in Vancouver and this photo is a metaphor for my current mood.
These cheerful umbrellas are part of a public art installation in Yaletown called Underbrella. It was put up back in May as a way to celebrate the time of year when we Vancouverites put away our umbrellas and start worshipping the summer sun.
And that we have done.
Toronto is many things to many people. For me, it is the city where I found my tribe, in that clichéd manner of speaking.
It’s where I moved to strike it out on my own as a young university grad. Back then, employment prospects in the Vancouver area — a region still struggling to rebound from a recession years after the rest of the country had recovered — were slim to non-existent. After a year of working at a dead-end job, I realized I had no chance of a meaningful career if I stayed. I didn’t know what I would find in Toronto, but I knew I wanted my chance to find out.
And so I loaded up my trusty Honda Civic with my belongings and drove across Canada. When I arrived in Toronto, people were shocked I hadn’t arranged for a place to live — the vacancy rate in the city at the time was close to zero. But as I perused the postings at the job centre, I knew I was in the right place. Toronto was booming. And, despite the naysayers, I soon found a place to live — a small post–World War II bungalow near Yonge and Finch that I shared with a college friend and some other people. The neighbourhood was called North York, but I knew it as Willowdale.
Back then, Willowdale was very much a white, suburban neighbourhood — not nearly as diverse as it is today. I had easy access to both the subway and the 401, but I was eager to move closer to downtown. I left Willowdale for Davenport — a neighbourhood on the edge of one of Toronto’s Italian neighbourhoods — and then, a few years later, on to Roncesvalles Village, the centre of Toronto’s Polish community. Another neighbourhood I got to know well was the Danforth, the largest Greektown in North America. Many of my friends lived there — still live there — and it is where I now stay when I visit Toronto.
This is the thing: Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each one as diverse and different from the others as one person is from another. It’s what makes Toronto feel like a small town, even though it’s so much not.
Once my Civic was unpacked, I signed up with a temp agency to give myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do next, which soon led to a permanent job. Grad school was beckoning, but so was a real job, and within a year, I was launched into the world of publishing, an industry that to this day I find extremely satisfying to work in. For that opportunity, and for the life-long friends I’ve met working in the industry (they would be my tribe), I will always be grateful to Toronto.
So when Toronto is hurting, so am I.
I started writing this post a few months ago, after the van attack in North York that killed ten people. The stretch of Yonge Street where all those people died on a sunny Monday afternoon in late April was the stretch of Yonge Street I drove or walked on an almost daily basis my first two years in Toronto. I wasn’t at all surprised that someone I know knew someone who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the attack. It’s a small world, after all.
Sometimes words fail and I gave up trying to write about what I was feeling at the time. But it has not been a good summer for Toronto. Once again, tragedy has hit close to home. Last Sunday’s shooting on the Danforth began only a block away from where a close friend of mine lives, and she missed being on the wrong street corner at the wrong time by a mere 15 minutes.
I’m still not sure I have the words I need. Hashtags are well meant, but I suspect will soon be forgotten by most of us in today’s world of five-minute news cycles.
Those five-minute news cycles are the result of our constantly changing world. I was reminded of this yesterday in my own neighbourhood. The garbage and recycling bins on Davie Street were taped shut in preparation for last night’s fireworks and city dump trucks were parked at the end of my street to prevent a van attack. Precautions like those are the new normal, but, truthfully, they do not worry me, just as going through security at an airport does not. I walk the streets of my neighbourhood in full confidence that I will return home again.
Sometimes the difference between making it safely home or being in the wrong place at the wrong time is only a matter of minutes. Why someone is spared and another is taken are questions we will never know the answers to.
What I do know is this: I have never felt unsafe on the streets of Toronto, nor do I believe I ever will. And I can’t wait until my next visit, when I will stroll the Danforth with my friend on our way to dinner on a patio.
Because there is nothing better than hanging out on a warm summer evening in one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in the City of Neighbourhoods.