The impressions of a Tunisian in Vancouver

As soon as you arrive at Vancouver International Airport in Canada you are struck by the pleasant greeting of the customs and immigration officers. Be it timid and restrained or large and welcoming, the sincere smile of these officials brightens your day, even if it’s the first time you set foot on Canadian soil. This first encounter with officialdom makes you feel as though you are coming home. This hospitality appears remarkable compared to what one is used to seeing and experiencing elsewhere, particularly when set against my country, Tunisia. I am always taken aback by the humourless interaction and surly expressions of the Tunisian police upon arrival at the airport in Tunis-Carthage. All the more surprising given that Tunisia is a so-called host country whose economy rests on tourism. Canadian officers, on the other hand, well understand the incredible impact a welcoming smile can have on visitors to their country.

I sometimes have trouble comparing my hometown of Sfax or our capital, Tunis, to a city such as Vancouver…on all levels. We have always lacked urban planning. Our cities are almost all without true development plans, as such plans are either never approved or approved years too late, once the damage has been done and anarchy reigns. Buildings are erected first and then a right of way is sought for roads. As a result of this carelessness, cities are ill-conceived, badly organised and possess little aesthetic value. Transport is difficult, the slightest rain creates chaos and should a single major artery be blocked for the passage of the Head of State, as recently occurred in Tunis, then the entire city is paralysed.

Why has it come to this mediocre state of behaviour and planning? Why can’t we adapt our means of transportation to the needs of modern life and to the comfort of citizens? Why can’t we lay out our cities as elsewhere in the civilized world by having suitable road allowances, planning for parking lots and wide sidewalks, bus shelters and pedestrian zones? Why can’t we instill in our school-age children respect for others and for public property?

On the other hand, Vancouver is laid out in perfect checkerboard fashion. North-south avenues are named, east-west streets are numbered. Getting around is exceptionally easy. There can be no greater contrast than what can be seen and experienced in my home country where the absence of urban planning, anarchic construction and real estate speculation has choked and defaced all our cities.

Public transit in Vancouver is admirable. Buses are not only frequent and punctual, but also accommodating to handicapped people and mothers with strollers. Just like the customs officers, bus drivers are welcoming and helpful; that is how the city is. Every day on my way to work, I am pleasantly surprised by the drivers’ smiles and their friendly nods as they welcome you onto the bus. In turn, passengers exchange “good mornings” when they board the bus and say “thank you” when leaving.

In Tunisia our drivers are unsmiling, maybe even hostile, and public services are unreliable. Passengers are given a rough ride from start to finish: the interminable waits, aggressive customers, schedules not met and crammed vehicles. Giving the right of way to pedestrians is just a fantasy and whether you’re elderly or have special needs you will be ignored by motorists and public services.

Vancouver is a cosmopolitan, multicultural city. Its ethnic diversity is reflected in its folklore, its restaurants, in the names of its streets and neighbourhoods. What is striking and admirable is this integration of cultures has been so successful that it has become a vital part of the city’s identity. A visit to Vancouver makes you aware of the enormous gap that separates my country from the truly civilized world in many ways.