The twelve-year itch

I’m not sure why, but I always imagined I would write a column to celebrate my first seven years of “marriage” with Vancouver. I would have called it “The Seven-Year Itch,” an homage to Billy Wilder’s movie in which Tom Ewell tries not to succumb to the temptations of Marilyn Monroe and cheat on his wife. Look at the title of this essay and you’ll see that my idea never came to fruition. Today, five more years later, a great many things have changed in my Vancouver life. However, the same doubt still haunts me, should I stay or should I go? It was not love at first sight for Vancouver and me, and our twelve-year-long relationship has been full of twists and turns.

Flashback. In 2004 I took my first Canadian cross-country trip by train. I wanted to check out the place before moving here. I had already decided to settle in Vancouver, mostly because of the climate, and to learn English. But I remained cautious, what if I didn’t like the city? I arrived at Pacific Central Station at 7 o’clock in the morning, a bit lost. A room was waiting for me in a posh establishment in Coal Harbor, but I couldn’t check in until the afternoon. Since a nice employee of Via Rail warned me not to linger at the station, and because swimming across False Creek seemed a bit too ambitious, I decided to walk to my hotel. I headed straight for the heart of the city, the famous Downtown Eastside (DTES), which many know as the poorest postal code in Canada. It’s not true by the way, but that’s another story.

Navigating urban cultures. | Photo by Squeaky Marmot, Flickr

It’s almost trite to say that nothing prepared me for what I saw. Coming from a very big city like Paris I am familiar with poverty, homelessness and drug problems. I had often seen people sleeping on the street, but I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone having a fix on a doorstep, in view of everyone. In a few hours, I wandered through the poorest neighborhood and then into one of the richest areas of the city. I witnessed the most brutal decay and the most outrageous extravagance in one morning. I returned to France puzzled, unsure if I wanted to come back. Despite my doubts, I settled in Vancouver’s West End in 2007. I even considered volunteering at the DTES Carnegie Community Centre, to help me understand why so much misery is focused on such a small area.

However, it took me six years to again set foot in that neighborhood. Those six years had their highs and also their very lows. In 2013, to put some order into my life, I went back to volunteering. Not at the Carnegie Centre, but at Vancouver Co-op Radio. The station has been located in the DTES since its very beginnings, in 1975. There, I met passionate programmers who made sure I understood the realities of life for those who don’t have my privileges. I learned about Canadian colonialism; the horror of residential schools; systemic racism in a country that loves to brag about its multiculturalism and tolerance; the inadequate help available to treat mental health issues. I discovered a community that not only survives but thrives through activism, solidarity and creativity. I found my tribe. It is largely composed of more or less happy, passionate, creative and flexible misfits who don’t like regular schedules or long-term plans. People just like me.

So, after a twelve-year-itch, two stores, a bankruptcy, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, dozens of different jobs and 10 years of community media, I can say without hesitation, “Vancouver, I still don’t know if you and I are in it for the long run, but you have made me grow more than any other city. And for that, I will always be grateful. With love, Laurence.”

Translation James Mainguy