My Summer in the City of Glass

Note: This is a very long blog post, covering my whole summer. Luckily I’ve made titles for each article! So If you just want to scroll to a certain part you can– the middle part talks about my experience, my actual thoughts on the city of Vancouver is under the banner “the Sun, the Beach”.  Enjoy!

 

 

Big explorer much?
Big explorer much?

            The air is changing: it smells like a new room in Totem, like a new city and all the fear that came with it. The leaves aren’t dying yet, but their edges are crisping yellow, like dipping your feet in the water before the big plunge. It’s dark at eight. It’s September before it’s September. Day before the ending, day before the beginning.  Around UBC future first years are already tramping around in packs of ten, chanting for their faculty wearing purple blue or red. I can hear them (and their terrible club music) as I meet with an academic advisor twelve floors above in Buchanan Tower. “Yup, looks good,” he tells me, looking over my transcript. “Keep going like this and you’ll be ready to graduate this spring.”

            So how can I not be at least a little bit thoughtful these days?

Cue series of overtly symbolic pictures saturated in sentimentality (classic Liam). Full sights for the west!
Cue series of overtly symbolic pictures saturated in sentimentality (classic Liam). Full sights for the west!

            Trying to write a working conclusion to how this summer was/is/will be has been basically impossible. It was so much easier in Paris: that had a pretty succinct beginning middle and plane-ride ending, and everything that happened in the four months managed to piece itself together by December 23rd in order to write a heartfelt (exceedingly long) blog post about everything that went down. With this summer, even a kind-of beginning is ambiguous: do I count this as one long summer term– the space between April and September– and count my sleepless spin with the Boulevard; do I start when I started my real job, Explore with Langara; when the Explore students actually came; or around July, when it actually started to get nice– no, really fucking incredible? Vancouver’s a mild place: a sunny day in March feels like May, a rainy day in June feels like April. So it’s difficult to say.

            But also worth saying. Because this summer has been everything I wanted it to be: probably the first summer I could really call a ‘summer’, that concept created by California movies and “Beach Boys” songs– the days in the sun, the nights with friends, the beaches, waters, new adventures.  There’s a lot about this summer– despite working full time, holding down an internship, and taking a six credit course– I’d call ‘idyllic,’ the way I never could about a summer in Winnipeg. More than that, though, it’s also the summer I needed. Oh God I fucking needed it.

 

Get a Grip, Make Some Coffee

 

Prairies in my window: do I stay or go?
Prairies in my window: do I stay or go?

            If I was floundering in February, I was drowning by April. When I came back from exchange the feeling dogged me that I was stuck in the same motions as second year– same apartment, similar classes, same city– only this time everything was bland and stale, while everyone else (with their first term lives) had moved on. A bit of a ghost.  Since I’d never done a summer in the city, I hoped beyond a clue it’d be different if I stayed past April, putting all my hope into the UBC Work Learn program, paid internships. They’re pretty great. Problem is, pretty much the rest of campus thought they were “pretty great” too, and after a week of endless cover letter writing, I didn’t get a thing. One interview, and one very very nice connection who told me I had all the right spirit and none of the right experience. Which is to say, nothing. I’ll spare the details of exactly how terrible I felt– it’s beyond the scope of this post– but I don’t think I’ve ever been so stressed or felt so inadequate.

            The thought of going back to Winnipeg was–frankly– terrifying. Beyond an even blander sense of déjà-vu, last summer had taught me that Winnipegers don’t hire students that are gonna clear out in September. But I had nowhere to stay and no money to pay for anything. I was feeling worthless, cynical, hated the city I’d chosen to live in three years ago.

            So what then? I clenched my fists and moved the hell on with it. My good friend allowed me to stay at her place for the month, and a week later I found a job as a barista in an artisanal coffee shop on campus. Working there, they didn’t make much of a distinction between coffee crafting and factory assembly lines, where interactions with the customers were sacrificed for speed and efficiency, where shifts began at 6 AM, where a joyless manager watched the rest of us from her security cameras in the backroom. But I never let it seem like something I didn’t want. It was a job; it was money— it was the means to allow me stay in the city that was quickly turning into (mid-May) the most gorgeous city on Earth. It meant finding those amazing moments between the sweat: making a great connection with a customer, or singing HAIM songs loudly in the morning, waiting for that first bus, because you’re the only one around in that mist.

            I do find it strange now how happy I was in those couple weeks. Even though I’d come home and just collapse onto the couch, or have to leave parties early to get up at 5, I never let myself complain about the place. Honestly, after having what was probably close to a mental breakdown in April, all I wanted was a job that got me up in the morning. If I’d stopped for even a second there’s a chance it all might have fallen apart again.

The Observer from its window
The Observer from its window

            Although really, it was probably my time at the Vancouver Observer that kept me going. The Observer is a grass roots new source which has been garnering a lot of buzz recently because of its committed reporting surrounding tar sand, pipeline and Indigenous treaty issues within BC and western Alberta. In six years it’s gone from being run from a single computer in the creator’s basement to winning Canada’s National Journalism award twice.  I was introduced to it through a good friend who’d worked for them last year, and applied to be a general assistant as a (very cavalier) way to gain experience in media, writing and general communications. But I quickly grew enamoured with the organization and everything it stood for. Its team of writers– working tirelessly for very little– showed me what it means to be passionate and committed to a story and a cause yet still report that in a truthful and fair way.

