oh, canada

Non-fiction, 2/2/09

Today we shall be foreigners in a not-so-distant land. A mere 21 miles north of Bellingham, Canada is like our spacious backyard—a backyard spanning more than five and half million square miles, comprising ten provinces and three territories, where measurements become metric and people, for whatever reason, rhyme “out” with “boot”.

We get up early, around 7:30 a.m. Toward the east, the sun tears through some lingering cumulus clouds, heralding blue skies later in the day. While breakfasting on sourdough cinnamon buns, we outline our itinerary: check in at the Cambie Hostel on Seymour, perambulate Vancouver’s downtown, eat lunch, perambulate some more, visit a museum or two, eat dinner, get wasted, dance. Willis wakes up briefly to claim half a cinnamon bun and advises us to “have fun, stay alive.”

After a frantic 45 minutes of ransacking Logan’s room for his passport (which had actually been lying in his bed the whole time), we’re off. The drive is pleasant and relaxing. Along British Columbia’s Highway 99 we see several red-tailed hawks, an American kestrel, great blue herons, and a field full of roosting seagulls, their pale-feathered congregation like a smattering of snow.

The minute we enter Vancouver, I get lost. This is typical of me, for whenever I’m behind the wheel of a car—no matter the distance or destination—I seem to swiftly and hopelessly lose my bearings. I can’t explain it. Traffic signals, braking and accelerating, right-of-way, wearing one’s seatbelt—these are all within my automotive ken. Just don’t ask me where to turn or when, exactly, I intend to start heading in the right direction. Logan, for his part, appears equally mystified by Vancouver’s metropolitan sprawl, and after much speculating and block-by-block navigation we arrive at the Cambie just before noon.

Lunch is Annie’s macaroni and cheese brought from home, paired with fruit and eaten inside our sauna-like hostel room. We help ourselves to the free coffee in the lobby, which looks and tastes like hot, black, coffee-scented water. Setting out onto Seymour Street, we decide we’ll visit the Vancouver Art Gallery first, and then make our way over to Stanley Park to see the aquarium. The sun is shining, and throngs of Saturday shoppers stroll past us along the busy sidewalks.

At the gallery we pore over early 1900s paintings by Maurice Cullen and other Canadian impressionists. Many are landscapes, and many include cows. We venture upstairs to the fourth floor, where a more contemporary exhibit by German artist Kai Althoff features darkly beautiful mixed media and several large sculptures, including a ceramic lion held captive inside an eight-foot-tall wrought-iron cage. This is my first art gallery visit, and I find the experience strangely invigorating.

The aquarium is incredible, as always. We manage to secure front-row seats to the giant Amazonian fish feeding at 3 p.m.—a very special once-a-week performance, we’re told. Seven-foot-long arapaima devour trout before our eyes, crushing each morsel with bony tongues and expelling trout guts and scales through massive opercula. Dopey-looking black pacu, the five-foot-long vegetarian cousins of piranha, inhale grapes and carrots like vacuous, underwater bovine. Once the action dies down, freshwater stingrays and red-tailed catfish clean up the scraps. Damn good show. We wander through the other exhibits until the crowds become too stifling, the children’s voices too strident, the pangs of hunger too persistent to ignore.

We take a long, leisurely stroll to Gastown for some Ethiopian food. At the Afro Canadian on Cambie Street, we dig in, sans silverware, to injera bread heaped with lamb, red lentils and okra. It’s very spicy and very good. For dessert we seek out one of the many Crepe Cafés sprinkled throughout downtown Vancouver—and very nearly die in rapture while gazing at the menu. The crepes turn out to be merely decent, if not a little overpriced and under-garnished.

It’s almost 8 p.m.—time to drink. We sprint to a liquor store, because for some reason I’m convinced they close at 8. Turns out they’re open until 11, which is rather convenient, really. “Wow, this place is nice,” Logan says, taking in the aisles upon aisles of alcohol before us. We decide on Tanqueray gin but somehow forget tonic water, instead having to settle for a liter of Fresca from a nearby 7-Eleven. After getting sufficiently tanked on gin and sugar-free soda in our room, we head downstairs to the hostel bar.

Unbeknownst to us, an Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight match between some Canadian guy and a vaguely familiar American guy is scheduled for tonight, and every TV in the bar is turned to the fight. Logan and I are surrounded by loud, boozy, bloodthirsty Canucks rooting for their homeboy, Georges St. Pierre. It’s a little weird at first, but we soon warm up to the adrenaline-infused atmosphere. We even find ourselves sort of rooting for BJ Penn, our Hawaiian countryman. Penn never quite lands any solid blows, unfortunately, and is soundly pummeled. The bar patrons are exultant. While standing in line for the restroom, I overhear a guy in front of me say, “Man, BJ Penn got his ass kicked. He should just go back to Hawaii and dance.” Is that what Hawaiians do? This clever barb is bound to inspire rallying cheers during the next match-up, I’m sure of it.

A barmaid suggests we go to the Republic nightclub on Granville Street if we’re looking to dance. Amped up on adrenaline, alcohol, and perhaps a touch of Saturday Night Fever, we alternately power-walk and shadowbox our way over to Granville. It’s just after 10 p.m. and lines are forming outside several of the clubs. People are dressed to the nines—guys in collared shirts, girls in incredibly short skirts. We’re wearing street clothes and looking shabbier by the minute. “I wonder if they’ll even let us in,” Logan says, glancing uneasily at the well-dressed urbanites loitering around us. I honestly forgot that everyone—literally everyone—dresses up to go clubbing in Vancouver. It’s a classy place.

The line at Republic isn’t moving at all, so we cross the street and head toward Tropic, which has no line. I suppose this could’ve been taken as a bad sign, but we just want to get inside and dance. The doorman looks us over, checks our IDs, unhooks the rope, and we’re in. “Hey guys,” says the girl at the coat check. “It’ll be $14 each.” Fourteen dollars! We hesitate, vacillate, then finally hunker down and pay the exorbitant cover. The place is narrow and deep, with a DJ on stage at the far end spinning top 40 hits. It’s maybe 10:20. The dance floor is empty. Shots at the bar cost a whopping $7.50. In other words, the prospects look grim. And that’s when we start to dance. Full-on move-busting, rug-cutting action. We dance until the floor becomes so choked with people that we’re forced to the peripheries, and that’s when we leave.

While driving homeward the next morning, I get lost. Twice. We end up taking an impromptu tour of the University of British Columbia campus, followed by a closer-than-anticipated look at the Vancouver International Airport, before finally finding our way. Just past the border, we even pay an unexpected visit to Blaine—uncanny, I know—before reaching I-5 proper. At long last, we’re heading home. Well, first we go to the Old Town Café on W. Holly Street. Then to the beloved Stone house on Carolina. It’s a good life, I must admit.

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