I’m sitting near Point Grey, outside a coffee shop in Vancouver, British Columbia. Through my almost two weeks here, I have been taking in all that Vancouver has to offer, and have seen it as a city of contradictions. Surrounded by both ocean and majestic mountains, beautiful parks and beaches are everywhere, and local produce markets dot the landscape. It is here that people fuel their active and healthy lifestyles. In the summer sun they are outside everywhere, walking, biking, and playing Frisbee.
Canadian people are ridiculously nice. Almost anyone will stop to talk and answer questions*. Everyone thanks the bus driver when they get to the bus stop, and they say “I’m sorry” frequently. People live a little bit slower than we do in the States, and it is refreshing.
Vancouver is also highly multicultural. It isn’t a separated mix with everyone in their own areas like it is in the US. On every block,you hear German and Korean, Slavic and Chinese, yet they still thank the bus driver and say “I’m sorry” in English.
But, as if to counter-balance all of this, there is much more to the picture. Much of the downtown has an aroma of urine and marijuana smoke with a hint of BO and urban decay, similar to almost any huge city but more pervasive. During my time here I have seen 1 dead body (a suicide), 2 people convulsing from overdoses (one with the needle still in his hand), and three people in handcuffs.
This is also one of the gayest cities (not intended as a dysphemism). The rainbow flags everywhere preach acceptance, but the numerous erotic shops, flyers for transvestite shows and homo-erotic film festivals, shockingly-graphic billboards for gay matchmaking, and open displays of over-affection are nothing but perverse. Stores in most of downtown all display rainbow stickers for support, but also to avoid retribution.
I can feel a spiritual darkness: a sense of being unmoored. Parts of the city are more safe and calm, but the feeling is inescapable. It is the kind of spiritual environment where someone jumps out of an 8th story window while a block away men drink and dance in an all-male club.
Two days ago in a drugstore, I passed by a Canadian magazine with a cover story about what is happening to Canadian youth. The article mentioned that half of all teens report high levels of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. There are many conflicting theories as to why.
I’m looking at the bay, filled with sailboats following the wind and subject to the waves, as giant cargo ships in the distance thunder toward port. It is an apt metaphor. As I sit in the breeze, it seems that the biggest lesson Canada has taught me is that great beauty and serenity don’t satisfy the spirit when you are unable to chart a course and guide your life by anything other than a billowing purpose or the tide of popular opinion. A life will just crash against the waves as the soul becomes seasick.
Right after I wrote this sentence I had a 5 minute conversation with the people sitting around me concerning real estate prices. Walking away one of the women just said, “Hey, any Canadian will be happy to answer any of your questions. Just stop us and ask.” It was as if they could read what I had just written.