the vancouvers*

Old and new, the view from my hotel this morning.



On the left, corner of Homer and Pender, Finch’s. The best sandwiches ever.  Down the street, bookstores, a place (Button, Button, on Homer) to buy shell buttons in bulk, and where I am now, sitting by a bay window, looking out at misted streets? The wonderful Victorian Hotel, built as a rooming house in 1898, now a very comfortable and reasonable hotel, with good beds, a generous breakfast (French pastries, baguette, fruit, yoghourt…), and walking distance to theatres, restaurants, old streets, and those sandwiches.

*I mean by this that there are many Vancouvers and in parts of the city, one can apprehend the layers—the cobbled streets, the old buildings, remnants of signs remembered from childhood trips to the city (Woodwards Department Store Ltd), Victory Square, the copies of poetry books from the 1970s on the shelves of MacLeod’s Books (along with what must be one of the oldest carpets in the city), the markets of Chinatown with ducks hanging from hooks and bins of dried mushrooms. This morning, looking out, I saw many of the layers, and sort of mourned for the old city.


“A map of houses and days, of secrets and details noticed by a child fiercely in love with the pattern trees make with their shadows…”


We spent a few days in Victoria, visiting Angelica and Sahand, and it was (as usual) a time of great pleasure and wistful nostalgia. They live in the neighbourhood where I spent part of my childhood; in fact, they are a block away from my elementary school, the one in which I sat near a window and gazed out at Moss Rocks, thinking of the wildflowers on its sunny slopes, and wondering how many more hours I had to sit in the classroom before I could take the path over the rocks and home. We lived near the Ross Bay Cemetery. My mother would say to us on summer mornings, “Go play in the cemetery. I don’t want to see you until lunch.” I rode my bike down its quiet lanes and I had my favourite graves. Some of them were the graves of children; I cried by a small stone armchair with an empty pair of shoes, the grave of D.B. Campbell, who died in 1913 at 17 months of age, “a little hero”. I used to lie on the warm grass and listen to water. Impossible, my father said. But I knew I heard water. It wasn’t until about 2005 that I found out about the buried streams under the cemetery and in fact throughout Fairfield. I gave the experience of listening to water to Tessa, one of the main characters in my novel, The Age of Water Lilies. And like Tessa, I also played in the yard of Stewart Monumental Works where men engraved tombstones while children darted among the slabs of granite and marble and buried each other in the sand beneath a crawlspace under the building. “A map of houses and days, of secerets and details noticed by a child fiercely in love with the pattern trees make with their shadows in sunlight, of the softening touch of moss on an inscription set in motion in a box canyon where lovers lay in dry grass and dreamed of a future now collapsed by violence. Off the edges of the map, the world settles its story and what can anyone do but remember the route water takes through the decades on its singular journey to the sea.” And much earlier than any of this, the Lekwungen people used the creeks as transportation corridors through their territory. A place contains so many layers of history, so many occupations, so many stories. Sometimes, if the light is right and we are attentive enough, we can apprehend something of this richness. A house, a grave, a creek, a case of masks in the Royal British Columbia Museum with information about the Winter Ceremonials to remind us that our own experience is recent, that the ravens we hear in the yews at the cemetery are the descendents of those who inspired the Crooked Beak of Heaven.

And then a night in Vancouver — John was reading at the Vancouver Public Library as part of the Vancouver Writers Festival Incite Series — where we stayed in our favourite hotel   (speaking of history):   It’s kind of quirky and the breakfast room is always in yet another stage of renovation but the rooms are comfortable and the rates are so reasonable, particularly for Vancouver. (And imagine, you get breakfast too: wonderful croissants and baguettes with fruit and coffee.) When you sit at the table in the window of your room in the morning, you have the sense that you are truly somewhere. Not just anywhere, but a place, a location, a building with echoes of its making in the brickwork around the windows, the little glimpses of other buildings around the corner:

from the Victorian Hotel

The hotel was built as a guesthouse in 1898 and occupies a corner in what might be termed a “transistional” neighbourhood. But on the other corner, Finch’s — the best sandwiches in the city: we had fresh baguette stuffed with sliced free-range eggs, butter lettuce, dijon and mayo, and thick slices of tomato. Nearby, Sikora’s, for cds (some of us will probably never learn to download music. I still don’t know what an ITune is). And around the corner, The Paper Hound, a marvellous independent bookstore.

Driving away from the Victorian, along Hastings yesterday, I saw the Marine Building ahead of us, cradled by a curved glass tower in morning sun. The new, the old. The Marine Building is one of the most beautiful structures in Vancouver. It was built in 1929-1930, with Art Deco carvings and plasterwork and a Mayan effect in its upper stories; at 21 floors, it was the signature skyscraper of its time. You might not notice it if you’re walking along Hastings or Pender, listening to your ITunes, but if you look up, there it is. Unforgettable.

marine building