            It was through them I became connected to my city and my country. Vancouver, viewed from the reporter’s lens, transformed into so much more than a glass canyon for investor’s: it was complicated and unruly, in a state of trying to figure out its image amidst a housing bubble, a homeless crisis, and the calls for a sustainable city. The city became so much more real when I got the chance to transcribe interviews with drug addicts or review festivals. What, those two things, contradictory? Exactly: the great and terrible together, like any city.

The city when it looses its sheen
The city when it looses its sheen

            I believe the pipeline is the issue for Canada: it determines how the rest of the world might view Canada amidst increasing denouncement of the tar sands, determines how the rest of Canada views Harper, and (most importantly) presents a chance for the Indigenous peoples of BC to rally and truly gain a voice in the discussion. And Vancouver– 2020’s Greenest City (as it likes to believe)– is at the center of that question. And the Vancouver Observer has their lens fixed on the issue. Probably my one, real, regret this summer was not getting a real chance to work with them after June– from then on it was always an article here or a transcript there. It was impossible to devote time to it after that.

            Because this summer was turning out a lot more interesting than I expected.

 

Explore Young Man!

 

            One Tuesday while working at the Observer, after a complex series of miscommunications that included a broken email system and a shift I couldn’t skip, I received a phone call from my future boss, informing me that an interview (I didn’t know I was having) would take place in the next half hour– “hope to see you there”. In the next ten minutes I was on the Canada Line towards Langara– A and W Guacamole burger in-hand– madly scribbling out an ice breaker I was supposed to have prepared a week ago. I stumble into the interview ten minutes late, and somehow stumble out having impressed them. In the next four days, after further miscommunication and some hiccups with references, I’m given a new job: because of one thoughtful reminder the future boss decided to give, everything changed. 

            I only forced myself to be positive about my coffee shop job until I no longer had to be; the moment I had to justify why I was quitting two weeks after being trained was the moment I made myself hate everything about it. In the end, I didn’t need any justification: upon entering Langara on the first day of work, I realized I was in a place better than I ever could have hoped to be in May, working a job better-suited for me than any I’d had before.

            Explore is a program that I did in Quebec two summers ago, was the program that really kickstarted my love of French and Francophone culture. This summer– coming perfectly full circle– I got the chance to be a Cultural Assistant for a group of Quebecois coming to practice their English, creating activities for them that would show them the best of the best in Vancouver. After a month and a half with them, I then worked with a group of Japanese and Korean students. I’m not gonna make this sound like a cover letter (believe me, I’ve done enough of those last week to last me the semester). I’m also not gonna try to fill the space of everything I did (because we don’t need another goddamn Spain blogpost of 5000 words). What I will say is that, while being a Cultural Assistant, I was never more knowledgeable of my strengths, never more in-tune with my shortcomings. I organized tours that lasted three hours; I gave speeches to a hundred people off the fly; I made posters, videos, trivia nights and scavenger hunts, all to show a group of people I’d never met before that Vancouver is an incredible city, unlike any other out there. I got to go kayaking, dragonboating, Grouse mountain, the Aquarium twice, and about fifty-thousand times to goddamn Granville Island. And I still found time to complain when I didn’t get my coffee in the morning!

The Vancouver bike rave. Like a rave... on bikes
The Vancouver bike rave. Like a rave… on bikes

            In the end it was always the people. I taught them things about the city or the language, sure, but it’s not a cliché to say that I’m sure I learned just as much from them. In growing as an organizer and leader, I also learned about Moroccan symbols of death, why Koreans add an extra two years of life on for every child, or why you never go backpacking in Northern Quebec when the train only runs every two days. Seeing the dolphins or riding the gondola was a lot of fun, but the most gratifying moments always came when I saw the impact I had made just by finding a way to transmit my own passion: how into the photo scavenger hunt three teams got (getting a Japanese restaurant to do the Harlem Shake, for example), or how inspired the group was that got to witness Vancouver’s finest poetry slam at Cafe Deux Soleils (“we didn’t understand many of the words, but we understood the passion”).  Those moments were what made this summer perfect.

            In some ways it’s very much a threshold moment: on the one hand, it was a capstone moment for me and the city, where I finally got a chance to show everything I’d learned and loved about the place to others; on the other hand, I’m beginning to wonder how much it entails what I might end up doing afterwards. The crossing of cultures– the awkwardness, the unease, the inspiration– have been the most rewarding and invigorating moments of the past twelve months. If I had to pick one unifying theme for third year it’d be that, whether that was Paris or it was Langara. And Canada only feels big for so long. So what does Asia have in store then?

