“When you first arrive in a town, you see streets in perspective. Rows of nondescript buildings. Everything is unknown, virgin territory. A day will come when you’ll have walked those streets, gone to the end of the perspectives, come to know those buildings, interacted with the people. Living in this city, you’ll have walked along that street ten, twenty, one hundred times. After a while, it will belong to you because you have lived here.”
This famous excerpt from L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment) could not better illustrate the way I felt when I took my first steps in Vancouver, a city whose streets I had traced about ten times on a map. For a whole year, I had time to picture a setting and conjure up architecture while wondering in which district I would like to live. I imagined how I would go to such and such a street to meet friends and go down another to go to work – a sort of blueprint I sketched according to the whims of my imagination.
I was living in Nantes, France, at the time, settled in a life that suited me perfectly. I had a pleasant job in an art gallery, I lived in a nice apartment and spent most of my evenings with friends. However, I had an irresistible itch to discover other things and try another kind of life.
And then, fiction became reality. My first steps in Vancouver meant feeling my way, discovering the eclecticism of Commercial Drive and the dizzying heights of downtown. Whatever I had imagined no longer existed, rows upon rows of streets created unknown perspectives without landmarks. Did I like the city at first sight? I don’t know.
Each new day was a challenge to explore new districts and go ever farther. I went to see places with names I found in a travel guide book: Stanley Park, Kitsilano Beach, Davie Village…all those areas were materializing as I walked. Little by little, the patchwork started forming a whole that was both logical and diverse. Bridges were emerging between areas that my brain was able to reconcile with reality. Markers were slowly recognized. I became able to link point A to point B.
After a few weeks, the city’s persona slowly began to take on a distinct shape. If the downtown skyscrapers left me lukewarm at first, they were now highlighting the dichotomy of the city, between nature and metropolis. The simultaneous presence of the neighbouring forest, the mountains and the sea fascinated me. Was I beginning to like Vancouver? I
The city was revealing itself to me, all the while remaining foreign. I still had to own it. There were many more streets to explore and secret places to discover. When does a foreign city begin to feel familiar? As an expatriate, I found it difficult to feel at home in this city: Vancouver was a mystery that I could not fathom. For the first time I experienced the unknown, foreignness in its most subtle form. It is easy to travel, to discover other parts of the world and to see their culture, but here it seemed more difficult to really feel and grasp it – in a word, to experience it. Contrary to travel, expatriation demanded that I set aside my cultural patterns, my lifestyle and my consumption habits in order to adapt to a new environment.
After the discovery phase, I then had to move on to the reconstruction phase. I had to make these streets mine. Making this foreign place my new home was not easy. However, a daily routine was established after a few months. Encounters with people increased, offering new opportunities for discoveries and also the start of new habits. After a few months, I had already crossed that street umpteen times, noticed that tiny detail on the facade of that building and started to sprinkle my memories at random across the city. I was beginning to inhabit the city and add my own colours to it. Was I starting to feel at home in Vancouver? I do think so.