My husband and I recently spent a week in beautiful, temperate, laid back British Columbia–mostly in Victoria, but with a couple days in Vancouver at the end. It was, in a very intense and basic way, a vacation: we had no responsibilities to order our days or curtail our fancies, save to feed ourselves. But this necessity was not onerous: both cities are vegan meccas (something Toronto was once able to imagine itself being, but seems lately to have forgotten); eating was a joy at almost every meal, a key part of the slow release of the pain and shallow breathing life has been for the last 5 or so months.
(It didn’t begin well, though; I’d somehow not considered the possibility that a 5-hour flight would give me jet lag but goddamn, it sure did. And like so many Canadian cities, Victoria has a nameless ugliness on its outskirts that make one wonder if all the urban planners and architects with any taste or conscience were on strike when the drive between the highway and the city proper were being designed. For the first day or so, I railed and complained and was generally unbearable but tried to get my shit together; happily, Victoria quickly met me more than half-way.)
Our second day in Victoria, we took an early bicycle ride that led us straight to the ocean wall and up alongside it through quiet, well-treed, affluent streets. We were awed by deer walking casually down the middle of residential roads, a sight which we became less surprised by, but increasingly more enamoured of, the more it happened–and it happened every day. Every day, we saw these beautiful beasties walking around as though Victoria belonged to them.
I coyly greeted one young buck, his antlers still covered in the fur of his youth, with a “Good morning, handsome,” at which he condescended to twitch one graceful ear. We saw another buck munching the long grass in Beacon Hill Park, a doe and her fawn figuring out how to solve for being on different sides of a construction fence, deer pruning rich people’s lawns. And there were giant rabbits and bald eagles and squirrels, but not the hard and weary squirrels of Toronto; they were small squirrels with more to concern them, apparently, than the mere wanton destruction of the beautiful garden our B&B backed onto. (No, no photos: I didn’t want to miss anything by fussing with my smartphone.)
All this urban wildlife, coupled with the smell of the ocean, made me feel first like I was in paradise and then like I was at home. Victoria is a city made for cyclists, for not being in a hurry, for going to bed and getting up early; it’s lush and clean and has the best secondhand bookstores I’ve ever come across.
Almost immediately, we began talking about how we could relocate. We met numerous former Torontonians who encouraged us to make the move; every one of them glowed with the calm joie de vivre I was beginning to glimpse there for myself. In the brisk and healthy joy of the place, we asked how we could live without all the people we love so much who live in Toronto and for a moment, they seemed just a little less real than the prospect of cycling 30 km straight through forest (and it might have just continued forever, but we got hungry and so had to turn around), of never being kept awake by the roar and rage of traffic, of people who don’t strictly refuse ever to look one another in the eye. It didn’t last, of course.
Victoria certainly has at least one foot planted firmly in my idea of earthly paradise but it’s also in no way a truly multicultural city, a fact I became increasingly nervous of as the days went by. And on the last day, my husband discovered a small tent city, planted just feet from the middle of the clean, well-light streets of the tourist scene from which Victoria must make a great deal of its money. One ratty tent sported a sign advising those with unwise thoughts of taking things not belonging to them that “Nothing in here is worth dying for.”
When we left Victoria, I didn’t want to leave; I wanted at least another week of cycling among the silent forests, afternoons with good books on a patio graced by dancing butterflies and well-fed sparrows, shaded by over-laden pear trees. But the brief amnesia I’d suffered, when I’d doubted for a moment that my real heaven on earth resides in my best beloved people here in Toronto, was mostly cured.
The contrast between the desperate and the affluent, the sharp concentration of human misery, was much louder and more crushing in Vancouver. We stayed in Kitsilano, where beach bodies and the beauty of well-fed youth with time for real self-care was constantly on display. Everyone glowed with the happiness of the good life.
During our one full day in Van City, we had lunch downtown after riding around Stanley Park (which, in the morning, is ruled by geriatric bicycle gangs also living the good life). We figured out how to use public transit to get to a really tasty restaurant in Gastown, where we saw a former employee of a vegan restaurant that closed here last year (in fact, the one at which we held our post-wedding vegan nosh-fest). When she worked at Grasslands, she never smiled, under any circumstances–but at this place in Vancouver, not only did we see her smile as she worked, we saw her smile in a way that transformed her; she became almost unrecognizable. The cold and unforgiving beauty of her in Toronto became a living, quietly burning delight in Vancouver. I wondered if maybe I’d been wrong to abandon my initial impression that this was, in fact, heaven on earth.
I was not wrong. We left that restaurant and went wandering. Because of our very dim sense of geography, we quickly found ourselves in the very heart of Vancouver’s downtown east side, notorious for its rampant drug abuse and poverty.
I don’t come from a good place; I didn’t see anything there I haven’t seen before, and which of course, happens here too. But I’ve never seen so much human tragedy and misery gathered into such a small space; as we found our way out to catch a bus back to where we were staying, I felt like I was being physically bowed beneath all that pain. It was like looking the devil in the face and knowing there’s no God. And it wasn’t just the pain that leads to addiction and the pain that keeps people there; it was the pain of all the people elsewhere who love people trapped in what is obviously a literal hell on earth. It was the pain of knowing how many people walk around that scene every day and feel nothing of it, who think the people in it are the ghosts, when it’s just as likely that those not victim to it are the swiftly moving dead.
I certainly felt less solid, less real, less like anything at all, for a long time after we left the downtown east side, than I’ve felt in a long time. It put into very sharp and bright and glorious focus just how tremendously lucky I am, how unspeakably beautiful my life in Toronto really is, how everything is possible because I have the husband I have and the friends I have and cats who want to lay in my lap for hours as I work and a shy bunny who sometimes runs over to have me gently stroke her ears. But I won’t lie: it still feels like a tragedy of cosmic proportions that this promise of paradise isn’t quite real and isn’t mine and my beloveds’ for the enjoying, too.