 

The Sun, the Beach: Vancouver on its best behavior

 

'Dat Ocean though...
‘Dat Ocean though…

Fine, I guess I’ll give a proper answer: if I had to chose when the summer began for me, I’d probably say the first time I swam in the Ocean. Properly, not any of this “let’s drink tequila and get our feet wet” bullshit we all practiced in the winter time. It was (in sickeningly symbolic fashion), on Canada Day, when it jumped up to 32 and the humidity dragged at our clothes from every angle. Walking across downtown towards English bay was like being pack mules  loading up a mountain. Exhausted, we all dragged ourselves to the shore. And then we jumped.

            I never feel so cleansed. I’ve always been a fish around water, but there’s something about the Ocean that’s different. The endlessness of it. The sense that the shit you’re diving into will one day reach China or India or South Africa. I worked extremely hard all summer, but everytime I started to feel stressed I’d jump in and it would all drift away. The rock of the tide, the sound of the sand: I’ve never been able to forget myself yet simultaneously be so entirely me as when I’m in swimming. I’ve had out of body moments before, but never has it happened so consistently as swimming in the Pacific. Cure for all that ails ya– whether it’s heartbreak inadequacy or the cuts you got from the rocks getting out here. The sky’s never looked so blue as when I lay on my back and let the waves carry me to shore, and I never loved Vancouver as much as when I front-crawled toward it.

            The Ocean will always be the anchoring symbol of summer in Vancouver for me. Go figure eh? But that’s not to undermine the rest of it: the way you can stand on the Dunbar hill and witness the rolling mountains of green in every direction, flattening towards the glass city; the boutique stores along Fourth Ave, the vintage clothing along Main, or the people of Commercial drive; the parks, the tents, the festivals. Not to mention, the city– the big ‘Nofuncouver’– really comes alive in the summer. Every street has its own festival, whether that’s the heavy scent of the Greek day on Broadway, the sprawling and packed Khatsalano on 4th, and of course Davie street’s pride– three days long, six-hundred thousand people (including Mr Trudeau), and parties in every store and street corner. All the coldness and isolation Vancouverites exhibit in the winter thaws for those beautiful two months, and everyone cherishes it so much that even the most uppity yuppie wants to let loose at least a little bit.

            At the end of every day, though, I looked forward to the morning, because it meant being able to get up, make an ice coffee, and run to the beach. A little salt in the eyes is a good start to any morning. Seriously.

How the city looks when you're sneaking up on roofs.
How the city looks when you’re sneaking up on roofs.

            What I find amazing about the two months isn’t how idyllic the place becomes. I was able to assume that as early as the end of first year– beaches along all the water? yeah, that’s gonna be nice. It was much more surprising to discover how much the city became mine in the process. When I came to Vancouver in the spring of 2011, I thought it was an interesting and unique city that might be a pretty cool place to live. I never fell in love with it the way I’d done with Chicago the summer before. It was UBC’s stunning campus that really made me say “I have to go here,” and it was always UBC I stayed for. Instead, the city was always some distant place I’d go to maybe three times a week and would always have mixed feelings about in some way or another. In February, I found myself questioning my choice of Vancouver over Montreal, the city I actually did fall for the summer after first year.

            The shift started with the Observer. When I engaged with the city, all its folds and edges became clear to me. Vancouver’s a neighborhood city, and the less you focus on the dead-eyed downtown the more you find the little bastions of stores and restaurants where everyone congregates. In the end it was, like with Paris, just a feeling: leaving my house in the morning in the sun, walking down to Trimble Park overlooking the city– not that different from the Parc Invalides beside my Parisian place; still around the old men playing bocce, still with a view too obscenely gorgeous to call mine. Okay, nothing’s the same, everything’s different. But Vancouver’s the only other place I can really call home, really vibe with every step of the way.

 photo 4

            And it’s all ending too fast. I’m readying myself for a Cinderella moment here: because the city so magically transformed in the summer, it’s highly likely it will all turn back again from October onward. Sure, there’s a chance I can carry the feelings I had about the city into the rain, but when I add the escalating pressures and the fear surrounding graduation, that’s becoming less and less likely.

            Canada, why do you have to be Canada? You can be so beautiful when you want to be, but you so rarely want to be. Vancouver’s a different city for two-to-three months; now, I’m a different person as a result. But will that all go away too?

            It makes me think of what a good friend of mine told me. He’s from San Fran, which has always struck me as the ‘warmer, bigger Vancouver with more culture,’ but he’s never been one for comparing Vancouver negatively towards its big bro, and he did have this to say about Van’s springtime cherry blossoms:

            “Yeah, we probably have more cherry blossoms than you guys. But Vancouver’s are so much better because they only last for such a short time. You cherish them.”

            The harder it gets to say goodbye to summer here, the more that comment means to me. Two months guys: two months we have to rush to the beach, have our festivals, take in the sun. Where would I be if I’d decided to go home instead?  Now this is home.

            And it suddenly got just so damn hard: the thought that this time next year I’m giving it all up.

Sunset pic... get the symbolism? And it was taken the day before Canada day. Oh man
Sunset pic… get the symbolism? And it was taken the day before Canada day. Oh man
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